Victorian designer and leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris once famously declared: “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This sentiment rings true for Hotel Café Royal, a London bellwether whose aim is to evoke a sense of belonging for its guests, and whose vision since Guillaume Marly took to the helm in late 2017 has been to refine its offering and do few things exceptionally.
Part of Marly’s ongoing mission is to ensure everything from the five-star’s interior design and food ingredients, to its enduring spirit and service embodies two seemingly simple words: modern grand. When contemporary meets classic, though, things can easily go awry. To avoid the potential for aesthetic calamity, most hotels, restaurants and bars veer towards one or the other, while some try and fail to blend the two. But in Hotel Café Royal, this aspirational mix is as ingrained as the stories of icons and iconoclasts who have stepped foot inside its marbled lobby.
The dining rooms are where Oscar Wilde wooed Bosie, where David Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust and where the likes of Princess Diana, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Taylor dined. It has been a staple of John Nash’s Regent Street since bankrupt French wine merchant Daniel Thévenon conceived and established Café Royal at its southern end in 1865. Now, under the direction of a hotelier whose vision has shaped the Ritz, the Connaught, ME London and Chiltern Firehouse, its history-steeped spaces are steadily gaining the autonomy and definition they so deserve.
Back in 2008, architect David Chipperfield’s restoration saw his signature minimalism stand in elegant contrast to the opulent, gilt-and-mirrors fantasia of the original 1860s and 1920s interiors. Classical references can be found in the interior stonework, echoing the Portland stone pattern of the building’s exterior, while every so often the subtle whiff of a diptyque Baies candle musters a homeliness that’s pleasingly at odds with the surrounding grandeur. Modern, meet grand.
The first interiors overhaul under Marly’s watch was that of the hotel’s vast lobby by world-renowned architect and interior designer Pierro Lissoni (his previous projects span yachts, residential properties and luxury hotels including the Conservatorium in Amsterdam, also owned by The Set hotels, of which Hotel Café Royal is part). The £5 million project, unveiled in April, took cues from palatial entranceways and saw its ceiling height double, with Lissoni transforming the space into the epitome of contemporary London life and its inherent elegance.
It could be argued that Chiltern Firehouse put cane furniture back on the map, but what’s Marly’s take on designing with trends in mind at Hotel Café Royal? “We want to create spaces that are very comfortable, with a natural warmth that gives people a sense of belonging,” he says, against the backdrop of the hotel’s yet-to-launch Ziggy Stardust-themed bar, inspired by the star-studded party Bowie held there in ‘73 to retire his alter ego. “To me, that’s the trend. We purposefully choose buildings with heritage, but when you go inside, it’s important the modern element stays timeless. The lobby has a 1920s Art Deco feel but I think if you came back in years to come, it’d still be contemporary.”
Formerly known as the Grill Room, the Oscar Wilde Lounge has also undergone somewhat of a functional reimagining recently. Renamed in honour of its prolific patron, focus has shifted from the offering of myriad services - event space, grill, bar, afternoon tea - to honing in on afternoon tea alone. Don’t expect twists on culinary tradition or try-hard themes, though. This space fits snugly into the hotel’s definition of ‘grand’, with gilded Louis XVI walls, sumptuous seating in deep ruby hues and mirrored walls onto which flecks of muted light from the room’s many chandeliers bounce and dazzle.
The delicacies served up here are hark back to the concept’s origins - think crustless cucumber sandwiches cut into finger-sized portions, small but perfectly formed fruit scones and rochered clotted cream with lashings of jam. “The Oscar Wilde Lounge is very classic,” explains Marly. “If you come for afternoon tea in a quintessentially British way, I think you should expect that. I don’t like the idea of serving funky cakes and sandwiches that make you think someone’s trying too hard to be different. Let’s not pretend it’s not an egg roll by trying to make it pink or yellow - let’s do it well.”
This ‘do simple well’ mantra goes far beyond egg rolls. The hotel’s latest project, a revamp of current cafe ‘Papillon’ into the contemporarily named ‘Cakes & Bubbles’, was spawned from Marly’s weekend-long lock-in with internationally renowned pastry chef and friend of the hotel, Albert Adria, during which the duo hashed out the finished concept based on an idea that was first ignited two years prior.
“We sat down again in March, locking ourselves up in the Mayfair, one of our meeting rooms for the entire weekend,” says Marly. “There were discussions, arguments, boxing gloves, pain, hugs… but at the end we embraced and said ‘this is going to be an amazing concept.’”
Amidst the tears and toil, they decided whether to go for savoury, sweet or both (settling on sweet only, for now); takeaway or sit-down (both, Marly says: “The idea is that you should be able to come to Cakes & Bubbles and bring home the best cheesecake in the world, made by the best pastry chef in the world”) and formal or informal (a tightrope between the two).
From both a conceptual and interior design perspective, Cakes & Bubbles seems poles apart from the ostentatious Oscar Wilde Lounge, and that’s precisely the point. While the aesthetics will remain mostly unchanged - floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the maelstrom of Regent Street, channelling contemporary European cafe culture - the devil is in the detailed delivery.
“The mixture of modern and grand will be interesting in this space,” muses Marly. “Cakes & Bubbles is an excellent example of it because while the interiors are contemporary, we’re discussing the details of service that align more with grandeur. Will champagne be served from a trolley, for example?”
“Everything we do is so deliberate. We choose projects because they’re relevant and either modern, grand or modern grand collectively. It doesn’t just so happen that I wake up and think ‘ooh let’s do Cakes & Bubbles’ - it comes from talking to like-minded people who share a love for excellence and quality.”
Does this level of deliberation help top-end hotels, restaurants and bars navigate the digital age of ‘Instagram or it didn’t happen’? “What’s changing today, and what I love about it,” explains Marly, “is that social media has given the power back to the guest. And that’s how it should be. There was a time when there was an arrogance of ‘if you don’t like it, you can just walk out.’” He’s visibly aghast, “What? Insane!”
“Guests should stay with us because they choose to for all the right reasons - great designs, service, warmth and so on. This puts pressure on us to be better than others. Just when you think you’re perfect, you never quite are. It’s about getting as close as you can to perfection – that’s what I love doing.”
With projects in the pipeline including the London Fashion Week launch of a low-key Ziggy Stardust bar (more on that soon); the evolution of Papillon into Cakes & Bubbles and the recent opening of new restaurant and bar Laurent, this jewel in the crown of Regent Street is enjoying an upward trajectory that doesn’t seem too far removed from perfection.
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