Oscar Wilde, an oft-cited regular at this establishment once famously wrote that "there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it" and so it is with Café Royal. For many of us the closure of this iconic London institution in 2008 and the sale of its historic contents was a great tragedy and many (among whom I am admittedly one) wished that someone - anyone - could be found with the inspiration, enthusiasm and most of all fortitude to inject new life and vigour into this once great bohemian palace of pleasure which had, by then, a rather jaded reputation tending on the sordid. How different its history had been. Within its walls, Edward VII as Prince of Wales (much to the chagrin of his mother) once held an artistic court composed of the great avant-garde artists, writers, actors (and more importantly actresses) and musicians of the fin de siècle of Victorian London and its bohemian reputation and somewhat cosmopolitan reputation ensured a varied and (in?)famous clientele throughout the twentieth century. News of the salvation of the Café Royal as a new 5 star hotel was thus greeted in equal measure with great relief but also with not insignificant trepidation: would the new owners, we asked, have the ability to meet the exacting needs of the 5-star hotel client whilst retaining the bohemian charm and avant garde joie de vivre which had once made the establishment a favourite of royalty, celebrity and artist alike? Having now gone, in acolyte fashion, to sample the pleasures of Café Royal convinced that I would either adore every feature of its rebirth or scorn its very audacity to reopen in some new and ghastly fashion under this iconic name, I have been surprised that this ambivalence remains somewhat in place.
To be at a birth is in equal measures a great and miraculous privilege and an inherently messy business and thus it is perhaps unfair to judge the new Café Royal in its current state. It is new: there is no doubting that it is new. From the moment I stepped in to a taxi at Paddington Station to be told by the archetypal London cabbie of many decades standing that there was "no point" going to the Café Royal because it closed years ago, I was aware of exactly how titanic the task is for the new owners to carve out a niche for the reborn establishment in an already flooded London hotel market in one of the worst recessions in history. The new hotel, I thought, will have to offer something very unique to this market and, to be fair, my experiences demonstrated that in many ways it does, though as other reviewers here have commented, there is yet work to be done.
Entrance to the Café Royal is through the original grand Edwardian marble hall facing Regent Street (now, thankfully, minus its ghastly 1980's Napoleonic awning which was more Las Vegas casino than 5 star London hotel). At first site, again one is struck with the newness of the establishment: the Portland stone exterior is sparkling white; the gilt letters above the door glint, freshly polished in the winter sunshine; the heavy bronze doors are as yet unsullied by patina and the much lauded informal Regent Street Café frontage is still a rather messy building site.
Almost as soon as I had laid my hand upon the grand bronze revolving door, I was met not by the usual ubiquitous top-hatted and jovial doorman but was instead immediately set upon by no fewer than three brawny and very slick security staff dressed in full-on Chelsea Nightclub Bouncer black. Whilst no doubt the secret fantasy of many a bored housewife or frustrated young country boy, this is really not how one expects to be greeted at a 5-Star hotel. The situation was made especially awkward by the fact that the grand marble Edwardian entrance hall (presumably -and thankfully- due to the building's Grade I listing) had no indication that it was the lobby of a hotel. There was no reception desk nor any sign that the building was anything other than a rather upmarket private residential or office block. Upon my assurance that I was, indeed, a guest, I was ushered through the gilt grandeur of the entrance hall, through the coolly elegant Edwardian marble and mosaic staircase lobby into an abruptly and almost inconceivably contemporary reception area. The theme here was stark minimalism: fumed oak panelling met gentle cream-painted walls without a touch of unnecessary decorative detail and the staff operated from a coolly lit niche behind a great unadorned slab of fumed oak. The architects would no doubt (and perhaps rightly) describe this as "serene": to those used to staying in the hotel's gaudier "elder-aunt" neighbours on Piccadilly and Brook Street, it will no doubt seem stark. The shock of the contemporary is indeed felt on entering this space: but somehow it works.
Reception staff were exceptionally friendly and happily chatted about the opening few weeks of the hotel whilst efficiently seeing to my check-in. I had taken a "Portland Room" on the third floor. I was ushered to the uniquely beautiful Art-Deco inspired lifts in the staircase lobby and exited on the third floor into a labyrinthine series of fumed-oak lined corridors all of which looked exactly the same. One would not wish to be returning late at night rather worse for wear into this maze! The cool lighting and "serene" colour scheme of the reception was continued in the corridors which had about them the unmistakeable feel of a high-end clinic or spa. It certainly looked nothing like any other London Hotel I have visited. The feeling of being in a high-end sanatorium (or worse an asylum!) was added to by the omnipresent security staff who appear with a degree of suddenness as you exit the lift. Again I found this very disconcerting and rather unwelcoming.
Having been shown into my room, I was immediately struck at the sense of light spaciousness and serenity. As a standard grade room this space was utterly exceptional. It was one of the largest rooms of any grade I have had in this area of London entered through a small corridor wherein is found a large butler's pantry and mirrored wardrobe. Suddenly the room rate began to feel very good value indeed.
The decor in this space was ultra-contemporary. In a seeming attempt to harmonise the room interior with its external view (and WHAT a view!), the walls were entirely composed of large blocks of imitation Portland Stone whilst the floors were of limed oak. Being at the front of the hotel, I immediately rushed to the window to open the curtains (this is done electronically by a switch by the bed) to reveal a spectacular view right into the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Yet, due to the really quite miraculous soundproofing, not a sound issued from outside. The bathroom was also clad in large rusticated blocks, this time of Carrera marble and my only criticism of this space was the lack of a bathtub which no doubt was the downside of the "standard" room, though the marble shower room was gargantuan. Bath products were by Floris (mainly Cefiro, once the staple of the Ritz). Such use of locally sourced products is to be applauded though those supplied tended to be a bit schizophrenic mixing rather too many of Floris' scents among the products themselves. I for one would highly recommend sticking to Cefiro. The room combined contemporary design with the most complex of contemporary technology.
Everything was electronic (including the lighting "do not disturb" sign and curtains) and the Bang & Olufsen TV, whilst looking like a work of art, required a Ph.D. in software technology to operate. I have never been a great fan of these innovations finding that all too often technical difficulties can lead to technical disasters. I can well imagine that as the uninitiated stumble clumsily through these devices they will soon be rather less than fully operational and will provide an especial headache for the staff. Certainly as regards the TV, whether it be as a result (as I suspect) of teething difficulties with the operating system or my stupidity, I never managed to figure it out and gave with in some frustration. The seemingly wonderful "mirror TV" in the bathroom never changed from an unflickering blue screen. But overall, the room, by London standards vast, was hugely comfortable: the colour scheme restful; the bed a dream; the complimentary Champagne a wonderful surprise. Do not wait. This is a hotel to be enjoyed whilst new. And new it certainly was. As Rose Dewitt Bukater declared in James Cameron's Titanic, "I can still smell the fresh paint. The china had never been used. The sheets had never been slept in".
And talking of a grand Edwardian wonder which is likely to sink like a stone, as night fell and the "Portland Stone" blocks of the room decor began to resemble less the grand streets of London and more a padded cell in an asylum guarded by the omnipresent security guards, I decided to pay a visit to the great inner sanctum of the Cafe Royal: the Grill Room. This had once been one of the grandest dining spaces in London surpassed only by Cesar Ritz's camply overblown opulent dining room of 1906. Today, it is perhaps one of its greatest disappointments.
It is clear that there has been much laudable restoration of the gorgeously gilt, opulently painted and nymph encrusted decor of the walls and ceiling of this mirrored room. However the addition of contemporary scarlet furniture which would look more at home in a Virgin Atlantic Premier Lounge and a bleak lighting scheme which manages to be only dim and dreary without being in the least atmospheric seems utterly at odds with this once bohemian and deliciously decadent room. Gone are the atmospheric glittering, mirrored absinthe-green and arsenic hues of Sir William Orpen's famous painting of this room and instead this space has an all-pervading sense of overbearing gloom. This is much increased by the fact that when we entered (at 10pm on a Friday evening) it was completely empty. In their great wisdom, the owners of the hotel have deigned that rather than a restaurant, the Grill Room is now a "Champagne and Caviar Bar": an odd choice of designation in the current market. Having taken up a menu, it very soon became apparent why it was empty. On a rather limited drinks menu, the least expensive item featured was £25.00 and most items were significantly more than this. Quite whom this space was aimed to attract is not at all apparent to me. It remains slightly too dowdy for the City crowd and has no hint of Edwardian comfortable grandeur to attract the old Belgravia set. I rather fear that the owners had misfired this particular shot and may find a change in use is necessary.
Retreating from the empty gloom of the Grill Room, still smarting from the disappointment, we sauntered to the hotel's contemporary Bar at the rear of the building facing Air Street. Taking the gloom of the Grill Room to its extreme, this space I found to be rather unpleasant. The overwhelming memory of the space: black. The furnishings were black, the walls were black and, in an homage to industrial chic, the bar was clad in riveted industrial steel the top of which was -unsurprisingly- black. Lighting and gloom in this space was so bad that I had to resort to using my mobile phone to see the menu. The cocktail menu was varied and rather good value by London standards and the service very friendly and efficient but I found the space rather oppressive. Again there were few clients (more probably as a result of lack of advertising) and overall the experience was not entirely a pleasant one.
The restaurant is housed in a room beside the bar and again is unashamedly contemporary in style, sitting rather incongruously in an Art-Deco room and rather awkwardly right beside the side entrance to the hotel with its vast bronze and glass doors opening onto Air Street, making the space feel as though squashed between two arterial corridors. As a result of the time, I did not have the opportunity to dine there though the space seemed rather busier than the Grill Room or Bar which must bode well.
On exiting the hotel for an evening out, I returned in the early hours. The Regent Street entrance to the hotel is closed at night and one is required to enter by the Air Street doors beside the restaurant. Just as earlier, on approaching the doors, I was greeted by three members of security staff who thankfully remembered me from earlier. I entered the lift, and just as before, on exiting at the third level, I was again met by another member of security staff asking whether I needed assistance. I have to say I really did find the omnipresence of security a tad oppressive during my stay and this, combined with the look of the hotel, really did give the impression of staying not in a 5-Star Hotel but instead in a celebrity drying out clinic. On arrival back at my room, I had one of the best night's sleep I have ever had in London. Forewarned by the review of another reviewer, I had requested foam pillows which were perfect. I stayed a second night and forgot to request these. As the reviewer pointed out, the feather versions are merely cotton bags of air and I was forced to use all four myself. Checkout was both friendly and efficient (the staff really cannot be faulted in any and in this respect the hotel is exceptionally blessed) and, as a result of staying during the introductory period, was not required until a scandalously decadent 4 pm. This was a great bonus.
It is thus that as an overall experience I remain slightly conflicted about the Cafe Royal. On the one hand, I have had the privilege of staying in what I am sure will become one of London's best hotels during its formative weeks. The rooms are huge by any standard and finished to the highest possible degree of quality whilst the current room rates really are exceptional value by London standards and should be grabbed upon immediately by anyone who can. Had this been simply the opening of a new hotel, I would have unreservedly recommended it as one of London's finest. To the acolytes of Cesar Ritz's gloriously and unashamedly camp ostentatious old dame on Piccadilly, mouldering in rosewater and lavender in a state of affected and unsustainable aristocratic detachment from the modern world, there is no doubt the Cafe Royal will seem stark, cold and unwelcoming. For those seeking the shiny celebrity endorsed glitzy-gilt fashionable novelty of the Bulgari Hotel, the Cafe Royal will seem too understated: too restrained in its opulence. Yet for those seeking contemporary design and comfort at its most serene, restful and grand, the Cafe Royal will be perfect. This is a niche which has never been filled in London. To the traveller (generally from mainland Europe) the new Cafe Royal is exactly what to expect from one of the best hotels in a city centre: in London, it remains a novelty which I would imagine will benefit greatly and be a trend setter for the future. I for one will certainly be back!
However, despite all of this, I cannot help but lament the mistakes which have been made. The famous Grill Room has been reduced from a glorious artistic hub to a gloomy wasteland whilst the bar (seemingly in reaction to the cool contemporary and restful opulence of the rest of the hotel) has adopted an appearance which is at best moody: at worst dreary and uncomfortable. The overbearing presence of security staff ought also to be looked at. At the Cafe Royal, Big Brother is indeed watching you and he is on every floor waiting to jump out of some hidden door to ask you what you are up to. I am sure there is a fine balance to be drawn between protecting guests from unwanted visitors in this site but other establishments like the Ritz in similarly busy thoroughfares manage to ensure security in much less intrusive ways.
My advice: stay here - and stay soon- for the truly amazing rooms. They really are the best in London at their current rate. But for a taste of fin de siècle opulence and grandeur in one of London's most beautiful spaces, eat at the Ritz. Alas the Grill Room is no more; "Gone" as Lord Byron wrote, "glimmering through the dream of things that were".
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Combining architectural heritage with contemporary design, Cafe Royal has been reincarnated as a luxury hotel in the heart of London's West End with the elegance of Mayfair to the west and the creativity of Soho to the east. Grand historic areas have been sensitively restored while 160 guestrooms, including 49 suites and six signature suites have been created in a contemporary yet refined style. Our guestrooms start from approximately 35 sq m / 377 sq ft to 212 sq m / 2,281sq ft with every room presenting itself as a suite. Continuing its celebrated legacy, Hotel Cafe Royal offers a selection of restaurants and bars for guests to enjoy. At the heart of the hotel, the Ten Room offers British informal dining all-day, while the Green Bar is the perfect place to relax and unwind with a cocktail. Restored to revive the ornate Louis XVI decor and detailing, the iconic Oscar Wilde Bar (formerly the legendary Grill Room, originally established in 1865), is now the place to enjoy Champagne, cocktails and a light menu of British dishes and live entertainment on select evenings. The Cafe, on Regent Street, revives the European tradition of cafe culture. To complete the experience, the Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre is an urban retreat in the centre of the capital spanning over 1,200 sq m / 13,000 sq ft featuring a large lap pool, sauna and Hammam/steam room and offering a range of signature treatments. Reflecting a core vision to harmoniously unite the four natural elements of nature, Akasha features four corresponding spaces; lounge/earth, spa/water, gym/fire, yoga/air. ... more less
- Reservation Options:
- TripAdvisor is proud to partner with DerbySoft Ltd Shanghai HQ Supplier Direct, Booking.com, DerbySoft Ltd Shanghai HQ, Expedia, Odigeo, Priceline, Hotels.com, Agoda, Ctrip TA, Ebookers, Prestigia, 5viajes2012 S.L., getaroom.com, HotelsClick, Evoline ltd, HotelQuickly and Cancelon so you can book your Hotel Cafe Royal reservations with confidence. We help millions of travellers each month to find the perfect hotel for both holiday and business trips, always with the best discounts and special offers.
- Also Known As:
- Cafe Royal Hotel London