Cafe Royal | CityAM
CityAM Bespoke magazine | February 2013
A right royal affair in the heart of London
The iconic Cafe Royal is back after a massive facelift. Laura Ivill asks if it was worth the wait.
Rarely is there an institution that has had such a crazy history as this one, such a louche and libindinous past, with so many stories playing out while the greatest figures of modern times sat drinking and dining with abandon – scandal, intrigue and ruin merely a breath away. Rarely has such a landmark of London society reinvented itself so successfully era after era. Rarely has a place been so studied, conceptualised, remodelled, restored and quietly relaunched, as the magnificent Cafe Royal hotel.
But it was not always so. To many Londoners, it lost its shine decades ago, recalled as perhaps a rather faded institution, an air of naffness clinging to its gilded name. Its heyday had come and gone by the time I was old enough to order a Tia Maria and Coke. I’d certainly never been; my mum had, once, to the Grill Room restaurant in the early 1970s – she had a whole trout.
It first opened its doors more than a century earlier, in 1865, to a London bursting with artists, wits, pimps and pickpockets, mingling here from all walks of life. The Café Royal was begun by a Frenchman down on his luck, who imported a slice of Parisian swagger to Victorian London and created a buzz that made his fortune.
Historically it was never a hotel, but all of London society flocked to its famed restaurants at one time or another. It was built by John Nash and is Grade II listed, inside and out. On the slide as a destination, in 2008 the new owners closed its doors and paintings, chandeliers, furniture and memorabilia went fast and furiously under the hammer at Bonhams. Alfred and Georgi Akirov, Israeli father and son, was closed for a complete renovation. The Akirovs already had a design hotel in Jerusalem, the Mamilla, created by the softly-spoken uber-designer Piero Lissoni, but their vision was to create a new collection, The Set, comprising three distinguished contemporary city hotels in landmark buildings.
First, The Conservatorium opened in Amsterdam in December 2011, also by Piero Lissoni, and, to my mind a wonderful symphony of the old and new, creating almost a cathedral to taste, where the vibe is of well-heeled locals hanging out with cool visiting urbanites). Next the Cafe Royal – now a hotel for the first time, with a bar, three restaurants, a cafe, private members’ club, function rooms, basement spa, six historic suites with 159 rooms and suites in total. Finally the grand dame of the Rive Gauche, the Lutetia, is being reborn. This is brave and visionary ambition to admire.
The contract as lead architects to modernise the ten-storey building and to integrate two adjoining properties – the footprint lies between Regent, Glasshouse and Air Streets - was David Chipperfield Architects, no doubt for a substantial “undisclosed“ sum (the 125-year lease alone is reported to have cost £90 million; and the restoration of the Savoy, as a comparison, cost as much as £250 million). They were the only British firm to have been shortlisted for the conversion of Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern, and are based in Waterloo (where they have planning permission for their first major London piece of infrastructure, a 29-storey tower and the remodelling of the station’s entrance). They are well known for their work abroad, where cost doesn’t usually win out over design as it often does here. The man himself received a knighthood in 2010 and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts; he is highly regarded for his ways with concrete. For the interiors’ renovations, Chipperfield collaborated with Donald Insall Associates.
On the challenge of integrating the original building with two undistinguished adjoining properties, Melissa Johnston, Chipperfield’s project director, says: “Although the façade was the same Beaux-Arts architecture, the interiors were completely different so we aimed to create the illusion that the three buildings had always worked seamlessly together. We closely collaborated with the owners to sensitively restore historic spaces while simultaneously creating contemporary rooms and suites. This allowed us to respect the past without getting lost in the nostalgia.”
But what’s it like? The short answer is, time will tell. The concept is only slowly being rolled out. Having missed the original June 2012 pre-Olympics opening date, some venues are doing business now – the Bar is pulling in an after-work crowd for delicious, well-made absinthe cocktails, and the Grill Room, now a “caviar and champagne lounge”. This is promising enough, caviar is everywhere again of course, although I found that on the two occasions I visited it was starkly empty (how will people take to the dress code: “celebrative and sophisticated”?). I had this remarkable, carnivalesque, pimped and buffed room to myself, which makes you scurry away.
But this is their “soft opening” let’s remember (the fine-dining Domino Room and spa are yet to be finished). But when the Regent Street Café opens any day now, it’s at this point that the deliberately discreet new hotel will start to be noticed.
The concept is for the venue to be open and welcoming to Londoners – once again a pulsating, vibrant home and hearth for creatives, tastemakers, global players and, of course, the beautiful people. I’m intrigued as to how this will play out. A private members club is planned to launch on April 1 (no, jokes, please) – I was told Stephen Fry is keen to join – an exclusive role-call of invited Names who will be expected to set the place on fire with their wit. Yet the furnishings are oddly uncompromising – certainly no bookcases and comfy sofas. Entering from Air Street an overlit sea of hard mono-coloured leather seating has been penned off in what used to be the Egyptian foyer; this sea of leather is repeated in the Grill Room and again upstairs in the club (is it ocre? burnt siena? certainly it is off-red, but not dead-salmon). With such a pedigree of artists and art, why no pictures, no sculptures (“the materials speak for themselves,” they say), but therefore no humanity, no ghosts of those Victorian ladies and gentlemen out on the town, not a whiff of those glamorous film stars and musicians behaving badly.
We might call it “contemporary masculine decor”, and no doubt it’s meant as a counterpoint to the lavishly ornate historic frescos, plaster figurines and the Grill Room’s 60,000 sheets of gold leaf. If the Conservatorium’s vast lobby atrium has trees growing in the middle of it as an inspired living centrepiece, and something fun, then the Cafe Royal isn’t nearly as playful; and I’m left wondering if the undoubtedly spectacular Grill Room et al will catch on. Full of glamour and life, it must be one of the most exciting venues you could imagine. Will Londoners embrace it? Only time will tell.
Details: Visit hotelcaferoyal.com or call 020-7406 3333.
In its 150-year history the Cafe Royal has played host to almost every notable figure in London society. It was in the Grill Room that Oscar Wilde first met his “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas; and in the same room, and full of absinthe, he hallucinated that the waiters stacking chairs were picking tulips. The future Kings Edward VIII and George VI lunched here regularly, and its ornate Louis XVI detailing was portrayed by the artists Beardsley, Sickert and Lavery. The literary works of DH Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, GK Chesterton and Arnold Bennett reference the Café’s goings-on.
The Twenties’ renovation only contributed to its roaring success in a new era, Virginia Woolf, Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, Ivor Novello, J.B. Priestley and Winston Churchill enjoyed the hospitality. After the Second World War it remained dark, reopening in 1951, was bought by Charles Forte in 1954 and greatly expanded into an eight-storey business and conference centre.
Glamour returned in the form of Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Barbra Streisand, and in the 1970s rock royalty turned up in force – the Beatles plus wives, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Keith Moon, and when David Bowie threw a farewell party to Ziggy Stardust he was notoriously caught on camera in an embrace with Lou Reid.