I was on my way to Edinburgh to shoot a TV film on malt whisky and discovered that I would break my journey for one night in London. The British capital has hundreds of hotels but I was intrigued by the thought of staying at Brown’s Hotel.
To be perfectly honest, this had less to do with anything I’d heard about Brown’s (it is so discreet that most people who talk about hotels don’t stay there) but more with my childhood memories of an old Agatha Christie murder mystery called At Bertram’s Hotel.
In case you have not read the book or watched one of the many TV adaptations, I won’t spoil your fun. But I will tell you that it is set in a super-discreet luxury hotel in the heart of London.
Agatha Christie, who was a regular visitor to the hotel, based At Bertram’s Hotel on Brown’s (in the TV adaptations, it even has a façade that is exactly like Brown’s).
As it turned out, Brown’s was perfect; easily one of the best London hotels I have ever stayed in. And when I did a little checking I discovered that apart from the Agatha Christie angle, Brown’s had a lot else to boast about.
Brown’s Hotel is so discreet, most people who talk about hotels don’t stay there
It was created by merging several town houses on Dover Street in 1837 and then, by purchasing and annexing St George’s Hotel on Albemarle Street in 1889.
It was the place where Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call (new wiring had been installed for the call) in 1876; it had the first ever restaurant inside a hotel (opened in 1882); Rudyard Kipling wrote some of his books there, FD Roosevelt came to Brown’s for his honeymoon; various exiled monarchs and heads of state made it their home away from home (the Queen of Belgium during World War I; the King of Greece during his exile from 1924 to 1935; Haile Selassie in 1936 etc) and more recently, Stephen King wrote Misery in his suite at Brown’s.
Raffles in Singapore now has a theme park element
After I checked out I wondered: What is it that makes places like Brown’s so special? What, in fact, is it that turns a five-star hotel into a luxury property? And how do you define a grand hotel?
I don’t think anyone has ever satisfactorily answered those questions. But here is my checklist of what I look for in a grand hotel.
Almost by definition any old luxury hotel will have stories to tell about the good old days, and the celebrities who stayed there.
Anybody who was anybody stayed at the Bombay Taj; Delhi’s Imperial was connected to India’s princely states; Hong Kong’s The Peninsula mirrors the development of that city over the last century; the Ritz in Paris will always bring back memories of the German Occupation (and of Coco Chanel, who lived there during that period) and Calcutta’s Great Eastern was the Raj hotel.
But because a grand hotel needs history, it does not always follow that this history has to be genuine. My favourite example is Bangkok’s Oriental, of which only the tiniest portion, with very few rooms, (the Author’s Wing) has any history at all.
The rest of the hotel consists of ugly Seventies-style tower blocks. But the Oriental manages to saturate the new buildings with the history of the old wing so successfully that hardly anybody realises that such Bangkok hotels as the Dusit Thani are actually older than nearly all of the Oriental.
The Ritz in Paris (above) will always bring back memories of the German Occupation and of Coco Chanel
who lived there during that period
A grand hotel must look grand. Even if its exterior is not imposing, the interiors must seem historic and luxurious. Brown’s has a discreet exterior. Visitors to London’s Savoy are always disappointed by their first sight of the hotel entrance.
Till the late 1980s, the Oberoi Grand in Calcutta had an entrance in Chowringhee that was hidden between two shops – but it was still the grandest hotel in the East.
If the grandeur goes, so does the hotel. Nobody I know will stay at Raffles in Singapore these days because of the theme park element to the hotel with its vast areas designed especially for day-tripping tourists.
The Bombay Taj took years to recover from the addition of the ugly tower wing till they finally separated the old Taj from the new one.
But the grandeur doesn’t necessarily have to be old. The grandest hotel in Bangalore is the Windsor.
It lacks the history of the West End (the Windsor opened in the 1980s) but its design makes you believe that it is a Raj-era property. (Despite all the fancy new places: the Ritz-Carlton, The JW Marriott and even ITC’s own Gardenia, the Windsor is still my favourite Bangalore hotel). Design and Art:
A good hotel must have original art. It should be able to boast about its design, show off its suites (as The Dorchester does with the Oliver Messel rooms) and nothing should ever feel like a replica.
The Bombay Taj probably has the world’s greatest collection of contemporary Indian art. And the wonderful new Park Hyatt in New York has so much great art that it took my breath away.
Hong Kong’s The Peninsula mirrors the development of that city over the last century
So, for that matter, do Bangalore’s Ritz-Carlton and the Oberoi in Gurgaon. At Brown’s, the restaurant alone has works of art by Tracey Emin, Michael Landy and Bridget Riley.
The difference between a good hotel and a great one is the quality of the service. A grand hotel must make you feel special.
If you have to wait 10 minutes for your luggage, if it takes too long to collect your laundry and if, after the first day, the staff do not address you by name, then you are not staying at a grand hotel.
The welcome is crucial. All Indian hotels are good at bowing and scraping if you arrive from the airport in one of their cars. Arrive when they are not expecting you and reception can be a nightmare.
At European hotels (where people do not normally ask for hotel cars), I’ve noticed that the doorman usually asks you your name. He then escorts you to reception.
If he has had the time, then he’s already phoned reception and alerted them that you have arrived. If not, then he loudly announces your name (“Mr Sanghvi is checking in”) once you reach the front office so that you are spared the awkwardness of giving your name to the receptionist and waiting while she checks her computer.
At Brown’s and the Bristol in Paris, I noticed that the reception staff had been trained to pick up the doorman’s cue and say “Welcome, Mr Sanghvi” followed by a few niceties. Then, they took my passport and did the actual work of checking the computer, locating my booking etc.
All hoteliers will tell you that they train their staff to accompany guests. For instance, if you ask, “Which way to the restaurant?” they shouldn’t just point, they should walk you there.
At Brown’s, they carried this to extremes. When I said that my keycard did not seem to be working, not only did the receptionist issue a new one but she came up to my room to check that the new card worked.
But consistency of service can be a problem. I went from London to Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel (also owned by the Rocco Forte group which owns Brown’s) and the arrival was pathetically handled and front office service would have shamed a Youth Hostel in Estonia.
Indians have always looked to hotels for good food. But in the rest of the world, hotel food has often been dull and boring.
That changed in the Eighties when Marco Pierre White opened his restaurant at the Hyde Park Hotel in London and won three Michelin stars. Since then, every luxury hotel in the Western world has tried to ensure that it has a Michelin-starred restaurant or a celebrity chef. (In most cases, the chefs run their own restaurants and split profits with the hotel).
Opinions are divided now on the need for celebrity chefs. Alain Ducasse has successful restaurants at many of the Sultan of Brunei’s hotels (The Dorchester, Le Meurice and the Plaza Athénée) but he just closed his restaurant at New York’s St Regis.
Ducasse has failed before in New York (at the Essex House he had three stars but no customers) and I gather the St Regis will not hire a new celebrity chef arguing that guests don’t want to eat in their own hotel in New York.
That may be true of New York. But in all other cities, I would expect a grand hotel to have at least one restaurant where the food is outstanding.
Is all this enough to constitute a grand hotel? Probably not.
I always quote Kurt Wachtveitl, the legendary general manager of the Bangkok Oriental, in the days when it was a great hotel: “Luxury is a dream. You can’t define it. But you can feel it.”
From HT Brunch, May 24
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