By Alex Polizzi
The London hotel scene has never been so buoyant. Traditional grande-dame luxury hotels are having to look to their laurels as new or revamped five-star properties open almost every month. And there have been interesting openings at the budget end of the market too. Over the past few months I’ve taken a look at two of the starriest additions to the capital’s hotel portfolio: the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge and the refurbished Café Royal in Regent Street. And for those on a sub-celebrity budget, I’ve visited the city’s newest budget opening, the Qbic Hotel near Brick Lane in east London.
The Café Royal recently reopened after a three-year refurbishment, with every detail overseen by the studio of an architect I much admire, David Chipperfield. I have a historic interest in the Café Royal as it is the first major property my grandfather, Charles Forte, acquired when he began to build his hotel empire. My mother used to put on art exhibitions in the bar and the wonderfully rococo Grill Room has been the site of many family revels.
It now has 159 bedrooms, of which one third are suites. My junior suite overlooked Regent Street. Every wall is in an off-white, offset plaster design that mimics the Portland stone on the exterior of the building. I found it very stark – and the pale wooden floor, pale mustard rug, pale pink armchair and pale mint-green sofa did nothing to soften the effect.
All the room functions, the blackout blinds, sheers, “Do Not Disturb” signs and lights are controlled by bedside buttons. Now, I loathe struggling with technology that is supposed to make my stay easier, and I had to spend at least an hour peering myopically at the well-labelled but – to me – deeply unsexy buttons to make anything work.
My bathroom was floor-to-ceiling Carrara marble with underfloor heating and had a really impressive bath gently carved out of a solid block, but I was shocked to discover there was no shower attachment. There is a separate shower, bien sûr, but this is one of my cardinal sins of room design: why would anyone think you can’t enjoy a bath and wash your hair in the same place?
When it came to the rest of the hotel, the Akasha spa and gym, with a watsu pool for hydra massage treatments, is a soothing retreat. And I was wowed by the Pompadour Suite, an event space for private parties, receptions and weddings. It has been decorated in its original colours, marrons glacés and gold, and can seat 120 for dinner or cater for 200 for drinks and canapés. It is surely one of the prettiest and most dramatic private dining rooms in London. The Grill Room, however striking the restored gilding and cupids, is decked out with clunky velvet furniture, in the wrong shade of pink, which only detracts from the glories of the room itself.
Although the hotel’s beautiful historic lobby still opens on to Regent Street, the new main entrance on Air Street disappears into the street furniture. The practical advantage of taxi access does not compensate for entering the hotel via Ten, the all-day dining room – which, and I hesitate to be so blunt, I loathe. The boxy, graceless furniture and unforgiving lighting made me think that David Chipperfield is a better architect than he is a room designer.
The following week, I was at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, where the 50 rooms and more than 35 suites and studios benefit from a shopper’s dream location right next to Harvey Nichols and Sloane Street.
The designer here is the Italian Antonio Citterio. I walked into acres of black marble, relieved by wonderful white flowers in the lobby. I had seen photos of this hotel before my visit and found the overall effect more subtle in the flesh. The palette is certainly monochrome, but more nuanced than you would think. The whole ground floor is daringly dimly lit, and the black leather seating and gorgeous silvered bar were peopled by an unusually beautiful crowd.
All in all, it’s extremely glamorous and very New York in its unashamed sybaritic display of precious materials and, I must admit, much more to my taste.
I stayed in the Knightsbridge Suite and I loved the whole experience. The bespoke mahogany wall panels and the thoughtful lighting – floor lamps, strip above curtain line, desk lamps, bedside table lights, all conventionally controlled – threw the enormous bed, piled high with pillows, into an appealing pool of light.
The bathroom was similarly dramatic: white veined black marble on every surface, one piece of gleaming white Corian for the basin and surround, the walls behind the bath curved to follow its contours. But possibly my favourite detail was the room fridge made to look like a Thirties packing case in leather, with highly polished mahogany fittings inside. There is a high standard of finish, and I am glad I’m not the one who has to maintain it.
The hotel also has an 80ft pool, an enormous gym and 12 treatment rooms. The builders dug 130ft down to allow for the spa and gym, as well as a private cinema and a function room with solid silver chandeliers, which seats 140, or accommodates up to 300 for cocktails.
The restaurant is overseen by Alain Ducasse but serves the kind of Italian food you rarely see outside Italy – food good enough to make me want to take my husband, Marcus, there for a treat. They had a month-long soft opening to iron out any bugs before they accepted paying guests, and it certainly feels very well-established now.
So far so conventional, but there is also a new budget hotel on the block, the Qbic, close to Brick Lane in E1. The Dutch developers already have one Qbic to their name in Amsterdam and, backed by some ethical venture capitalists, intend to open another eight properties, all in areas of deprivation, within the next 10 years. The hotel has an admirable hiring policy, recruiting 50 per cent of staff from the local area and 20 per cent from the charities Food Cycle and Bikeworks, which train and assist people back into work.
Here in London, they have 171 rooms costing from £59 a night up to £199, with the promise that they won’t exceed that price. They use the same system as airlines, “dynamic pricing”, so that the earlier you book the cheaper the room.
The concept is created around the Cubi, a prefabricated construction, flat-packed from China, that can be assembled in a day. This has allowed them to open the hotel a mere six months after buying the site, which was an empty, open-plan former office block.
The Cubi is a pod that comprises a large double bed with a white plastic canopy containing all the room light controls and British and European plug sockets; an arm holds a flat-screen television at the end of the bed, from which you can access Freeview channels and the internet, with free Wi-Fi. A bathroom behind the headboard contains a rain shower and glass half-screen, lavatory and basin. All the plumbing and electrics are sandwiched between the headboard and the bathroom wall.
The remaining furniture is what I can only describe as conversation pieces or “media currency”, objects that have only been put in the rooms to stimulate Facebook chatter and Twitter feed, with no earthly use apart from street-cred points.
The light bulb at the end of the bed, wrapped in garden hose, does, I suppose, at least help to illuminate the room, but the wooden, half-baked DIY stepladder – with yet more garden hose wrapped around one step as a luggage rack, two unwieldy hangers at the back and a mirror stuck to the top – provided the only place to put my stuff in my large 35 sq m (377 sq ft) room.
But if I sound less than impressed, I am giving you the wrong idea: overall, I am completely wowed by the whole project.
The Qbic has only been open a month, so I found it easy to forgive the automatic check-in kiosks that weren’t working, creating a queue behind the only member of staff in the lobby. Similarly, only one of the two lifts worked when I visited.
As there is no bar or restaurant, all guests’ needs are provided via vending machines, which accept only credit cards. As part of Qbic’s local and ethical policy, these machines offer locally sourced products, from vacuum-packed stews to beers from a brewery only five miles down the road. The bottle of white wine I chose could only be accessed by the manager, charming Josef; the vending machines had yet to be adapted for this particular wine.
These are all glitches that become more significant when you discover that there are only 24 staff to run this behemoth. Obviously, budget hotels must minimise spending on staff, and this depends upon technology doing its bit. I am distrustful of how reliably we can depend upon it.
There is a lovely, open-plan seating area, designed so well that you would never believe that it seats 100 people, where free coffee, tea, soup and bread are on offer during the day.
As the coffee stations on each floor were not in place yet, I heroically threw on last night’s clothes to get my husband a cup of tea, followed by the “grab bag” that was included in the room price and left outside the door, comprising juice, an apple and a cereal bar. If you want to spend another £7.50, you have a generous buffet from which to help yourself. I did not see anyone policing it, so they may find their belief in guests’ honesty severely tested.
Would I stay there again? Absolutely. It is very good value at £59 a night; rather less – until they iron out the glitches – at the top price.
Alex Polizzi will return to Channel 5 in a new series of ‘The Hotel Inspector’ in early 2014.