By Joe Alexander
Oscar Wilde, who wrote The Portrait of Dorian Grey, said, “I can resist everything except temptation,” which would include his love for the iconic Café Royal in London. In 1891, this witty bon vivant had a life-altering encounter at The Café Royal. It was here that the renowned writer embarked on his notorious affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. This legendary love story landed Wilde in jail and then exile when he sued “Boise’s” father the Marquis of Queensberry, who wrote the Queensbury rules for boxing, for calling him a “sodomite” and lost. Only at Café Royal, which was then the epicenter of London’s nightlife, on the border of the bohemia of Soho and the aristocracy of Mayfair, could a poet meet a Lord and make history.
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Today Café Royal, which has been turned into a 5-star hotel nonpareil with an array of exclusive restaurants and bars that still includes the glittering Grill Room where Oscar met Bosie, is once again the meeting place of the international elite. Located at 68 Regent Street, Café Royal is one of world’s poshest addresses. This establishment was originally conceived and created in 1865 by Nicholas Thévenon, a French wine merchant. He had his doubts about opening Café Royal at this location, originally an oilcloth warehouse, as there was little passing trade and there was already a lot of competition in the area. Nevertheless, the gambler and opportunist in him took charge and he brought his vision to life. By the 1890’s, it had become the place to see and be seen. Virginia Woolf, Princess Diana of Wales and, before they were kings, Edward VIII and George VI often dined here. A waiters’ guidebook contained the note: “Prince of Wales, Duke of York lunch frequently. Always plain food and no fuss.” Other patrons included Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant and Muhammad Ali, who often watched live boxing matches in one of the elegant meeting rooms. In 1973, David Bowie retired his alter ego Ziggy Stardust at Café Royal and the famous kiss between Bowie and Lou Reed also took place here. In 2012, Mick Jagger returned to the Grill Room to celebrate his late lover L’Wren Scott’s last fashion collection with Ronnie Wood, Zaha Hadid, Bobbi Brown and other members of the glitterati and fashion elite.
The hotel has been carved out of three existing landmarked buildings, a firehouse, a bank and the original Café Royal. It now has 159 rooms and six historic suites. The award winning architect David Chipperfield has successfully married architectural heritage with modern design by deftly reworking the DNA of the buildings to create a grand hotel and public spaces that are contemporary in conception whilst simultaneously evocative of the style and glamour of the past. The high design is reflected in every room and detail; each surface is an artistic vignette made up of object de arte and cutting edge floral arrangements. The marble lobby is a wonder of period detailing with the N of Napoleon, replete with the French Imperial Crown in the stained glass window above the entryway. Old school elevators updated to run efficiently whisked us to our spacious corner suite.
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There are six Historic suites in the Café Royal; each of them is unique and echoes the grandeur of the hotel’s gilded Grill Room. The hotel’s crown jewel is the Dome Suite. It was originally the Club Room of the County Fire Office and sits on the top corner of the building. The two large terraces boast views that stretch down Regent Street on one side and out to Big Ben and Parliament from the other, providing a birds-eye view of London’s most recognizable sites including Westminster Abby and the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. The suite is cleverly broken up with dark leather screens because the interior, along with the rest in the hotel’s other historic suites, is protected by the Landmarks Commission. Reflecting the curve of this circular drawing room is an enormous lavender, crescent-shaped sofa, which provides the perfect place to watch the cinema style TV screen with surround sound. A mirrored disco ball with a state of the art LED lighting system hangs alongside a DJ booth with concert speakers, allowing for a seamless transition from a serene escape environment to a party-ready room. There is a foyer with a bar as you enter and the Carrera marble master bathroom has a massive ming-green marble bathtub as its centerpiece. The suite’s second bathroom is also marble and ideal for couples getting ready for the theater or a night on the town.
A pair of affable young butlers unpacked us before lunch in the Ten Room. Here we meet the critically acclaimed Executive Chef, Andrew Turner, who takes us on a tour of the kitchens that include a Chocolate Room and a room devoted to oranges. There is even an Orange Sommelier who tests the fresh fruit imported every day to create the perfect blend so that the flavor is always consistent.
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On the culinary front, London is now a serious place to eat. Dinner in the hotel’s Grill Room, exquisitely restored to its original Louis XVI detailing, is now the place to enjoy champagne, custom cocktails and their small plate menu, which is a trend in London. Small plates allow you to try several different selections and desserts at the same time. The delectable dishes came stacked on silver tea trays and ranged from crab salad in its shell to smoked salmon and a mini Caesar salad with chicken. Order a bottle of Bollinger champagne and relax as the piano and the bass play. At 11, the DJ starts to spin and this spectacular mirrored room turns into a lounge with dancing. The Grill Room is where great minds came and now come together again to change the world. Winston Churchill’s table, where he heard that he had become prime minister, is by the door. This is the same table where Oscar Wilde once hallucinated on Absinthe and mistook a waiter stacking chairs for a maiden plucking tulips. The hotel’s downstairs bar has brought back Absinthe in honor of Oscar and is serving it the traditional French way from an Absinthe Fountain.
For more information: hotelcaferoyal.com