Cafe Royal: The life and times of a London institution

Laura Ivill

FEW INSITUTIONS can boast a history as rich as this one. Such a louche and libidinous past, with so many stories playing out as some of the greatest figures of modern times drank and (occasionally) dined – scandal, intrigue and ruin just a breath away. And rarely has a place been so studied, conceptualised, remodelled, restored and quietly relaunched, as the magnificent Café Royal.
It was not always so. To many Londoners, it lost its shine decades ago, recalled as a faded institution with 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 bustling with artists, wits, pimps and pickpockets, all of whom mingled here. Café Royal was founded by a down-on-his-luck Frenchman who imported a slice of Parisian chic to Victorian London and created a buzz that made him a fortune.
Historically, it was never a hotel – London only socialised in its salons. But a hotel it would become, and in 2008 new owners put its old paintings, chandeliers and memorabilia under the hammer at Bonhams. Alfred and Georgi Akirov, an Israeli father and son, already had a luxury hotel in Jerusalem, the Mamilla, but their vision was to create a new collection, The Set, comprising three distinguished European hotels in landmark buildings.
They opened Conservatorium in Amsterdam in December 2011, the work of the softly spoken, scarf-loving designer-architect Piero Lissoni, who succeeded in creating a symphony of the old and new, a cathedral of taste for well-heeled locals and visiting urbanites. Next came Café Royal, with its bar, three restaurants, café, private members’ club, function rooms, deluxe spa and six historic suites – 159 rooms in total. The third is the grand dame of Paris’ Rive Gauche, the Lutetia.
The contract to modernise the ten-storey Café Royal, integrating two adjoining properties – the footprint lies between Regent, Glasshouse and Air Street – was given to David Chipperfield, no doubt for a substantial sum (the 125-year lease alone is reported to have cost £90m. To compare: the restoration of the Savoy cost around £250m).
On the challenge of integrating the original building with two undistinguished adjoining properties, Melissa Johnston, Chipperfield’s lead architect, 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 collaborated with the owners to restore the historic spaces while creating contemporary rooms and suites. We wanted to respect the past without getting lost in nostalgia.”
Having missed the original June 2012 pre-Olympics opening date, the bar is now pulling in the after-work crowd for delicious absinthe cocktails, and the Grill Room has been relaunched as a “caviar and champagne lounge” with live entertainment and a dress code (“celebrative and sophisticated”). It will probably be stunning when full, but if you have this mirrored, carnivalesque, pimped and buffed room to yourself, as I did, it feels a bit stiff.
The fine-dining Domino Room and spa are yet to be finished, so this is only being called a “soft opening”, but when the Regent Street Café opens (any day now), this old new kid on the block will start being noticed once again.
The aim is for the venue to be welcoming to Londoners – once again a pulsating, vibrant home and hearth for creatives, tastemakers, global players and, of course, the beautiful. I’m intrigued as to how this will play out. A private members club is planned to launch on 1 April. Stephen Fry is apparently keen to join, and an exclusive role-call of the great and good will be expected to set the place on fire with their wit. Yet the furnishings are oddly clinical, with no bookcases or comfy sofas. Entering from Air Street, an over-lit sea of hard mono-chrome leather seating has been placed in what used to be the Egyptian Art Deco foyer. The leather is repeated in the Grill Room and again upstairs in the club. With such a pedigree of artists and art, why no pictures or sculptures? “The materials speak for themselves,” they say. But it feels short of humanity, lacking the ghosts of those Victorian ladies and gentlemen out on the town – not a whiff of those glamorous film stars and musicians remains.
It could be called “contemporary masculine decor”, and no doubt it’s meant as a counterpoint to the lavishly ornate frescos, plaster figurines and the Grill Room’s 60,000 sheets of gold leaf. But while Conservatorium has a vast lobby atrium with trees growing in the middle as an inspired living centrepiece, Café Royal isn’t nearly as playful. I’m left wondering if the spectacular Grill Room will catch on. Will Londoners embrace it as they once did? We will soon find out.
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Café society: London’s who’s who
In its 150-year history, Café Royal has been frequented by London society’s biggest names. It was in the Grill Room that Oscar Wilde first met his “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas; loaded with absinthe, he hallucinated that the waiters stacking chairs were picking tulips. The future Kings Edward VIII and George VI lunched here regularly, and its lavish interior was painted by Beardsley, Sickert and Lavery. DH Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, GK Chesterton and Arnold Bennett all reference the Café’s goings-on.
The Twenties’ renovation contributed to its success in a new era; Virginia Woolf, Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, Ivor Novello, JB Priestley and Winston Churchill set the world to rights over a cocktail or two. After the Second World War it reopened in 1951, was bought by Charles Forte in 1954, and expanded. Glamour returned in the form of Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Barbra Streisand. In the 1970s the Beatles, Mick and Bianca Jagger and Keith Moon all rocked up. When David Bowie threw a farewell party to Ziggy Stardust there, he was notoriously caught on camera in an embrace with Lou Reid.