London has seen a slew of turbo-hyped hotels come on line this year, with each one offering more than a place to sleep. These properties are destinations in their own right with restaurants and bars that have some of Europe’s best buzz.
It’s the end of one of those deliciously perfect English summer evenings and London shimmers in a magical glow. In pub gardens and outdoor cafes people are enjoying their early evening cocktails, but the absolute best place to drink in the sunset is from 1,000 feet above the capital, in Gong bar.
Gong, on Level 52 of the Shard, opened in May and is the crowning glory of the new Shangri-La Hotel. Hong Kong-based designer Andre Fu is behind the décor and he’s given it a strong Chinese aesthetic, but with a modern twist – think red lacquer panels and a wall of Chinese cabinets made of galvanized steel. But really it’s all about the knockout view and that goes for the whole hotel.
Even dining in Ting restaurant where most of the tables have spectacular views of the London skyline, the waiter advises that instead of cutting through the restaurant to reach the Ladies bathroom I walk a slightly longer route to take in the splendor of the city. And it is spectacular in the evening, the candlelight glow of the sun’s last rays have guttered and died, leaving London to sparkle like the Milky Way.
It’s a treat to sip a gin cocktail at the highest bar in the country or to enjoy a leisurely meal at Ting with its modern European menu spiced up with Asian flavours, but it’s even more fun to stay the night and go to bed looking out over the dazzling city.
The hotel occupies Levels 34 to 52 of the Shard – two-thirds the way up the iconic skyscraper – and the 202 rooms and suites are on Levels 36 to 50. All have floor-to-ceiling windows to make the most of the view and binoculars are thoughtfully provided so you can scrutinize the city below – powerful enough to see into the offices across the river.
Not wanting to detract from the spectacle, the rooms are designed with a paired-back Asian elegance, but that’s not to suggest they are bland. Blossom sprigs painted on silk provide a flourish to the feature wall behind the bedhead. And it’s a very large bed, certainly larger than your average king size and divinely comfortable.
The sun rises early in summer, so to avoid being woken at 5am the windows are fitted with blackout blinds. Operated from beside the bed, you can sit propped up on down pillows and press the button to lift the curtains on that impressive panorama, looking towards London Bridge and over to Canary Wharf. The guest bathrooms are well thought out with heated flooring, separate shower room, generous standalone bathtub and a Japanese-style electronic privy.
If you can bear to tear yourself away from the view, the 28-second journey in the lift from the 35th floor will take you down to street level, conveniently next to London Bridge tube station and within walking distance of the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe and Borough Market, one of the city’s best places to shop for fresh food. The hotel’s chef will take guests on a tour of the market, where they can buy whatever fresh produce appeals to their taste buds. In the evening the chef will prepare a five-course dinner at Ting restaurant using the selected ingredients. With a table next to the windows there is no better way to enjoy the finest that London has to offer.
Ham Yard, Soho
When Ham Yard opened this summer it made it straight onto London’s “it” list. The bar and restaurant are buzzing and if you want to get a table you need to reserve well in advance – this is one of the capital’s new throne rooms, where the kings and queens of Europe’s jet set battle for seats every night.
It’s quite a remarkable transformation for a previously uninspiring patch of Soho, but Kit and Tim Kemp – the husband-and-wife team behind the Firmdale group – have a good track record when it comes to creating beautiful properties. This is their ninth hotel in London (and there’s also the Crosby Street Hotel in New York) and all bear interior designer Kit’s signature bold colours and patterns. This is British design at its most eccentric best – and no shortage of quirky humour.
Ham Yard is a lot more than just a hotel. There are 24 residential apartments, 13 specialty shops, a movie theatre, spa and bowling alley. The three-quarter acre site, just steps away from throbbing Piccadilly Circus feels peaceful – by day. It’s designed with plenty of public spaces to attract Londoners as well as overseas visitors.
A tree-filled cobbled courtyard with a bronze sculpture by Turner Prize winner (1988) Tony Cragg provides the fulcrum of the property, but it is the bar and restaurant that provides the electrified and throbbing heart of Ham Yard. Kit is known for mixing things up and she hasn’t held back here. There’s a mish mash of folk art and patterned wallpaper. Sounds too much? Perhaps, but it works.
The bar and restaurant sit alongside each other and in the evening the buzz from the standing room only bar seeps into the dining area giving the place a lively vibe. The menu has plenty of fresh, seasonal produce, but it’s not so healthy that you go away hungry. There is plenty of comfort food to help soak up those cocktails you had earlier. The restaurant looks quite different in the morning and without the crush of revelers at the bar the atmosphere is more sedate, making for a smooth ease into the day.
As great as the bar and restaurant are, my favourite space is below decks where there is a whole other level of fun to be had. The highlight is the four-lane 1950s bowling alley – it’s the real deal and was imported from Texas. In the reception area there are backlit bowling balls and vintage bowling shoes.
Also in the basement is a 176-seat private cinema and beside it the Dive bar – which gets its name from the neon diving diva on the wall. The bar is double-height and full of quirky touches. Take the huge “helter skelter” orange juicer – a giant, eight-loop slide filled with oranges that stands to the left of the bar.
Despite the scale of the project, this is a boutique hotel and the luxe modern guest rooms have all the charming attention to detail you’d expect of an intimate property. There are alabaster chandeliers, hand-painted cabinets, 1950s botanical posters, zany wallpaper and quirky mannequins.
If you are staying at the hotel, you can use the guest-only library that is the perfect place to unwind after the buzz of the main bar. There is a small pantry with an honour-system bar and plenty of deep, comfortable sofas. The library is definitely worth browsing. These aren’t books plucked out randomly to fill the shelves – Philip Blackwell, who used to head the bookshop chain Blackwell’s, selected them. Like everything at Ham Yard, it’s about attention to detail. Not fastidious detail, but a careful hand with a quirky eye and a burning desire to have fun. This is a place to kickback and let your hair down.
High Holborn might not be the most obvious location for a truly grand hotel, but as the cab turns off the main road and passes through the central carriageway entrance with its domed roof you can’t help but be impressed. Stepping out into the grand courtyard of the Rosewood London there is a real sense of occasion.
Best known for the fabulous Carlyle Hotel in New York, the operators splashed out 85 million pounds on the restoration of the 1914 neoclassical building and standing in the lavish lobby as you check-in you can see where a lot of that money went. Just as it crosses your mind that this might all be rather wonderful and lavish, but perhaps a little dull, there is the sound of birdsong. Not the piped in birdsong that you get in spas, but real birds. It doesn’t take long to locate the source of the chirping. Just past the reception, beside the elevators, is an eight-foot tall bamboo cage filled with budgerigars and finches. It’s just one of many surprises. There is also a hotel dog, a beautiful black Labrador puppy named Pearl.
It’s hard to believe that before the lavish refit this was actually a Marriott. Taiwan-born, New York-based Tony Chi was brought in to reimagine the property and he has imbued it with a very modern, monochrome aesthetic. The colours are muted and the Asian sensibility is everywhere with plenty of black
lacquer and Chinoiserie. Even in the guest bathrooms the tooth mugs are Chinese porcelain.
After the subdued aesthetic of Tony Chi, both luxurious and soothing, it is a sheer joy to enter the Scarfe’s Bar, designed by Martin Brudnizki. Its warmth hits you immediately as though the colour that has been bleached from the rest of the hotel has found its way into this divine watering hole. There is a roaring fire on one side of the room, a jazz singer on the other and in between plenty of deep and inviting sofas and armchairs. The bar takes its name from the renowned political cartoonist Gerald Scarf and there is a large collection of the artist’s original works spread throughout – witty, satirical musings that are sure to entertain should the conversation slide.
Brudnizki is also behind the Holborn Dining Room. As with the bar, there are plenty of bold splashes of red – deep banquet seating, broad bar stools and comfortable booths – and the two long bars are topped with copper. For all its dashing glamour, it’s a comfortable, inviting space and the service is excellent. This is where breakfast is served and the restaurant stays open until 11.30pm serving locally sourced British cuisine.
Of all the new hotels to open in London over the last five years, this one feels the most grand. The lavish restoration has brought out the very best of this magnificent Edwardian building and the contemporary design and artistic details – such as the silver animals sculptures beside each guest room – ensure that grand does not equate with dull. If you want flashy five-star luxury go elsewhere. The Rosewood London, doesn’t do bling, it’s all about very classy comfort. By Kate Whitehead
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