Where would you start a history of the Café Royal? Perhaps on the night that Oscar Wilde got so high on absinthe that he imagined himself in a field of tulips? (They were chairs a waiter was stacking around him.) Or perhaps on the night the Marquis of Queensberry walked in to find the Irish poet dining with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, the shock that precipitated Wilde’s downfall? Or perhaps in celebration of a dining room that defined an artistic moment in which James McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert, Augustus John and Aubrey Beardsley could be found chatting together? Then again, you could choose an evening when Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf, Sir Jacob Epstein (who sculpted Wilde’s wonderful tombstone in Paris) and Winston Churchill might have been found dining there.
You might even choose the moment of a famous, photographed (and telegraphed) kiss between Lou Reed and David Bowie, extravagantly dressed as Ziggy Stardust with pre-punk hair. Or one of the nights when the bejewelled Elizabeth Taylor smooched with Richard Burton or when Brigitte Bardot might have met Muhammad Ali.
The Café Royal was where bohemia collided with high society, where the louche and the lovely lingered late into the night with an archetypally West End cocktail of immigrants, celebrities, hangers-on, fine diners and nostalgic whiners. Its importance is enshrined in its Grade I listing, the highest possible protection and one that few restaurants (as the most ephemeral of interiors) are afforded. Yet, after being thoroughly stripped out and having its contents auctioned in a frenzy of nostalgia in 2008, the Café Royal is about to reopen, hugely expanded, as a luxury hotel in an expensive effort (both architects and owners politely declined to tell me quite how expensive) to reinstall it at the centre of London’s social scene.
It has been a massive undertaking. Its reopening is part of a plan by Crown Estate, which owns Regent Street and much of the surroundings, to revitalise the central part of the city that radiates from Piccadilly Circus, which has somehow managed to remain seedy, tacky and slightly unappealing to the very Londoners who should see it as the city’s heart.
The site is a huge chunk of rusticated imperial pomp, like a block of cheese into which a particular vision of London at the height of empire and grandeur has been carved. But it is also my favourite fragment of London, a site where the city, almost for the first time, embraced an architectural grandeur born of classical confidence and late beaux arts competence. John Nash, who planned Regent Street, executed it as a jerry-built developers’ terrace. Its Parisian scale comes down to us from Sir Reginald Blomfield, an Edwardian architect much persuaded of his own talent. This piece of city encompasses the wonderful Piranesian theatricality of Air Street, which creates a stygian arch bridging the commercial luxury of Regent Street with the grimy backstreets of Soho.
The architect of the Café Royal revamp is Sir David Chipperfield, designer of museums across the world from Anchorage to Yorkshire. His most notable success has been Berlin’s Neues Museum, where his meticulous and thoughtful revivification of the building has proven a critical cornerstone in the city’s constantly shifting image of itself. At the Café Royal, Chipperfield has brought London’s cityscape into the interiors. He has sucked that chunky, imperial, cheese-like quality of the external stone rustication into the heart of the hotel.
The walls of each room are inscribed with the faceted ashlar blocks characteristic of the area. This is very little like the luxury hotel of our jaded collective memory. Instead, there are walls of creamy plaster, and baths and vanity units carved from solid stone. The architecture of Regent Street has been sucked inside the rooms so that the views out – the extraordinary gaze down Lower Regent Street and up Regent Street, the flickering sparkle of Piccadilly reflected like the buzzing neons in a seedy film noir boarding house – are framed by architecture rather than interior, by a solid mass instead of the usual paper-thin veneer of globalised interior design. Chipperfield refers to “making the walls active rather than passive”.
While most of the rooms may be new – the Café Royal building used to have a hotel called Oddenino but it closed decades ago – there is still plenty of historical grain to ensure the new hotel stays anchored to its site. The famous Grill Room, with its lavish ballroom mirrors, painted ceiling panels and rococo plaster has been revamped and reheated. The absurd gold Francophile grandeur of the Pompadour Suite has been refreshed with new gilding and restored paintings, while the extraordinary Domino Room still sparkles like a mad dreamscape dripping with gold and reflected ad infinitum in its mirrors. It is fairytale architecture.
The Ten Room, once the public focus of the hotel, is to become a dining room again and its deco-Egyptian details have been recreated to make a galleried hall that brings the buzz back towards the street. The lobby downstairs is resolutely contemporary, as is the pool and Akasha Holistic Wellbeing Centre and the new Café 1865.
What Chipperfield has achieved is the creation of a hotel that appears neither globally branded nor overly fashionable, neither too minimal nor fussily overdetailed. It is, instead, composed of a complex, rich series of interiors that belong to London. A hotel is, in a way, a kind of public space. Claridge’s, the Ritz, the Savoy – each has become a distinctive part of the cityscape, their lobbies and lounges, cafés and bars aimed both at tourists and residents. Chipperfield and hotelier Georgi Akirov are keen to stress that the Café Royal, with its pivotal position, should be a place not just for visitors but for Londoners. The architect says he deliberated on “what makes a room ‘London’”. In its cocktail of minimal chic, luxurious detail and surface brought from the outside in, I think he has found it.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
www.hotelcaferoyal.com; doubles from £450
Facelift for a little-loved London landmark
The reborn Café Royal is part of a transformation of the area around Piccadilly by landowners, the Crown Estate. The famous old saw that if you stand in Piccadilly Circus long enough, you’d eventually meet everyone you’ve known has, like most clichés, some truth in it. The problem is, you really wouldn’t want to stand there too long. This traffic and tourist-clogged interchange is the centre of the city and can be difficult to avoid but Londoners will do their best.
Piccadilly Circus, a once elegant plaza, was demoted in the 1880s to an ill-shaped traffic junction leavened only by the underscaled, fragile and naked Eros (pictured) at its centre. The illuminated signs went up at the start of the 20th century and have got brighter and brasher since. While it never suffered the aggressive seediness of New York’s Times Square at its squalid nadir in the 1970s, Piccadilly Circus was similarly defined by a particular cocktail of tourist tat, titty bars and traffic.
All that has now changed. The grimy grandeur of the Regent Palace Hotel, once Europe’s biggest hotel, has been replaced by commercial buildings by architects Dixon Jones. Its buildings, spanning the blocks between Sherwood and Brewer streets, are faced in faience, a lovely London material that has been out of fashion for almost a century but one that used to be perfectly suited to London’s grimy atmosphere. The buildings butt up against the creamy classicism of Regent Street with real dignity. The underpass that runs through the block and could have been a dark, unappealing space has, instead, been mirror-clad by artist Daniela Schönbächler to create a series of refracting theatrical perspectives. A few remarkable fragments of the Regent Palace survive – notably its cavernous basement restaurant, one of London’s finest art deco interiors, now remade as Brasserie Zédel.
The backs of buildings around here have been remade as a prestige shopping street. I was nervous that this end of Soho would lose its character and become colonised by the ubiquitous glassy chain stores. Instead, the Crown Estate has managed to maintain a particular London quality, solid, slightly stolid but also weighty and urbane. At the same time, architect Eric Parry is building a big new block on Piccadilly between Lower Regent Street and Eagle Place, its façade expressed in classical proportions but stripped back and raw, its flatness relieved by a striking polychromatic cornice from artist Richard Deacon. This kind of regeneration can reduce the complex character of an urban set to a caricature, stripping it of its smell and texture. Yet here is a reason why not all change should be resisted, this backstreet counterpart to West End pomp remains as alive and characteristically London as ever.