TOP OF THE TOWN

THE LAST WORD IN LON­DON HO­TELS HAS SHED ITS SNIFFY RE­STRIC­TIONS TO AT­TRACT A MORE FAB­U­LOUS CROWD. WISH WENT BE­HIND THE SCENES TO ASK THE PEO­PLE WHO MAKE THE CON­NAUGHT TICK.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY DAVID MEAGHER POR­TRAITS JAMES CANT

The cen­tral stair­case at The Con­naught in Lon­don’s May­fair is un­doubt­edly the ho­tel’s most fa­mous in­ter­nal fea­ture, not least be­cause it’s the first thing a guest no­tices when they en­ter the lobby. It’s also a thing of great ar­chi­tec­tural beauty. It’s some­thing of a ho­tel leg­end that when the Amer­i­can fash­ion de­signer Ralph Lau­ren first stayed there in the 1970s he was so en­am­oured with the tim­ber-pan­elled wind­ing stair­case that he in­stalled a replica in his Madi­son Av­enue flag­ship store.

There is, how­ever, noth­ing quite like the real thing. Even if you’re stay­ing on the ho­tel’s up­per floors, de­scend­ing via the stairs is the way to go (al­though the wood-pan­elled rac­ing-green el­e­va­tor is just as pleas­ant). It’s not just the gen­tle rise of the stairs and the plush, striped car­pet that ease your pas­sage; there’s al­ways some­thing to draw the eye. The solid teak stair­case is lined with paint­ings col­lected by the ho­tel over the years, part of a 3000-piece art col­lec­tion that is scat­tered through the ho­tel’s pub­lic spa­ces and guest rooms (which in­cludes an­tique works as well as more con­tem­po­rary items by artists such as Ju­lian Opie, Damien Hirst, Bar­bara Hep­worth and Louise Bour­geois). The works on the stairs are a com­bi­na­tion of por­traits, dogs and other an­i­mals and land­scapes. It is said that the fe­male por­traits get more beau­ti­ful as you get closer to the ground floor.

The Con­naught started life in 1815 and was formed by the joining to­gether of two houses owned by the Duke of West­min­ster. Its full name was the Prince of Saxe-Coburg Ho­tel, but it was mostly re­ferred to as the Coburg. Dur­ing World War I it was re­named the

Con­naught, after Queen Vic­to­ria’s sev­enth child, Arthur the Duke of Con­naught, pre­sum­ably to make it sound a lit­tle less Ger­man. It was in 1892 that the build­ing as it stands to­day re­ally took shape, when the own­ers of the ho­tel de­cided to re­build the two build­ings to cre­ate a newer, more sump­tu­ous es­tab­lish­ment which opened in 1897.

In 2004 the ho­tel was bought by the May­bourne Ho­tel Group which also owns Clar­idge’s on nearby Brook Street and the Berke­ley Ho­tel in Knights­bridge and it closed shortly there­after for a ma­jor £70 mil­lion re­fur­bish­ment. When the ho­tel re­opened in 2007 it in­cluded 88 rooms and suites, an en­tirely new wing, an Aman spa and pool, an in­ter­nal Ja­panese-style gar­den and a new su­per-lux­u­ri­ous 285sqm suite called The Apart­ment. A trio of in­te­rior de­sign­ers – David Collins, Guy Oliver and In­dia Mah­davi – worked on the ho­tel, with Collins re­spon­si­ble for The Apart­ment.

Be­fore the re­fur­bish­ment the ho­tel had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing clubby and re­stric­tive. The Bri­tish writer Peter Mayle ded­i­cated an en­tire chap­ter of his 1991 book, Ex­pen­sive Habits, to The Con­naught: “Even when rooms are avail­able, a reser­va­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily au­to­matic. It helps to know some­one who has stayed at the ho­tel, al­most like a ref­er­ence, just to be sure that you are the kind of per­son who will be com­fort­able with the other guests, and they with you.” There was a strict dress code in the ho­tel’s pub­lic spa­ces – men were to wear a jacket and tie in the restau­rants and bars – and con­duct­ing busi­ness in full view was frowned upon.

To­day the vibe couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent, with May­bourne hav­ing per­formed a con­jur­ing trick that must be the envy of ev­ery hote­lier in Lon­don. The Con­naught’s rooms and suites still ap­peal to the in­ter­na­tional su­per-wealthy and its three bars and two restau­rants are con­tin­u­ously pump­ing with young and old alike; con­duct­ing busi­ness here is the norm now rather than a no-no. Be­ing po­si­tioned at the end of the most fash­ion­able street in the most fash­ion­able part of Lon­don cer­tainly helps when it comes to at­tract­ing the rich and fab­u­lous. The Con­naught’s of­fi­cial ad­dress is on Car­los Place, but it wraps around the cor­ner into Mount Street, which is home to bou­tiques by Ce­line, Ba­len­ci­aga, Chris­tian Louboutin and Go­yard among oth­ers.

While the ho­tel has a fine-dining two-Miche­lin­starred restau­rant, the French-flavoured Hélène Dar­roze at The Con­naught, last year it opened the first Bri­tish out­post of Jean-Ge­orges Von­gerichten’s restau­rant em­pire, called Jean-Ge­orges at The Con­naught. The all-day diner, po­si­tioned at the front of the restau­rant and over­look­ing the sculp­ture Si­lence by Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Tadao Ando, com­mis­sioned by the ho­tel in 2011, serves a menu based on Von­gerichten’s love of Asia mixed with Bri­tish classics. In a sign of how much The Con­naught has changed since it re­opened more than a decade ago, Jean-Ge­orges also serves take­away pizza. But it’s done in a very May­fair way, with boxes de­signed by the French il­lus­tra­tor Jean Jul­lien. the-con­naught.co.uk

The Con­naught’s own­ers have per­formed a con­jur­ing trick that must be the envy of ev­ery hote­lier in Lon­don.

“Ijoined The Con­naught three weeks after the re­open­ing in 2007 and over the years I have got to know our reg­u­lar guests very well. They re­ally have one par­tic­u­lar thing in com­mon: they all love The Con­naught. They ap­pre­ci­ate it and they have a strong con­nec­tion with it. In­ter­est­ingly enough, we have a lot of guests who come here be­cause the ho­tel has a con­nec­tion to their fam­ily, so they are sec­on­dor third-gen­er­a­tion guests. And even the new guests, when they ar­rive they re­ally find it like a home. They walk into the lobby, which is cosy and at­mo­spheric with the most in­cred­i­ble stair­case, and they re­alise it’s like an old home with char­ac­ter.”

“Two pairs of socks: that’s my tip for stay­ing warm in the colder months. Ther­mals are es­sen­tial too. Gen­er­ally though, the weather isn’t that bad ex­cept when it’s rain­ing – that’s when it can be mis­er­able out here. But to be hon­est you don’t re­ally no­tice that much be­cause there’s never a dull mo­ment as a door­man. It’s a quiet bit of May­fair but there’s al­ways some­thing to see and some­thing to talk to the guests about. We have a lot of reg­u­lar guests so we get to know them a lit­tle bit but when there is an im­por­tant new guest ar­riv­ing the ho­tel might give us a lit­tle cheat sheet and some pho­tos. Of course you get to know peo­ple by name and you grad­u­ally discover lit­tle bits of in­for­ma­tion about them, so when they come back you have some­thing you can talk to them about and guests re­ally like that, they like to be re­mem­bered.”

“The thing that makes the Con­naught unique for me is the peo­ple who work here. In the last two years the team has evolved tremen­dously. The other thing is the ma­ture and in­tu­itive ser­vice we of­fer our guests. We have a ra­tio of three staff per room and we are ca­pa­ble of do­ing this be­cause we’re very gen­er­ous with the level of ser­vice we pro­vide – that’s what our owner wants us to do, and the level of clien­tele we have is very unique and they de­mand it. Another thing is our room of­fer­ing: we have tra­di­tional rooms and we have a con­tem­po­rary wing as well. And if you look at our ho­tel with 121 rooms, three bars, two restau­rants, a spa and pool ... if you come here for a week­end you don’t re­ally need to ever go out.”

“The style of ser­vice at Jean-Ge­orges at The Con­naught is a lit­tle more in­for­mal than at Hélène Dar­roze, but I’m a big be­liever that you can still give Miche­lin-star ser­vice in a restau­rant that doesn’t have a star. We try to look after our cus­tomers in the same way that Hélène does but as we are a lit­tle bit busier as we do all-day dining, so the ser­vice is a lit­tle quicker. We’ve had a lot of train­ing from the Jean-Ge­orges team in New York as they work with the staff at all their restau­rants to en­sure they all fol­low the same style – ob­vi­ously we have in­put into how we do things as Lon­don is slightly dif­fer­ent when it comes to ser­vice.”

“It’s the per­son­al­i­sa­tion of ser­vice that I think makes The Con­naught unique. I’m re­spon­si­ble for all guest re­la­tions and we like to reach out to guests a week be­fore they ar­rive to see what type of visit they are plan­ning. It’s the pre-ar­rival call that al­lows us to cre­ate the magic for them from the mo­ment they ar­rive. The front desk is where ev­ery­thing hap­pens in a ho­tel, but we try not to leave guests at the desk for longer than two to three min­utes. For very reg­u­lar guests – peo­ple who have stayed with us more than 30 times – we of­fer them no check-in or check-out, mean­ing when you ar­rive the door­man al­ready has the keys for you and you don’t even have to pass by the desk. When you check out you just leave the room.”

Mas­si­m­il­iano Binda, gen­eral man­ager

Cor­rado Bogni, head concierge

Paul Rhodes, door­man

Aman Spa Pool

Con­naught Suite liv­ing room

From top: the ex­te­rior with Tadao Ando’s Si­lence; the in­gre­di­ents dis­play at Hélène Dar­roze at The Con­naught; the Coburg Bar

Stephanie Beres­forde, as­sis­tant restau­rant man­ager, Jean-Ge­orges

Con­naught Bar

The Apart­ment mas­ter bed­room

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