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 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.”
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
The Apartment master bedroom