24-Hour Room Service: The Athenæum, London
Saturday 06 February 2010
Tricky things, families. Two weeks before our stay at the Athenæum, an emailed questionnaire sent by the hotel revealed just how little I knew about my own. What were our favourite snack items, they wondered. Our preferred drinks? Did my wife and I enjoy theatre, fashion, or cars? Which games console did we favour for our "in-room comfort"? Which cartoons did we like? And could I provide a complete list of all our birthdays, please?
We're only staying for one night, I wanted to reply. A bit of dinner, perhaps, and then early to bed with a Roald Dahl story. Instead, by the time I'd finished filling in the form I appeared to have booked us in for a hectic whirl of self-indulgence where we'd be necking vast quantities of sauvignon blanc and/or Ribena, while demanding popcorn and smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres into the small hours and watching looped re-runs of Top Gear and Scooby-Doo. Thank goodness it wasn't any of our birthdays.
But there's a serious point to all this, one that the Athenæum's newly instituted "kids' concierge" service is designed to address. Hotels in central London are not the most welcoming places for youngsters, particularly the energetic seven- and four-year-old sort that I find myself travelling with. The more distractions available, the better. Hence the questionnaire, designed "to enhance" our stay.
On arrival we were greeted by Diana, who – thanks to the questionnaire – knew Jamie and Pete's names without asking. She was there, she said, to make sure we settled in quickly.
We were staying at one of the Athenæum's 34 Victorian townhouse apartments, which have their own smart front doors at the side of the hotel, but which are also linked internally to the main building. Each contains a living room, bedroom and fully equipped kitchen. Ours was also replete with kid-friendly diversions, including a Wii console and flat-screen TV, as well as some Lego, a suspiciously clean football, and a kite. The kite was a problem, said Diana. It was a girls' kite, with fairies on it. Would that be OK with our boys? Why the hotel had opted to buy gender-specific kites was slightly beyond me, but we said we'd muddle through. After all, the fridge was stocked with complimentary soft drinks and there was a promise of milk and cookies at bed time.
The Athenæum is towards the Hyde Park end of Piccadilly, with the child-friendly museums of South Kensington a bus ride away, the shops of Knightsbridge even nearer, and the bright lights of theatre-land in the opposite direction. Basically, your near neighbours are the Queen (Buckingham Palace is a brisk walk away across Green Park) and Eros: quite a pair.
The site was developed in the 1970s when the Rank Organisation converted the existing block of apartments into a hotel, at the same time enticing an impressive roster of Hollywood stars to stay. Since 1994, the Athenæum has been in private hands, with a recent £7m makeover adding floor-to-ceiling windows and Juliet balconies to the rooms. A striking new "living wall" created by French architectural botanist Patrick Blanc rises at the hotel's south-western corner; otherwise, the façade is too blocky to be easy on the eye.
The Mayfair address means space is at a premium. The reception area is on the poky side, but Martin Hulbert of interior design company Fox Linton has managed to maintain a surprising sense of light. There's also a boisterous Englishness here: rows of tiny Perspex boxes on the walls are filled with lead soldiers, or models of double-decker buses. The fabrics veer towards velvet and tweed, but the design notes are contemporary rather than fusty: black-and-white photos on the walls of the restaurant celebrate British food. The whisky bar, meanwhile, is a snug den, with 250 different drams to choose from. A smart spa lurks in the basement.
The apartments run the gamut from Churchillian traditionalist to light-hearted modern. Ours was daubed with bubble shapes on the walls and contained lots of stylish red plastic shelving, an arcade game that doubled as a coffee table, and an imposing white-clad sofa, with arm-rests that rose almost to the ceiling. The bedroom was small but cosy, with a dinky en-suite bathroom that glittered in reflective tiles. The boys, decked out in child-sized dressing gowns, were quite happy to be relegated to a sofa bed.
The 122 bedrooms in the main building are more restrained, with the English motifs of the public spaces still in place. Many have impressive views of Green Park – just so long as you ignore the busy dual carriageway of Piccadilly.
Flavoursome English tradition pervades the restaurant's menu as well: my starter of watercress soup came with a poached egg and steamed haddock; the main course was guinea fowl with braised red cabbage. (A two-course menu is available for £22.50 per head; the "Kiddie Fest" version is £9 per main course.) At night, the small dining room seemed convivial and warm, but its constrained dimensions mean that breakfast (priced from £22) is less successful, with various guests grumbling about the long wait for a table. Luckily, families tend to be early risers: we beat the rush.
The Athenæum, 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1 (020 7499 3464; athenaeumhotel.com )
Doubles from £211.50, room only. Over the weekends of February half term, apartments from £352, room only (maximum four people).
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