Wilde at heart in the capital: Café Royal, London
If Oscar Wilde had shared the view from my room at Café Royal, he might have thought the Green Fairy had been up to her old tricks again. Behind the elegant curve of the building's Portland stone exterior, which rounds off towards Oxford Circus like a Rubenesque shoulder, I pulled back the dusk-pink curtains and looked out to ... a pool of red vomit on the pavement, three men in superhero fancy dress and the hyper-illumination of Piccadilly Circus's signs bathing the stragglers in a high-definition glow. Would Wilde have been wild about supersize Samsung and Coca-Cola?
When the writer and his coterie of bohemian bons vivants held court at the Café Royal at the end of the 19th century, the gilded and mirrored brasserie looked much like the lavish rococo-style Grill Room bar that you find just off the hotel's entrance lobby today. And the absinthe that the Café Royal dispensed to Wilde & co so liberally, which once caused him to see a waiter picking tulips rather than stacking chairs, is back on the menu.
The 1865 Café Royal, which entertained all life, from royals to rogues, for almost 150 years, called its last orders in 2008. It took with it its neighbours, a Cheers theme bar and celebrity nightspot Chinawhite. The company it kept said it all: this once grand landmark – where David Bowie kissed Lou Reed and held Ziggy Stardust's retirement party in 1973, and where the ninth Marquess of Queensberry reacted violently to his son Bosie canoodling with Oscar Wilde – had faded into semi-obscurity, its sheen cruelly corroded. Now part of Israeli businessman Georgi Akirov's The Set (a collection including the Conservatorium in Amsterdam and the Lutetia in Paris), the Café Royal has been reborn as a modern heritage hotel, with two bars, a restaurant, a Continental-style café and stunning banqueting rooms that recall its glory days. A spa and members' club are yet to be unveiled.
The revival, by architect David Chipperfield, first saw the building annexe its neighbours. It was then stripped back to its bones, using old paintings, uncovered mouldings and an undisclosed sum of money to re-create the imperial confidence of its heyday. It's largely triumphant, the entrance lobby ushering you into its hushed elegance, where the last initial of the Café's Parisian founder, Daniel Nicols, is still engraved in the floor and the Grill Room glints behind a glass door.
The Ten Room restaurant is an anomaly, though. The Art Deco styling of the huge balconied space recalls an old-fashioned bingo hall and is fenced off with an austere row of marble posts. Perhaps an attempt to offset the cold energy-efficient lighting, the blood-red seating and carpet feels more like an afterthought. Still, the food is good, and not too fussy – the beef broth with hen's egg, oxtail and chicken dumpling, or Dover sole meunière democratically pitched to attract a spectrum of patrons as the Café Royal once did, even if the ambitious prices suggest otherwise.
And it looks as if the bons vivants are coming back. The hotel opened quietly in December and still has work to do before it's complete, but it has already hosted L'Wren Scott's London Fashion Show (attended by her partner Mick Jagger), a Dazed & Confused party and a pop-up members' club for Miu Miu. Now all it needs is some good old-fashioned scandal to seal its renaissance.
Regent Street is the dividing line between Soho and Mayfair, and the seediness of the former is disappearing as the Crown Estate's £1bn regeneration project continues to tidy up the area. The hotel is in the pulsating heart of London, a short walk from restaurants and bars, theatres, cinemas and shopping. The Tube is just a stumble away, with connections to King's Cross and Waterloo railway stations, as well as Heathrow.
The original Café Royal didn't have bedrooms, so these have been fashioned from former offices. The faceted stone slabs that line the walls give the press shots an institutional look. But the concept is rather clever: Chipperfield has brought the vernacular architecture inside, repeating Regent Street's Portland stone-scape on the walls, and similarly in the floor-to-ceiling Carrara-marble bathrooms. And when you're inside, the effect is cocooning, with added warmth from smoked oak parquet floors, copper-framed frosted glass panelled doors and pale, feminine colours. The rooms are generous, the design uncluttered but not cold – it's not fashionable or fussy but will age gracefully. Meanwhile, half a dozen historic suites, whose design will chime with the Grill Room, are in the throes of completion.
Café Royal, 68 Regent Street, London W1B 5EL (020-7406 3322; caferoyal.com).
Doubles start at £360, room only
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