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  1. Wealth
November 30, 2012

Hard Hats at the Cafe Royal

By Spear's

For a hotel opening, or rather re-opening, its doors to the public on Wednesday, Mark Nayler did not expect that his hard-hat tour would involve, well, hard hats

Until I was shown around the soon-to-be opened Café Royal I hadn’t been on a building site before. So for a hotel opening, or rather re-opening, its doors to the public on Wednesday, I expected it to be slightly more finished than it was.

I was assured, however, that the noisy chaos surrounding me – builders yelling to each other over the high pitched whine of saws and constant banging – was evidence of a building team putting the ‘finishing touches’ to the hotel.

‘This,’ said our tour guide, as we were shown into a cavernous space full of pieces of furniture wrapped in plastic, ‘will be the main entrance and restaurant.’ The revolving doors, through which the first guests will pass after an exhausting day’s Christmas shopping on Regent Street, give straight on to the dining area, which doesn’t sound ideal.

David Chipperfield Architects, however, have been innovative in many of their design touches for the Café Royal; elegant marble pillars, about five feet high, enclose the dining area and separate it from the surrounding foyer, but not to the extent that people-watching is impossible.

Opened as a bar and restaurant by a bankrupt French wine merchant in 1865, the Royal was a great favourite of the great and good during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Taylor and Winston Churchill all being regular visitors.

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For these celebrities, the Royal offered a place to escape the intrusions and pressures of public life; in its plush gold and red drawning and smoking rooms they could gossip, dance, drink, smoke and get up to all sorts of mischief. Some got a little carried away: after an afternoon’s boozing and banter at the Royal in 1895, Wilde launched a libel trial against the Marquis of Queensbury, his lover Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, for accusing him of sodomy.

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We saw one completed bar/dining area, much as it would have been in Wilde’s day, with deep reds and gold, grand mirrors and glistening chandeliers. The modern touch – sleek red leather sofas and chairs found by one of the architects at an Italian market – blended in with the classical features seamlessly. This windowless space felt far away from the bustle of Oxford and Regent Streets, making it perfect for quietness and contemplation as well as iniquity: indeed, it is where Winston Churchill anxiously awaited the general election results in May 1940.

Care has been taken throughout the hotel to combine the building’s original features with more modern touches. Donald Insall Associates were responsible for restoring the hotel’s 159 rooms and suites; in a standard double I saw, the original floor-to ceiling windows, offering a strangely calm view over the frenzy of Piccadilly Circus, had been retained. The rest of the room was ultra-modern in style, with some extravagantly modern touches such as heated walls and a bathroom entirely decked out in marble.

Once the builders are out and the doors are open, the Royal promises to be something quite special – a dash of colourful history and grandeur in an otherwise anodyne part of town. Go along, order yourself a Martini and misbehave a little.

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