In the nineties mischievous young Londoners considered it witty to thieve the iconic ashtrays from Quaglino’s restaurant—it made for a kind of in-joke when you later spotted the pilfered bit of aluminum on a friend’s coffee table. For our money, the object to swipe in 2008 is the outsize oatmeal-colored cotton egg cozy at the new-look Connaught Hotel. Like some whimsical detail you might find at the Mad Hatter’s tea party (albeit in Mayfair), it’s all the more amusing because of the neat, understated Englishness of everything else on the crisp, linen-covered breakfast table: stone and white Wedgwood china, Arthur Price cutlery, and a three-tier continental-breakfast stand bearing a poised collection of cold meats, smoked fish, cheeses, and a sliver of quince jelly. For the eggs, we’re given a choice: duck or hen. And the jam? Bramble and apple preserve handcrafted by Elspeth Biltoft at Rosebud Farm in Masham, North Yorkshire. Each detail is too delicious. (We peer beneath the egg cozy: The three-and-a-half-minute egg has been perfectly beheaded, the yolk soft and warm beneath its chic hand-stitched cocoon).
“With every decision, we’ve respected the Connaught’s English core,” says Stephen Alden, CEO of the Maybourne Hotel Group, which owns the property, along with Claridge’s and the Berkeley. “Whimsy has its place as part of a confident tone—but no gimmicks. Every detail had to make a difference to the guest; otherwise we weren’t interested.”
By the time it closed for renovation early last year, the Connaught was the “blue rinse” grand dame of Mayfair. But despite looking past her prime (the interiors were exhausted) she somehow staggered along, propped up by a couple of good crutches: a ferociously loyal clientele (more than 55 percent American) and an exceptional restaurant.
When Maybourne purchased the hotel in 2004, it knew it would have to spend. The group committed $140 million, brought Alden on board, and has now produced Maybourne’s “first expression,” as Alden calls it, of the group’s very particular approach to luxury.
And what timing! The immediate locale on Carlos Place and Mount Street has suddenly turned into one of London’s most fashionable villages. Within a 30-second walk you’ve got Scott’s fish restaurant—the latest showpiece from the team behind Le Caprice and Ivy— plus a gallery from Timothy Taylor and London’s first Marc Jacobs store. And Balenciaga, Christian Louboutin, and Dunhill will all arrive later this year, securing the fashion factor for this erstwhile stuck-in-the-mud pocket of Victorian Mayfair.
Fashion, thankfully, hasn’t too swayed the Connaught’s renovation, the first phase of which was completed in December (we visited in January, when the hotel was accepting a few regulars). As you enter, to one side there’s a bar by Paris-based designer India Mahdavi; it’s already open, with double-width armchairs upholstered in aubergine velvet and some frivolous Julian Opie paintings. On the other side there’s a new glass-walled extension that sweeps out onto the curve of Carlos Place. This is the all-day- dining restaurant done by the New York duo Sills Huniford. The pair also renovated the understated lobby, the centerpiece of which remains its iconic five-floor, 1897 solid mahogany staircase (if you recognize it from the Madison Avenue Ralph Lauren flagship, that’s because it’s a replica of the Connaught’s).
Upstairs there are 88 rooms and suites restored by British designer Guy Oliver; we stayed in no. 105, a light and spacious suite overlooking Carlos Place. Oliver is André Balazs’s former head of design and is responsible for the staterooms at 10 Downing Street as well as various Kremlin apartments. The suites have the authentic, intimate sense of a private pied-à-terre: original fireplaces, vast mirror-lined Chinoiserie cocktail cabinets instead of minibars, and numerous antiques (about 60 percent of the Connaught’s original inventory has been reintroduced).
“We wanted it to feel like a home filled with a collection of objects built up over time—original paintings, watercolors, drawings, furniture,” Oliver says.
Again, the details make the difference. Oliver created the simple-to-use light-and-heat control panel; the Champagne flutes are by Marc Jacobs; the crystal glassware is by William Yeoward. And the huge homemade potato chips in the cocktail cabinet are made daily in the Connaught’s kitchens.
There’s much more to come: by April an intimate fine-dining restaurant and an all-organic grill, and in June the Connaught Bar, designed by David Collins (the mind behind the Berkeley’s Blue Bar). By the end of 2009 the spa, indoor pool, and another 33 rooms will have made their debuts.
But for all these new directions, the Connaught has maintained its high level of old-fashioned service. Buttling, as it’s known here (the verb derived from “butler”) is headed up by Martin Binks, formerly assistant head butler at the Lanesborough. His team will be trained to shine shoes by staff at John Lobb and tend suits by staff at Kilgour, the Savile Row tailor. Your dedicated Jeeves won’t just bring complimentary coffee each morning; he will also deliver every room-service order, personalizing the entire experience. When we hand him a shirt for pressing and we tell him we’re pressed for time, he hunts us down in the bar when it’s ready.
This level of attention is possible because of the Connaught’s intimate size (smaller than the Dorchester, for instance, and certainly less flashy). But that is what defines the Connaught: You don’t come here to hang out and be seen in the lobby—as you might at Claridge’s—or take tea in a touristic way as you would at the Ritz. At the Connaught, you have friends back to your suite and give a little impromptu drinks party in private, which is why the hotel still feels something like a club.
“We’re the custodians of a unique spirit,” says general manager Anthony Lee. “Our guests bounce around the world in planes. They’ve stayed with us because we understand how they crave roots. That remains the most important thing we can deliver—an English home. We’ll look after their wardrobes so they can travel with hand luggage; we’ll make and store their bespoke dressing gowns. It’s part of our DNA. The challenge of this renovation has been to keep these regulars happy while attracting the next generation.”
We think they might just get away with it. This has much to do with Lee, who has worked at the Connaught for almost three decades and is only the hotel’s seventh GM in 110 years. He’s carried Grace Kelly’s bags to the penthouse, sipped a martini with Cary Grant, and walked Lauren Bacall’s pooch Sophie. Another of Lee’s regulars is Elaine S. Ramson, an impossibly stylish New Yorker who has been coming to the hotel twice a year for the last 40 years. “Part of my great affection for the Connaught is the lack of pretension, the warmth and welcome,” she explains. “The renovation has retained that essence. And so in June I’ll be returning with my granddaughter. I’ll just have to not think too hard about the exchange rate. But to be honest,”—this said in a conspirational tone—“the Connaught is one thing in London that’s still worth it.” Rooms are from $950 to $10,400 (44-207/499-7070; the-connaught.co.uk).