Hotel Cafe Royal, London
Room type: Grand Deluxe King
Duration: 18th > 19th August, 2016
Booked with: Directly with hotel
I noticed on LinkedIn that one of the longest serving, friendliest and most professional members of the reception team at The Connaught had taken up the position of Reception Manager at Hotel Cafe Royal. Having thought about staying here for a while, this seemed as clear a sign as there might be. So a few messages back and forth and a few days later I found myself with a room. It turns out that social media does actually have a purpose beyond proving to everyone that either your life or your cats life is better than theirs. I now have an excuse to be on Facebook all day.
Less than a minute walk from Piccadilly Circus tube station – a station I can only speculate was specifically built to be as close as possible to M&Ms World – you certainly cannot complain that it is a struggle to find. Right in the heart of the West-end and the spiritual tourists home to at least half the earths population, some may consider this hell on earth. Others may consider this just hell. I’m somewhat in the middle. I’m not saying I hated it, but I would have rather been in the middle of the London riots. Even with our famous British Summers that are as dry as an Irish funeral, you would have no concerns walking to any of London’s best theatres. Furthermore, you are surrounded by shops, restaurants and can feel the buzz of London. On the other hand, you can feel the buzz of London.
The bustling and aptly named (Piccadilly) Circus area does not give the opportunity to offer the warmest of welcomes. With 2 entrances to the hotel – one directly off Regent Street that leads into the open foyer, and and the other off a side road that opens into their main restaurant and lounge area, I of course picked the door without any doorman and no one in the lobby. I took my usual reserved approach of refusing to ask anyone where to go, and just tried to work it out myself, although I did wonder whether I was in the right place to begin with, due to the lack of signs, staff and any clear indication of a reception area. Hotel Cafe Royal currently suffers from the poor entrance that lacks any warmth, then a strange dichotomy where it’s too intimate during the narrow corridors of the concierge and reception area and feels like you’re being watched. In the same way that stampede of tourists outside will not give you the impression of the serenity you will experience inside, not only from the open spaces and lack of people, but the stunning interiors.
Fortunately, I was made aware of their plans to recreate this space and turn it into the reception area, which is definitely the best usage of this space. Well, second to a ball pit, albeit not as practical. The entrance to a city hotel is one of the most underrated elements, as it encapsulates the feeling you get, not only as a first impression, but on every subsequent time you enter the hotel. The Berkeley suffered from this, not only physically, but psychologically with their cold entrance, where the reception diverted to one side and there was never anyone within the lobby to give you a sense of direction and welcome. Even with their recent expensive refurb they’ve failed to understand this. The Connaught epitomises the idea of a perfect entrance, with its intimacy, warmth and decoration, combined with the private road and location preventing too many street wanderers. With Hotel Cafe Royal, I have sympathy for the doormen, as I can only imagine that it’s nigh on impossible to decide who is passing and who is a genuine customer and how to interact with them. Fortunately it’s not my job to work out how they can do it, but I do know they need to improve it.
From the above a photo of the main lobby, you likely already have an image in your mind of what the rooms will look like. Yet I can smugly tell you that you’re wrong.
See? Not really what you had in mind, was it? It sure wasn’t what I was expecting, which is a reflection of how my research was solely focused on the spa. Luckily I loved the modern, minimalist design. For one of the lower end rooms, it was certainly generous in the space offered (40sqm) and the design enhanced this feeling even more. The bathroom is beautiful, with high ceilings, a large bathtub and marble galore.
The room had a Bang & Olufsen TV, which is a personal hate of mine and something I cannot understand why hotels persist with. They take nearly a minute to turn on, which is about 15 seconds for the light to turn on, and then the swivel movement where the TV turns to face you, that acts like a geriatric Transformer that has run out of batteries. Otherwise, all the other tech has been carefully thought out, with the lighting and heating system amongst the easiest I’ve ever used. Brownie points are rarely given for a lighting system being idiot proof, but I’ll make a special exception here. The desk has a selection of different plugs and adapters, including USB for easily charging your devices. Strangely the bedside table also has a series of plugs, but only on one side and not USB, which I would imagine would be what most people actually would use – not everyone has spent the last 10 years building up my skill set of being able to work from bed.
As some other observations:
- The door key takes some getting used to, as it was very strict in being accepted.
- The blackout curtains are easily controlled from the bedside controls, yet they do not actually close fully without manually intervening and even then light comes in around the edges.
- There was no water by the bedside tables until turndown service.
- The toilet must be made of porcupine skin, as it’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever sat on.
- Rather than hanging them up, the robes are in the cupboard and still in packaging, which is definitely not the most inviting approach. With such large bathrooms, I don’t understand why they would not hang them up.
In one of the 21st centuries least surprising twists, there is a cafe here. For a hotel with only 160 rooms and suites, it packs a punch with everything on offer; there are 3 bars, 3 restaurants and multiple lounge and dining areas. Even to the mere mortals of us, who are not staying in suites and granted access to the members club, it’s still an impressive list. Annoyingly I did not have time to try most of them, which is possibly a crime against humanity when they have a Dessert Restaurant.
What first caught my attention of Hotel Cafe Royal was its ever-growing presence amongst those infamous “top 10” lists that seem to have replaced actual news, but still I find myself reading.
Ignoring the mumbojumbo attempt to shoehorn earth, water, fire and air in the different areas of the spa like we’re in some hippie commune, the facilities on offer here are world class and amongst the best of any London hotel. I just cannot help but be impressed by the entire area, not just from the design, but how it feels it was specifically built with everything I love in mind – there is little need to leave the city for a countryside retreat. From the yoga studio, to the sauna, jacuzzi, pool, sitting areas, gym, fitness studio and even watsu pool, it is clear this was a project of love. Like all things I love, I’m still able to needlessly find faults with them, so here are some.
- My girlfriend went for a massage and asked the therapist to focus on her legs and feet, to which she responded that she would do her back instead. She repeated the request, but the therapist still insisted on her back. In their defence, the massage was actually very good, so perhaps it’s not that the customer is not always right.
- I feel they’ve missed a trick with privacy by having the seating areas within the pool all directly facing each other, so on each side you have the same layout, when it could have been staggered like on a plane so you’re not looking directly at someone. The low-lighting does help regain some privacy.
- The jacuzzi started emptying itself and spraying water everywhere, like it suddenly detected a fire and was trying to extinguish the entire area. A poor woman was in there and it started attacking her like we were in some Ghostbusters sequel.
- Just like the issue of the main reception area, the spa does not have the warmest of welcomes upon the elevator door opening, with the reception area to your left, rather than facing you to welcome you properly.
The spa is busier than both The Connaught and Bulgari (both of which it’s often a challenge to find people there), yet far more peaceful than The Corinthia. At its peak, there were around 10 people in the pool – a number certainly not high, but some of the acoustics meant it could sound quite loud at times and you could hear conversations taking place. Even though The Corinthia is hugely impressive on what is on offer, I prefer the layout and facilities here. If it was as vacant as The Connaught and slightly warmer, I would without a doubt consider it my #1 spa area within London.
This is a coin toss between going out and enjoying some of the finest theatre productions within the world, or staying in the spa all day. Spa it is.
Due to the short stay and having only had breakfast and lunch, I am not best placed to comment on this as extensively as I would like. Even so, with my limited experience, I wasn’t overly impressed. I’m unsure if the breakfast menu was that restricted as we had it included in the room rate, or that is the entire offering for everyone. I would classify their English breakfast as a highly detailed “ok”, but would unlikely order it again. The Lanesborough and The Beaumont still retain their breakfast crowns.
For lunch I tried their steak sandwich, which was perfectly cooked, but I could not help but feel that at £22 it was slightly overpriced for such a small portion. I say this as someone who is so used to Mayfair prices that I know not to give the homeless anything less than a £10 note, as they will reject it. If the hotel did not have “cafe” in its name, I would accept that you are surrounded by other restaurants and could easily choose those, but I would assume they want the business not just from their guests, but also outsiders. The prices were certainly not as obscene as they can be at The Connaught – a place that is based around the corner from one of the most famous fish restaurants in the country and charges 20-30% more than them -, but I didn’t consider it great value for money in comparison to other London hotels.
This was not going to be a normal visit. Excluding The Beaumont, I do not feel there has been any prep work prior to my arrival in any London hotel, excluding the standard stay list. I never feel I am being anticipated. Here was another story. Everyone seemed to know who we were.
I was greeted by name from the Restaurant Manager and given his business card. The GM, Thomas Kochs, formerly of Claridges, came over to say hello, which I really appreciated. I am not a high-spend customer for a city hotel, as I will rarely, if ever, book a suite. But I am a frequent customer, doing around 50 nights a year. The fact that the GM was prepared to give me his time and wanted to hear my views is testament to how much they wish to improve and how valued they made me feel. No one cares what I think, so I’m not sure if I should be impressed or worried for them. They are clearly looking for more clientele like myself though. Lord help them.
After over 50 stays at The Berkeley, I have never met the GM; over 100 at The Connaught, I’ve met the GM only several times and in each case they managed to forget me on subsequent revisits. The only time I expect to speak to the GM is at Aman’s or similar sized expensive resorts with high base prices, such as North Island.
This theme continued throughout, with frequent questions regarding how we were enjoying our stay and recommendations on what we should try. All of these were really nice touches that made us feel special. However, this was mostly focused around management and there are definitely elements of service that need polishing from other staff. The receptionist at the spa was rude to both myself and my girlfriend, in the latter case from just not thinking how to respond correctly to a question and being willing to compromise, and in my case of just not acknowledging me whilst talking to a colleague, to then simply shout out the instructions to her colleague to take care of it. I always compare any experience like this and think “how would The Connaught deal with this?” and it would have been vastly different.
Even without knowing their focus was on improving the soft product, I could spot that it needed help, but not to such an extent that it would cause me concern in returning.
There are a lot of ex-Maybourne staff here now and apparently more on the way. This is a great thing, as it will improve the service levels immensely.
- I absolutely love their elevators, which they have managed to preserve in what appears to be their original form, but completely updated them in almost every other way.
- Several times we had some drinks in Ten Room and were not asked to sign for them. For a hotel with 160 rooms, that is very impressive that they could remember that.
- If you have stayed in any luxury hotel within the last 5 years, free Internet is a given. Yet in 2016, the expectation is that it is fast too. Hotel Cafe Royal’s free Internet limits you to 1Mbps – a speed that I frequently was unable to reach, making it feel so slow I was expecting to hear a dial-up tone when I logged in. You can pay £15/d for “business Internet”, but in 2016 in a hotel with standard rooms costing north of £400/n, I would expect better. The poor performance made it hard to do some work and was easily the worst I have experienced in any London hotel.
- Hotels are becoming very generous these days with free mini bars, free movies, free snacks etc, and that wasn’t here. The small details that add an excellent sense of value. If they want to alter their client list and aim higher, these elements will help.
- Exceptional hard product. The hard bit is done – the next steps are improving the soft product.
Hotel Cafe Royal is a fantastic hotel. I love the decor, the rooms and most importantly the spa. The location is something you will either love or hate, but even if you hate it, it gives you easy access to any area of central London, whether that is walking, taking the tube or a taxi/Uber. It is clear that there is work to be done if they want to get into American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts and Virtuoso, but I have no doubt they will get there and I would return.