News & Reviews Europe England Review: The Berkeley, London

The Berkeley entrance

The Berkeley entrance

The Berkeley, London
Room type: Deluxe King
Duration: 7th > 8th October
Booked with: Direct with hotel

I know The Berkeley very, very well. Between 2012 and 2013, I was here 2-3 times a week. I’m so familiar with the place that I was able to recognise staff on their televised publicity in the room – staff that had left 3 years ago. Even though I switched to staying at The Connaught (they share the same owners: Maybourne, whom also own Claridges) at the end of 2013, due to my preference of the location, service and spa, The Berkeley will always hold fond memories for me, particularly in the people I met there and, most impressively, their staff turnover is remarkably low for the industry, so many of the staff are still there. The transformation over the last few years has been quite incredible, even before Qatari money came in after they take a majority stake in 2015. I was invited to their pre-launch of The Blue Bar back in June; upon walking through the door, I was  greeted by a new member of staff, who then asked who the hell I was as so many people would come up to me and talk to me, even though I had not been there all year. It does make it quite hard to be so critical of a place when I know so many people, but luckily I do not feel The Berkeley’s issues are with those people, nor does it have many issues, but it still would not be my #1 choice for London.

This was our first stay since June ’15 and therefore the first since they reopened after their grand refurbishment in June ’16.

Pre-sales

I only came back to The Berkeley to try a first floor room, having had a brief look around after they re-opened from their refurb and very much admiring the look and feel of them.  To get this room was like pulling teeth.  I dealt with 4 different sales agents, with each repeating the same line that they cannot guarantee me the room.  I appreciate the sentiment of under promising and over delivering, but the only reason I wanted to stay in the hotel was to try this room type.  After much begging and the reception team constantly pushing back with the same messages (even though I’ve stayed over 150 times between The Berkeley + The Connaught), they did come through and deliver what I wanted with my own, shiny, first floor room.

Getting there

Easy access from the Piccadilly Line via Hyde Park Corner (sensible choice) or Knightsbridge Station (not so sensible choice), you will be right in the heart of one of London’s premier areas for shopping (Harrords) and food (multiple Michelin star restaurants).  Whilst not quite as appealing as Mayfair, you’re not going to find yourself amongst the riff raff, so kudos for your choice.

Setting

It is hard to find the words to describe The Berkeley.  Historically a classical designed hotel, yet with very little left now resembling that.  It has been going through refurbishments ever since we began staying there, yet somewhere along the way it all went a bit haywire and has now ended up as some giant amalgamation of some Dr. Suess dream, or nightmare, depending on your view point.  I’m rather fond of it.

The entrance is one area I have yet to warm to.  Not only aesthetically you have to wonder what on earth they were thinking, but practically it does nothing to achieve what was missing previously.  They really missed an opportunity.  The best hotels have the sense of being home, yet one where you’re greeted by your insane, hyperactive dog that elevates all the feelings linked to joy.  You walk in through the main doors, see familiar faces, get a warm welcome and know exactly where to go.  I assumed The Berkeley refurb was designed to fix this, as previously you would walk in, have no one to greet you and not know where you should go to get to reception.  It had all the enthusiasm of a late night disco in a retirement home.  After being closed for 5 months and untold millions spent, they decided to do absolutely nothing about this issue.  Bravo.  Reception is still in the same place and the entrance, whilst designer with warmer colours, is still vacant of staff.

Now let’s compare the different floors and the dichotomies of The Berkeley.


1st floor rooms


1st floor corridor


1st floor stairs entrance

The first floor is rather nice, I must say. Now let’s take a peek at the second floor.


2nd floor stairs entrance. What…just happened?


2nd floor corridor. Did the designer have a stroke?

The Berkeley remains most obscure for the fact that you now have so many different room types within a single hotel; the first floor is all Japanese design, the second floor like some sex dungeon, traditional designs on other floors and then god knows what elsewhere. Still, makes it interesting.

Rooms

First impressions were positive: I like the design, the shower controls after out of the way of the shower head, so you avoid the initial water freeze (Park Hyatt, Sydney was the same), they avoid the annoying push-to-release plug mechanism and it includes a Toto toilet to finish the Japanese feel – the feeling is very Aman Tokyo-esq.

Where it goes wrong is the minor fact that it clearly was not finished and this only took an additional 10 seconds to spot. Whoever snagged the room needs to get their eyes checked, as the finishing was amongst the worst I’ve ever seen in a luxury hotel. All of the plastering at the top of the entire bathroom was missing; the shower and toilet walls still had bits of rubber attached to them, along with large amounts of dust, cracks and rigid surfaces. It’s not going to ruin my stay, but as I insisted on a first floor room, staff did ask me what I thought of the room, so I told them. Someone came up within a few minutes to take a look and agreed entirely that it just was not finished. Management promised to look into who signed it off. I think I just made their Monday a lot worse.

The more time I spent in the room, the more issues became apparent, such as the TV being on the side of the wall without anyway of pulling it out, meaning you cannot watch it from bed. The chairs were not very comfy to sit in; there was no desk, yet had a dining table that was too small to eat at; the lighting system is brand new, but isn’t easy to follow – turning it on “Dim” in the morning was like someone blasting sun into my eyes. Even privacy was an issue, as there were no window sheets, so people could look into your room unless the blinds were down, but if they were down it was completely dark.  Until the next stage of their refurb is finished, you will notice staff walking into their outdoor freezer, so the balconies become even more pointless, unless you want them to join in with with your conversations.  The poor finishing in the bathroom is inexcusable.

It needs to be noted that the room I stayed in is exclusively for the 1st floor. The other rooms are completely different, which is why it’s such a strange setup; you could book a room and end up with any number of different styles. With The Connaught you can end up in the contemporary wing or the classic wing, which would likely be something that would be strongly advised for people staying to look into before hand, in case they had a strong preference to one or the other. With The Berkeley, I know the first floor is completely different to the second floor and the 8th and 5th are different too. It’s been too long since we stayed on the other floors for me to comment with any authority now, but my point is that you are almost staying at a hotel within a hotel. It must be inevitable that a lot of people are disappointed with their room choice, as what they have seen on the website/brochures does not match what they get on arrival.

Amenities

At 203 rooms, The Berkeley is neither massive, nor particularly small.  It offers what you would expect to find in the majority of luxury 5 star hotels, but stands out through the quality of the design and sheer quality of everything on offer.

  • Blue Bar
  • Collins Room – hotel restaurant
  • Small business center
  • Rooftop swimming pool
  • Gym
  • Marcus, a 2 Michelin star restaurant
  • Koffmans restaurant


The completely refurbished Collins room, previously called The Caramel Room


Collins room extension


Collins room extension


New entrance. Like marmite: loved or hated.  


Main entrance


Refurbished Blue Bar


Blue Bar


Blue Bar extension


Blue Bar extension

Spa

Apparently you are not allowed to take photos of the spa. So here’s one I took.


Rooftop pool – the roof will be open on better days

The spa is one of the areas that was refurbished a few years ago, where they changed their product range to Bamford Haybarn and decided to restyle with lighter colours and heavy use of wood.  Also introduced was separate male and female steam and sauna rooms.  I always find it a shame when they separate them, as it’s less time to spend with your partner.  I understand why, but it would be nice if they had separate and a shared area.  They’ve still yet to remove the need to sign-in, but their latest and greatest improvement is free tea to all guests, which is about as British as it comes.

The pool itself is beautiful, as are the views, but The Berkeley is designed for families, so enjoy the visual stimulation, whilst ignoring the audible.  It could not be more different than the Aman spa at The Connaught, where you will be lucky to ever see anyone and children are restricted to 2, two hour slots of the day.  Children are most welcome, even if the floor is so slippery that one family was playing the infamous “catch the baby and prevent it slipping onto its face” game.  I left them to enjoy the pool themselves, as I’m all heart.  Ok, it’s cos I did not dare get in, as I find almost every swimming pool on earth to be too cold.  But I have tried it plenty before, back in my youthful days (3 years ago) when being cold for 10 seconds was something I could handle.  Halcyon days indeed.

Tea by the spa pool.

Tea by the spa pool.

Activities

What you do in your spare time in a city hotel is none of my business.

Food

Between Koffmans (sadly due to close this month), Marcus and The Collins Room, The Berkeley offers the best food selection of any London hotel. Both at The Connaught and The Berkeley, they have reduced their main restaurants menus down to just a single page, but are still prepared to make anything off menu. I love The Berkeley’s dover sole (far better than anything at other sea restaurants, like Scotts), so they were able to prepare this for me, even though it did take them over an hour to do so. The breakfast buffet is beautiful, but small. Breakfast has never been a highlight of The Berkeley, but now not even the menu had anything that appealed, so I just took a selection from the buffet. I was going to walk up to The Lanesborough for breakfast there, but as I had not eaten here in nearly a year I wanted to try it again.

I have been to Marcus approximately 20 times before, including a highly memorable Christmas Day meal in 2012 with my dad and my girlfriend. I would switch between Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsays Royal Hospital Road for client events and dinners, so know it fairly well. Since it had the refurb and became Marcus, I have only been 4 times. The first was the week it opened and I felt their new casual approach took it to the extreme and they became too laid back, with limited service and no memorable dishes. We went back a few months later and had a fantastic meal, so then took our friends last year and found it memorable only for being unmemorable. That makes sense to me. So the only reason we were there on Friday night was due to some new friends we made in North Island wanting to try it. Luckily it seemed everything was at its peak on Friday night and after 8 courses + cheese, I’m happy to say it’s back to its best, or near enough to it. The only let down was the desserts weren’t mind blowing, but every other dish was exactly to all our liking and would mean I will return again soon.


Breakfast buffet. Many points for presentation, not so many for variety.

Breakfast buffet bakery.

Breakfast buffet bakery.

Service

As noted, The Connaught and The Berkeley have the same owner and therefore share a lot, such as the same booking system, so they can see exactly how many nights I’ve stayed at all the properties.  I don’t expect to be treated like some god (although if you’re reading this, Maybourne, I won’t hold it against you if you do), but would not have expected the hassle in booking the room in the first place, as someone who is such a long standing, frequent customer.  They clearly had no recognition when I first got in touch, as they were asking for my credit card details, even though they have them already.  The whole booking procedure was an unusual hassle, all for something that I would consider an easy request.  If they cannot guarantee a room type in a hotel that is so diverse, they are going to disappoint a large amount of their customer base who look on the website to pick a room type, only to turn up and receive something completely different.

This was not a great intro, but I could oversee it.  The problems become when you run a hotel of this size, but the team is clearly understaffed and struggling under the weight of expectations of the new owners, who seem intent to penny pinch in staff, whilst over investing in the infrastructure.  It is no surprise that the rumours of a sale are prominent between The Berkeley and The Connaught, with each thinking it is themselves who will be sold from Maybourne.

  • The Connaught has a stay list for me that has everything setup exactly how I want, right down to the Tempur pillows they purchased me. As you’d expect after 100 stays, this is rather detailed. I didn’t bother mentioning anything to The Berkeley, as I wanted to see what they would do. They did nothing. If anyone ever had an advantage on how to treat a guest, it was now. The hotels are 10 minutes apart in a taxi, so even sending the pillow over would not have been that hard, but at least providing the basics of the list would have been a good start.
  • On a better note, one of the staff I’ve known for over 4 years went and contacted me on Facebook at the beginning of the day to mention he saw I was checking in and wondered if I was free for a catch-up drink.
  • The Berkeley and The Connaught send out emails the day before arrival to ask when you will arrive. I responded to say 2pm, to which they said they might not be able to guarantee it as normal check-in as at 3pm, but they will do their best. On arrival they said they were expecting me at 6pm. They did overcome this by giving me access to another room for 2 hours to finish some conference calls I needed to take part in.
  • When I got the room key, no one showed me to the room.
  • As The Berkeley could not give us a 4pm checkout and we were hanging around London, we asked the concierge (ex-Connaught staff who knows us very well) if they could ask The Connaught spa if we could go there for a few hours. I don’t want to be taking the piss by just showing up when we’re not paying to stay there, but they had absolutely no problem at all with it. We even got a wonderful welcome on arrival.
  • I decided to say hello to the Hotel Manager, who has been there for ~5 years. As The Berkeley was one of the first luxury hotels I ever stayed in, I did not have the same expectations as I do now. Even though he had been there for 5 years, we had never spoken. When I had a brief chat and he could tell that I knew everyone, I think he felt a bit embarrassed by this fact.
  • On checkout the duty manager came to apologise about the room. He mentioned how he always saw our name on the list but had never had a chance to come say hello. I last stayed in June ’15, so probably worth checking facts first.
  • The luggage took over 15 minutes to arrive as well, as somehow they got completely confused by the process.

Worth Knowing

There are massive changes coming to The Berkeley now that Koffmans is closing. Depending who you hear it from, it’s either being turned into a spa/swimming pool and the top pool is being used for some super apartment, or it’s going to be turned into a series of extra rooms and another restaurant.

The Good

  • Excellent location

The Bad

  • Service needs to improve
  • The finishing of our room was inexcusable

The Luxurious

  • Incredible food selection
  • Superb spa and roof top pool

Conclusion

The Berkeley offers fantastic food, great location, a large variety of rooms that may or may not suit your taste (I’ll have to hope it’s a one off mistake with our room), London’s one-and-only rooftop pool and a wonderful bar and spa. The issue, and the main reason we left The Berkeley, is the service. There are some real gems within the staff, but not enough that can cope with the room count. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the best hotels in London for service are those with a lower room count: The Connaught, The Goring and The Beaumont.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 16th Oct '16

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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