Oscar Wilde, David Bowie, Winston Churchill. Mia Farrow, Brigitte Bardot and Diana, Princess of Wales. “If these walls could talk” may be an overused cliché, but it seems particularly apt for Hotel Café Royal once one discovers the incredible cast of celebrities and other notable figures who have spent time inside its rooms, restaurants, and even in and around its famous boxing ring.
Now a member of The Set Hotels group alongside the Conservatorium in Amsterdam and Hotel Lutetia in Paris, Hotel Café Royal got its start in 1865 as a café-restaurant in an old oilcloth warehouse behind Regent Street. French émigré Daniel Nicols’ Parisian-style meeting place quickly attracted notable Londoners – the Prince of Wales was a regular customer – and eventually expanded into the adjoining storefronts and warehouses.
Our black cab arrives at the hotel’s Air Street entrance, once the site of a laceman and military dressmaker until it was added to Hotel Café Royal in 1875. The modern, atrium-like lobby is the work of Italian architect Piero Lissoni, who transformed the space and upstairs restaurant in 2018.
While everything appears sleek and modern, the hotel’s colourful history begins to reveal itself once we enter the Regent Street lobby with its six-storey marble staircase and opulent lounge that dates back to the Café Royal’s founding and has since been renamed for beloved patron Oscar Wilde.
The Irish poet could often be found holding court and downing absinthe in the lavish red-and-gold surroundings, a ritual that would be repeated by many others from the Queen Mother to modern-day celebrities from the stage and screen. Nowadays guests can relive some of those moments at the Green Bar, with its absinthe fountains, and Ziggy’s Bar, an homage to David Bowie and the star-studded bash he threw at Café Royal in 1973 to celebrate the retirement of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.
The intrigue continues once we alight on our floor to find bodyguards blocking the entrance to the Presidential Wing and its upwards of six bedrooms. Our best guess is that a Middle Eastern sheik and family are holed up for a summer holiday but whoever it is, we’re among some important company.
Our suite, one of several options that range from a junior suite to the Dome Penthouse Wing with 12 bedrooms, has the feel of a sophisticated apartment with a spacious entrance and dressing area leading into a marble-lined bathroom and combined bedroom and living space. Adding to the appeal of the hotel are the gym, spa and indoor pool – which in and of themselves are a luxurious escape from busy London.
But our first stop, given the Café Royal’s heritage, has to be the restaurants. Besides the ground-floor temple to sweets, Cakes & Bubbles, from Albert Adrià of El Bulli fame, the hotel is home to US-based French chef Laurent Tourondel’s first venue in Europe. Laurent at Café Royal opened in May 2018 and serves breakfast – featuring exceptional homemade croissants and the best avocado toast we’ve ever had – lunch and dinner with an emphasis on grilled meats and seafood.
And, as if to prove the Café Royal still has it going on 154 years after Daniel Nicols served his first stuffed pheasant, we even spot a celebrity of the Crazy Rich Asian variety on our first night at Laurent. Despite angling for a nearby table, we have to settle for the hope that one day the hotel’s walls will actually start talking. Which gets me thinking: if we head to the Green Bar for a few rounds of absinthe à la Oscar Wilde, they might do just that.