The frantic knocks rattle on the door of our hotel room at precisely 5.45am. The room is pitch black, but the red glow of the clock on a Bang and Olufsen television shines dimly at me through weary, half-open eyelids, assuring me that this is not my breakfast trolley. I struggle to get out of bed, but realise I’m tied up in an irregular trap of black satin and Egyptian cotton. Once free, I stumble out of bed nakedly and reach for a gown. A voice comes through the door, urgent and shrill, but with a thick, nicotine-stained sexiness that almost makes it okay…
“Open the door, open the door now!”
“Okay, I’m coming, but sorry, who is it?” I mutter.
“Don’t play games,” is the reply. “It’s Liz,” she whispers ominously.
“Liz?” I murmur, lost and suddenly afraid; she’s still banging at my door.
“Yes, come on, it’s English Liz. Don’t leave me here alone; I want to be in your bed.”
I falter, not sure what to say, or do, certain my now-stirring girlfriend would think opening the door somewhat imprudent.
“Sorry, Liz, I think you have the wrong door,” I reply.
“What? No… you’re naked, I can feel it, and you’re in there with someone else,” she purrs. And then: “Oh fuck…what…oh dear…sorry.” And with that, English Liz is gone, gone into what’s left of the warm September night.
Now, you might read my description of the above episode and think: what an irritation, what a bore. I’ll bet that if you’ve been to Blakes, you’ll read it with a wince and a wry smile. If you’ve ever been to Blakes, ever walked down the black and gold corridors, ever marvelled at the attention to detail and rare sense of grown-up, assured fun, you’ll probably be reaching for your leather-bound diary and earmarking a date for your next visit.
Blakes is a one-off, an oasis of louche charm within the safe confines of South Ken. The hotel stands well-proportioned and somewhat austere at the end of whitewashed row of stucco-fronted houses. A huge matte-black behemoth of a building, incongruous and unrepentant – like a stoned Keith Richards at a WI meeting. Blakes opened in 1978 and was arguably the first luxury boutique hotel in the world. The brain behind the hotel’s conception is Anoushka Hempel, a model and television-star-turned-hotelier who was born in 1941 on a ferry travelling from Papua New Guinea to New Zealand. The daughter of a travelling sheep farmer, she went on to become one of the world’s most influential hoteliers and the toast of London’s high society.
The hotel was built as a London bolthole for an international set of actors, musicians and minor royalty looking for stylish, discreet luxury away from the glare of the paparazzo’s camera. In 33 years, little of this ethos has changed; the hotel is so depended upon by certain clients that six-month residencies are not unheard of. There are 51 rooms and each is different. These are not subtle distinctions; each room is dramatically singular in its appeal. They range from elegant ‘Parisian’ singles right through to the 007 suite which comes fitted with a huge four-poster bed, a Victorian-style drawing room with fireplace, and a kitchenette – perfect for those looking for an extended stay.
The rooms are beautiful, set either side of long, vaguely mysterious corridors. There is a sense of a life well-travelled about the place: France, Italy, Russia and India all play their part in creating a sense of exoticism that allows you to leave Chelsea far behind. Our room is a well-appointed ‘director’s double’, a corner room with great views over the streets below. If there was a clear-cut theme, this room would be the ‘Italian stallion’, and perhaps that’s who usually stays here. Yes, that could be it: some wild, leather-faced, Viagra-laced lothario, drinking Campari and smoking Murratis, waiting for his English Liz to come a-knocking. The room is black and gold, with dark blinds, ancient Italianate etchings on the walls and a huge gilt-edged chariot bed, complete with hand-painted, golden rams locking horns at its base. If there was ever a room that screamed “I have endless reserves of testosterone pumping through bulging veins that remain discreetly hidden within the sleekest, smartest Savile Row suit”, then this is it.
We shower in the lap of luxury, then leave, feeling a little overwhelmed. Downstairs all is sultry yet calm; reds and blacks dominate as you climb down the thin staircase that leads from reception to the basement restaurant and bar. Here, in the bowels of the building, that traveller’s sense of adventure is in evidence once again. Ancient Louis Vuitton packing cases double up as tables and striking tribal art lines the walls of a bar which is invariably filled with elegantly dishevelled characters that look like they’ve seen and tasted a thing or two.
The restaurant has a feel of the Orient with Japanese-style wooden dividers and Chinese art and ceramics on display. Lighting is red and glowing – this is a place where it seems to be midnight all day. The menu is rather unique; it follows the East Asian form, but I have a feeling it has been assembled by someone with a weakness for the most decadent examples of French and Italian cuisine. Tortellini of Landes foie gras and truffled creamed potato sit next to Black Miso cod and Teriyaki beef. These initially discordant-seeming dishes actually work somehow to create a menu of depth and variety. It could be dreadful and clumsy, but rarely is; an understanding of quality ingredients helps it to work somehow.
The only dish that mis-hits is a side of creamed spinach, which has a rather unpleasant, murky aftertaste. The wine list is short but elegant and well-constructed, and offers some interesting wines from obscure producers. We enjoy a sprightly Sancerre followed by a modern-style ‘Super Tuscan’ from Bolgheri, which is excellent at a fraction of the price you’d pay for decent Brunello or the likes of Ornellaia. Like the hotel itself, the restaurant is elegant without being formal; it’s welcoming – the sort of place in which you could get hideously drunk without upsetting anyone.
It is only in the morning, as I lie reclining on black satin, eating scrambled eggs topped with shaved white truffles and ruminating on the dramas of the night that I realise that this is without doubt my favourite hotel in London. Nowhere else I’ve stayed in our capital feels quite this exciting. So what if the nights are broken by gravelly-voiced vixens looking for late night thrills? If it’s good enough for Micky Rourke and Gwyneth Paltrow, I’ll book in for a week and sleep when I’m dead.