I stare into the bevelled edge, floor to ceiling mirrors running around the room. Drifting my fingers over the notched glass handle of the wardrobe, I lose myself in visions of 1920s glamour, picturing myself wearing a silky green dress, a skinny cigarette holder jutting from my posed fingers. Rainbow tinted reflections bounce around the room as shafts of sunlight filter in from the bay window overlooking Green Park. In my head, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost zooms to the doors on the street seven floors below, while ermine furred ladies escape its fumes in favour of the blue-tinted haze of a bar’s smoky atmosphere. In a blink, the vision fades and I am once again in 2012, just a rushed Londoner aching for a bit of escapism.
I have, luckily, come to the right place – the Athenaeum Hotel on Piccadilly. The boutique hotel oozes an understated glamour: here is the place that the film stars of the 1960s – people like Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne – called home when they were in London. And, while my vision of a 1920’s scene is slightly inaccurate – the building was still a gentleman’s club at that time – the hotel can’t help but harken back to that age with the Art Deco accents that float through the corridors.
This atmosphere is exactly what former general manager and the hotel’s long-time spokeswoman Sally Bulloch deigned to create. Sally was a childhood star of the 1950s, making her name in the St Trinian’s set of films. The Atheneaum became her second home and it was here that she lured friends and acquaintances such as John Lennon and Robert Redford; no wonder the hotel was known as “Tinsletown on the Thames”. She went on to become its head honcho but, despite all these connections, the hotel holds a solidified subtlety about it rather than being a brash spot for the world’s rich to come play; indeed, it almost seems lost between the outward showiness of the Ritz down the street or the Sheraton Park Lane next door. But, that’s what makes it special and it is what Sally wanted to create. She passed away suddenly in 2008 but a book in each room titled Say Hello to Sally for Me honours her memory and imprint on the hotel’s history.
I feel that glamour at almost every moment. It hangs in the air, in the sanctified silence that blocks out the noise of heavy traffic outside. I wonder, as I stroll into the black and white marble and mirrored bathroom, who stepped here before me? On whose starry dust am I walking?
The hotel also offers the normal indulgences one finds in a five-star abode. A spa awaits the weary with treatments, a steam room and wood-panelled round hot tubs. In the afternoons, you can stop by for an award-winning tea, or be tempted by the Pudding Parlour – an all-you-can-eat Parisian-inspired sweet trolley. Be forewarned: it’s divine. As the sun sets, you can stroll to the bar where one of London’s most interesting whisky collections awaits. Here, you’ll also find Angelo Gobbi, a whisky sommelier, the only I’ve ever stumbled across and the man who was recently voted by Forbes as having one of the coolest hotel jobs in the world. He’ll take you through and recommend a personalised choice from the 270 whiskies on the menu – later on in the evening, we opt for a Balvenie Signature and a Maccallan Sherry Oak.
First though, we settle in for dinner in the sparkly dining room. Here, more mirrors greet your eyes, bauble-bubbled walls act as shimmering accents and sharp-edged chandeliers dangle above. For a Saturday evening, the restaurant is surprisingly quiet and that’s a shame because the food is delectable. Scallops are sweet and plump, perfectly crisped on their edges; the steak is oversized but cooked just slightly rarer than medium-rare, a hard request to fulfil. The lamb chops echo this but find themselves swimming in sweetbreads and tiny bites of root vegetables. A Domaine Chapoton Cotes du Rhones washes it all down perfectly.
By the time we saunter back upstairs to the room, we are satiated by food, wine and that ever persistent glamour that has allowed a bit of escapism from London life for a time.
This is the place where fruit arrives at your door as a surprise; where I heard one couple being upgraded to a luxury apartment because the receptionist realised it was the wife’s birthday; and where, if you put your shoes out of the door at midnight, they’ll be returned sparkling and shiny before 7am. Everything is done quietly and with elegance. And, I think that’s just how Sally would have wanted it.