It's tempting for great hotels to rest on their laurels. But fortunately, London's premier hotels understand that a lot of competition is out there, and that guests, who pay hundreds of dollars per night for a room, have a right to expect the best. If rooms become shabby or service deteriorates, word soon gets around. Thankfully, London's best hotels have worked hard to maintain their position at the top of the heap.
The Ritz has been completely revamped and is now among the very best of London luxury hotels, which was not the case in the early 1990s. Claridge's has never looked so good. Public areas, bars and rooms have been renovated and the hotel plans a multimillion dollar upgrade of its restaurant this autumn. The Berkeley, too, has improved its public rooms beyond recognition while The Connaught has upgraded to museum quality.
At the same time the frequent traveler to London wants consistency, and top hotels such as The Dorchester and Four Seasons have maintained not just their high standards but also their style. Personal preference plays an enormous part in choosing a hotel. Classics such as Claridge's or The Dorchester are popular with celebrities and are places to see and be seen. Hotels such as The Connaught and The Berkeley are more discreet and intimate. Almost every top London hotel caters to the business traveler, providing fax machines and modems as standard features; The Four Seasons, The Lanesborough and The Ritz are particularly well equipped.
Location can be a factor in one's choice of hotel. For those who come to London to shop, The Berkeley and Mandarin Hyde Park are ideally situated in Knightsbridge. Hotels on Piccadilly such as The Ritz and Meridien are in the heart of the West End and thus centrally located, while The Savoy or the modern One Aldwych are in the heart of London's theater district.
In addition to the hotels reviewed here, there are quality chains, such as Hilton and Meridien, which have well-situated hotels in London. They offer consistency but can lack personality. There are also small luxury hotels with reputations established mostly by word of mouth. These include the chic, minimalist Halkin in Knightsbridge; the quirky, funky Portobello in Notting Hill; the Milestone in Kensington and the almost frighteningly minimalist Hempel in Bayswater.
One particularly attractive option is the Capital in Knightsbridge which offers very comfortable rooms, one of the top concierges in London and a deservedly acclaimed restaurant. Another is the Italianate Halkin, which will soon boast a trendy Austral-Asian restaurant headed by Australian chef David Thompson.
However, the seven hotels listed below are classic places to stay in London. They are centrally located in the heart of the West End and offer the best. All prices quoted below exclude Value Added Tax, which is presently 17.5 percent.
Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, SW1X 7RL
139 rooms; 29 suites
Rates: singles about $400; doubles about $500 to $550; suites from about $675 to $4,300
In the past, The Berkeley had a slightly clinical atmosphere, lacking the warmth of, say, The Connaught. That has changed. The decor is charming and varies slightly from room to room, combining comfort with stylishness. All rooms have short entrance corridors, offering privacy and tranquility, and are extremely well equipped, with three types of modem outlets, video and CD libraries (small fee payable), umbrellas, safes, and fresh flowers and fruit daily.
Each of the three delightful conservatory suites has its own enormous terrace. If you want a balcony room, ask for one on the upper floors. On the top floor is the excellent spa (daily fee payable), with its swimming pool and health treatment rooms; a personal trainer is also available.
The public rooms still seem a bit confined, but The Berkeley is blessed with two fine restaurants. Vong has been here for five years. Although not everyone admires Vong's fusion cuisine, it remains very popular and sensibly priced. The well-known Gascon chef Pierre Koffmann has moved his celebrated Tante Claire restaurant here from its original location in Chelsea. The latest innovation at The Berkeley is the Blue Bar, a dazzling room, celebrating the color blue in all its shades; a good selection of Cuban cigars such as Trinidads, Hoyo de Monterreys and Romeo y Julietas is available.
Brook Street, Mayfair, W1A 2JQ
141 rooms; 62 suites; 2 penthouses
Rates: doubles from about $400 to $625;
suites from about $700 to $3,400; two
penthouses about $4,800 each
Mention that you are staying at London's best hotel to a well-heeled Brit and the likely response is, "Of course, you are at Claridge's." However such praise is not just idle chatter or exaggerated courtesy. The hotel is fantastic, offering luxury in a distinctively sophisticated British style.
Established in 1898, Claridge's went through extensive renovations in 1998; all the public rooms as well as most bedrooms are now gleaming with panache and elegance. The refined Art Deco decor of Claridge's has been carried through almost the entire hotel, from the serene and spacious foyer to the luxurious and well-tailored Claridge's bar.
The rooms, from standard doubles to suites, are as beautiful and functional as one of the new Bentleys for sale in Berkeley Square, a three-minute walk away. They have large, firm and comfortable beds with fluffy down comforters and thick linen sheets. The bathrooms are spacious and well-furnished, and the rooms have all the modern amenities one needs to stay in touch with the outside world, including satellite television, digital telephones, modem connections (both U.S. and British) and high-speed Internet access.
Service remains central at Claridge's. Everyone, from the concierge to the bartender to the doorman, is friendly, discreet and helpful. The hotel once had a clubby, almost stuffy atmosphere, which was off putting to younger people, but today the ambience is modern and peaceful. The hotel now has one of the best private gyms in the city as well as an array of health and beauty treatments. This only adds to pampered guests' well-being.
Food has always been good but never great at Claridge's, but the hotel is remedying the situation this autumn when London's current star chef, Gordon Ramsay, opens Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's. For those not interested in three-star dinning, a snack or salad in the bar or foyer will suffice. A lovely afternoon tea is always available.
After a day or two at Claridge's, one can't help noticing a large black and white photograph of Winston Churchill hanging in the foyer. The famous dignitary, shown entering Claridge's with a smoldering cigar in his mouth, looks as satisfied and elated as anyone who's lucky enough to stay in the hotel today.
Carlos Place, Mayfair, W1K 2AL
65 rooms; 27 suites
Rates: singles from about $250 to 425;
doubles from about $250 to $575; suites
from about $675 to $2,300
If you've ever wondered what it was like to belong to one of the most exclusive gentlemen's clubs in London's West End in the early 1900s, then book yourself into The Connaught. The miles of wood paneling, formal restaurants, well-tended bars and morning-coated employees are reminiscent of a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. You'll feel like a member of the aristocracy or landed gentry the minute you check into The Connaught.
Established in 1897, the hotel is now getting a makeover, so be sure to ask if your room has been renovated. Some of the rooms are too frayed at the elbows to warrant The Connaught's high prices. Rooms on a whole are small compared to the other top hotels in the West End, although they have a more homey, almost country inn feel to them. Be sure you want the quintessential English experience before you make a reservation.
That said, one might expect staying at The Connaught to be slightly stuffy: men in dusty old Savile Row suits and women in faded Liberty print frocks still fill the common rooms. But it's not at all like that. You are as likely to meet a Parisian couple in sportswear or Italian businessmen in Armani suits in the hotel's two excellent bars as anybody else. The service staff certainly doesn't discriminate; they treat you like royalty no matter who you are -- as long as you are a client. There's even a small, well-equipped gym for the health-conscious crowd, but most guests are happy with the afternoon tea and finger sandwiches.
The Connaught has two outstanding restaurants: the Grill Room and the Connaught. The former is the better of the two. In autumn, there is no better place to dig into plates of roasted pheasant with bread sauce and other traditional game dishes. Moreover, this is one of the best spots to enjoy grilled Dover sole. Whatever you want to eat -- from scrambled eggs with black truffles to smoked salmon -- the chefs are more than happy to provide. However, don't forget your jacket and tie.
The Connaught, like the world's best nanny, is a place that looks after you. It's the same with London's centuries-old men's clubs. The only difference is the membership, which is the price of a room at The Connaught.
53 Park Lane, Mayfair, W1A 2HJ
195 rooms; 55 suites
Rates: singles from about $400 to $425;
doubles from about $450 to 525; suites from about $650 to $2,900
One of the most stylish of London's grand hotels, The Dorchester opened its doors in 1931 and was an immediate hit with old Hollywood and famous dignitaries. There has always been a theatrical quality to the hotel, which is strongly reflected in the inventive decor of some of the private dining rooms and suites by stage designer Oliver Messel.
After the Sultan of Brunei bought the Dorchester in 1989 extensive renovations were undertaken. When the hotel reopened its doors a year later everyone admired the magnificent restoration.
Rooms are sumptuous and individually decorated in an English country house style, and despite the proximity to busy Park Lane, you won't hear traffic. The bathrooms are elegant compositions of Italian marble and chrome. Guests can use the spa's steam rooms and saunas and gym.
The hotel offers a variety of dining options: the famous Grill Room, with its mostly traditional British dishes; the stylish and expensive Oriental with its Cantonese food; and the bar, where simple Italian dishes are served to those who want a light meal.
With its immense lobby, The Dorchester is not a hotel for the shy and retiring. It is very much a public arena, backed up by comfortable well-equipped rooms and a high level of service.
The Four Seasons Hotel London
Hamilton Place, Park Lane, Mayfair, W1A 1AZ
183 rooms; 37 suites
Rates: singles about $400; doubles about $450; suites from about $625 to $2,750
Centrally located on the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly, the Four Seasons London, formerly known as the Inn on the Park, has maintained consistently high standards since it opened in 1970. Although it has always catered to the business traveler, the decor suggests the comforts of home rather than the cold efficiency of a standard business hotel. A recent innovation is curbside check-in.
The standard rooms are surprisingly spacious and will soon come equipped with high-speed Internet access, two-line phones, safes, free access to CD and video libraries. There are some very attractive suites, notably the seven Park Suites with their balconies overlooking Hyde Park, which offer fax machines (curiously lacking from standard rooms) and cordless phones. Particularly airy and stylish are the 11 Conservatory Suites, which share a very large terrace.
A small health club is accessible round the clock with your room key; each fitness machine has its own TV, so you can select the channel of your choice while shedding the pounds.
The Four Seasons restaurant has been combined with Lanes, a stylish room with black lacquer walls and bright artwork. Executive chef Eric DeBlonde heads the kitchen. The meals are reasonably priced, and there is a wide selection of international wines by the glass. The public rooms are comfortable but can be gloomy.
Hyde Park Corner SW1X 7TA
49 rooms; 46 suites
Rates: singles from about $350 to $450;
doubles from about $500 to $625; suites
from about $775 to $6,200
This renovated landmark building at Hyde Park Corner is hard to warm up to at first glance. The furnishings are almost all reproduction Regency style: roaring coal fires are gas fakes, portraits of early nineteenth century British aristocracy are modern copies, and several books in the bar have false spines.
Additionally, the rooms, although very comfortable, are heavily furnished, and lack elegance. Where the Lanesborough scores high marks, however, is in its superior service and technological sophistication. Every guest is assigned a butler who will unpack and pack your belongings and take care of your requests. Guests are also given personalized phone lines and mobile lines, as well as business cards providing these details: thus, your hotel room becomes your office away from home.
The Lanesborough offers a TV that doubles as a computer. It links you not only to a huge range of worldwide TV and radio channels but also gives you swift access to the Internet without charge; e-mail can be sent and transmitted for free.
A humidor, the cigar smoker's equivalent of a minibar, is provided upon request in all rooms, and there is more for the cigar aficionado in the famous Library Bar, presided over by Salvatore Calabrese. The cigar selection includes some pre-Castro Cubans (from about $140) such as the Davidoff No. 1 and the Trinidad Diplomat. The Library Bar also offers an amazing choice of top brandies, such as a 1796 (about $1,050) and an 1893 Delamain (about $175).
Also notable is the attractive glass-roofed restaurant called The Conservatory featuring Paul Gayler's sophisticated vegetarian and nonvegetarian cooking.
The Ritz, London
150 Piccadilly, Mayfair, W1J 9BR
115 rooms; 18 suites
Rates: singles about $400; doubles about $475; suites from about $670 to $2,500
The Ritz, the grand old dame of London hotels, was showing signs of wear by the mid-1990s. But then the wealthy Barclay brothers bought the property and began a costly renovation. The spectacular results are based on the original architects' drawings. Rooms, originally embellished with gold leaf, had been painted over; now they are restored to their pristine gilt condition. The palatial restaurant is, once again, one of the great public rooms in the city. The rooms are sumptuous and so are the marble-floored bathrooms. Each room has a woven carpet; no two are alike. The large, firm beds are specially made for The Ritz. A fax machine is in every room and personalized phone and fax lines can be provided (the former business center was closed for lack of use).
The Ritz Restaurant offers grand French cuisine at equally grand prices. The wine list is strong on Bordeaux but otherwise fairly perfunctory. The Palm Court, also renovated, remains a delight and a popular gathering place for light lunches, tea and cocktails. The once severe Ritz dress code -- jacket and tie required -- seems to have been relaxed. Being smartly dressed but tieless is no longer grounds for eviction.
The Ritz Club and its casino are under the same ownership as the hotel but are managed separately. Britain's strict gaming laws mean that hotel guests no longer receive special privileges at the club; they must apply to join just like everyone else.
Stephen Brook, a freelance writer based in London, specializes in wine and travel-related topics. James Suckling contributed to this report.