All luxury hotels have luxury in common. Where they differ is in their style. The Dorchester, built in the 1930s at the lower end of Park Lane, is a masterpiece of discreet comfort, elegant without being flashy and luxurious without any trace of vulgarity. Three years after the Sultan of Brunei acquired the hotel in 1985, he decided to close it down for a complete renovation. The result is a triumph, with all the hotel's traditional features lovingly restored, with added innovations such as the private The Dorchester Club, The Dorchester Spa and The Oriental Restaurant.
Upon entering, the first impression you have is one of immense spaciousness. From the reception area, the broad, pillared promenade, dotted with banquettes and potted plants, recedes into the far distance, with restaurants and a bar leading off it. This is the perfect spot from which to glimpse the many celebrities who regularly patronize the hotel and its restaurants. I found myself walking behind Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was doing his best to ignore the photographers keeping pace with him.
Park Lane is not the quietest spot in London, but all bedroom windows are triple-glazed, and there is air-conditioning throughout. The individually decorated rooms may not be innovative in style, but they are immensely comfortable, with Irish linen on the beds, vest armchairs and sofas and Italian marble bathrooms with wonderfully deep baths. Two private banquet rooms and the most expensive suite have highly theatrical original decor by Oliver Messel. The bar, unusually, serves light dishes throughout the day and up to midnight. The food and wine here are Italian, and the atmosphere, enlivened by a pianist playing on one of Liberace's old pianos, is decidedly relaxed.
For more serious dining, The Dorchester offers three possibilities: the beautiful Terrace, which is only open for dinner dances on weekends, The Grill Room and The Oriental. The Terrace has the most classic French food, spiced up with a few Oriental nuances introduced by Swiss chef Willi Elsener. The Grill, an imposing room beneath a coffered ceiling, is solidly British. This is the place to come for potted shrimp, fish cakes, black pudding, roast beef, oxtail, shepherd's pie and steaks.
The Oriental is quite different, with lavish private rooms, all furnished with antiques, and a cool, very spacious modern restaurant on the gallery. Chefs hired from Hong Kong and led by Simon Yung provide classic Cantonese cooking. The quality of ingredients is superb, though the range of flavors and textures may seem somewhat restricted to those accustomed to spicier Szechuan or Hunan styles. Londoners hotly dispute whether the Oriental deserves to be the only Chinese restaurant in town to have won a coveted Michelin star.
The wine list is the same in all the restaurants, with about 500 well-chosen bottles. It's a solid international list, with a predictable emphasis on Bordeaux. Prices are high, with few bottles under $30. Set dinners are priced at approximately $50 and upwards. Twenty-nine brands of cigars are available, mostly Cubans, but you'll also find Macanudos and Dominican Davidoffs.
The Dorchester is where Anton Mosimann made his reputation, and in 1988 he handed the reins to his fellow Swiss chef, Elsener. Elsener cooks superbly--at least he did when I once joined Robert Mondavi for a private lunch at the Dorchester--so it seems slightly regrettable that there is no single restaurant within the hotel where he can assert his own style.
-- Stephen Brook
Stephen Brook is an author specializing in travel and wine.
Phone: (44) 1 71 629-8888; (800) 727-9820
Room rates (approximate from the pound): $335 for single occupancy; $375 for double; suites from $560 to $2,235. All rates are subject to 17.5 percent VAT.