The man seated next to me on the British Airways flight to London was complaining about the five-star hotel that awaited his arrival. "This will be my third stay there," he sighed, "and I'm not looking forward to it. The place is so stiff and formal. I feel that I should put on a tux just to say hello to the concierge."
Quite. Most five-star hotels in London have a bit too much starch in their attitude. But there is one lovely exception, which, of course, I apprised my fellow passenger of. It's The Landmark London--opulent, historic and wondrously laid-back. The staff is young and friendly and the dress code is relaxed (coats and ties are not required in the dining room). The flexibility that The Landmark affords is especially appreciated among celebrated creative types. Woody Allen, David Bowie, Sting and Meg Ryan are among the galaxy of film and music stars who have checked in.
The casual, home-away-from-home atmosphere juxtaposes the ornate splendor of this awesome structure, one of the city's best-known examples of Victorian Gothic architecture. Opposite Marylebone station, the historic establishment opened as the Grand Central Hotel in 1899, the last and arguably the grandest of the late nineteenth century British railway hotels.
Most recently known as The Regent, the property was purchased in 1995 by The Lancaster Landmark Hotel Co. Ltd. for $70 million. The hotel was given a fitting new name, but little else changed. It had already undergone a massive restoration, and the staff and mood under the existing management were so exemplary that the new owner wisely decided not to tamper.
The moment you enter the hotel's dramatic, paneled foyer--paved in lustrous polished sandstone--you know you have stepped into a formidable chunk of history. The sumptuous public rooms are enhanced with original glazed-tile mosaics, marble columns and statues. Sweeping staircases evoke images of elegant damsels in gowns of satin and silk. What was once the central courtyard for horse-drawn carriages is now the hotel's magnificent centerpiece: a soaring, eight-story, glass-roofed atrium.
Half the guest rooms face the light and airy atrium, while the other half overlook bustling Marylebone Road. These are exceptionally spacious accommodations, averaging 550 square feet. The motif is cool and sophisticated, with beige and gold tones and a blond-oak armoire housing the minibar. Baths are done in black and white marble. The outside word is instantly accessible: Every deluxe room has a fax and computer ports, and each room has two phone lines and three phones.
The atrium is the setting for the palm-studded Winter Garden--easily the most idyllic spot in London to enjoy a traditional tea. For a sampling of authentic English food, there is The Cellars, an English pub affair with a fabulously carved Adam-style fireplace.
The fish and chips are memorable, not only for flavor but for presentation. They're served in a large basket lined with a reprint of the front page of The Times of London the day that The Great Central Hotel opened. In The Dining Room, awash in delicious hues of light pink and burnt orange and appointed with double French windows and maple furnishings, the menu packs a surprise. One would expect the usual nouvelle offerings, but hearty Mediterranean fare (with a french accent) dominates, taking you straight through to breakfast with nary a hunger pang. Rustic farmhouse cooking comes to mind. Witness the trio of venison, squab and rabbit with fondant potatoes and confit of game.
The wine list is largely French, with Burgundy stealing the spotlight. There is also a good selection of New World labels culled from Chile, South Africa, Argentina and California. Prices range from $30 to $190. While not extensive, cigar choices are admirable. The humidor contains Cuban Punch, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba.
A grande dame among London hotels, The Landmark exhibits a nice maternal streak, making certain that guests can grab a Danish and coffee in the lobby as they set out for the twists and turns of a new day. For a five-star hotel, that's downright homey.
Jolee Edmonson is a freelance writer based in Savannah, Georgia.
The Landmark London
222 Marylebone Road
Phone: (44) 171-631-8000
Room rates (approximate from the pound): executive, $278; superior, $308; deluxe, $353; suites from $380 to $1,575. All rates are subject to 17.5 percent VAT.