Brown's Hotel, Puttin' on the Ritz

Brown's Hotel in London is steeped in 169 years of tradition and has hosted numerous upper-crust guests.
Brown's Hotel in London is steeped in 169 years of tradition and has hosted numerous upper-crust guests. (Photos Courtesy Rocco Forte Hotels)
Sunday, August 13, 2006

The thing about a fancy hotel in London is, it can be unforgiving of the casually clad, foot-weary traveler whose hair's been coiffured by wind and drizzle.

I came face to face with this issue during a run through the lobby of the opulent Ritz hotel in Piccadilly, where I was on the unglamorous hunt for the loo. Within seconds, a tuxedoed Ritz attendant gently escorted this jeans-wearing tourist eyesore back onto the wet street.

Thankfully, this isn't always the case with high-end London lodging. Just a couple of blocks down the road, another man in a black top hat opened the doors to Brown's Hotel. Brown's, which bills itself as the city's oldest hotel, reopened in mid-December following a $36 million, 18-month renovation, and its appeal is its ability to tastefully combine its older charm with modern appeal.

The inside still has the feel of an old Victorian home whose floors are somewhat uneven from settling. The hallways are narrow and maze-like, with the occasional stained-glass window. The hotel has kept a lot of the ornate moldings and wood panels but added a three-room spa, a small but swank gym, bigger bathrooms and other features to keep pace with the gentrifying modern home. The effect is that its new design maintains its august image, but tolerates things like blue jeans. Unlike some other opulent places, there is nothing big or brash about Brown's. There are no grand ballrooms fit for conventions or large weddings. Instead, the furniture and lighting fixtures are low-key, so the library, bar and restaurant lend themselves to intimate conversation. It's a place where ladies have afternoon tea in the English Tea Room and gentlemen meet for a drink at the bar -- although today's clientele is more likely to be venture capitalists from around the corner than nobility getting a fitting on nearby Saville Row.

The ultra-modern bathroom fixtures, though beautiful, reminded me of an old advertisement featuring an elderly couple who can't figure out how to use a new-age faucet. The bath and shower came with seven nozzles, which even my gadget-savvy boyfriend, Christopher, couldn't figure out. The sink stopper nearly stumped me as well; it spun like a coin on an axis and drained only when it was rotated upright.

Christopher, who is a telecommunications attorney, was particularly keen on Brown's because of its ties to American technology history. The 169-year-old hotel was the site of Alexander Graham Bell's first British phone call -- though nowadays the hotel's technical selling points include flat-panel TVs and iPod docking stations in the pricey second-floor suites.

The family of Henry Ford, the American automobile tycoon, bought the hotel in 1859, installing the modern inventions of his day -- fixed baths, electric lighting and an elevator. In 1889, the Ford family purchased St. George's Hotel opposite Brown's on Albemarle Street, merging the two properties.

The recently renovated hotel and rooms mix the old with some bold new.
The recently renovated hotel and rooms mix the old with some bold new.
The hotel remains popular with Americans, many of whom are second- or third-generation descendants of old American regulars, according to hotel spokeswoman Victoria Charles. It was Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's honeymoon spot in 1905, giving the hotel lasting cachet among guests who said their parents and grandparents heard of the place that way.

Brown's is in the Mayfair neighborhood, on a side street off the central Piccadilly Road -- across from Tiffany & Co. but a good distance from stores shilling British flag-encrusted tchotchkes. The property is a brief walk through Green Park to Buckingham Palace, whose royal relatives have stayed at Brown's. Heading in the other direction, it's a brisk walk to the eateries and theaters of Leicester Square and Covent Garden.

Afternoon tea is served daily from 3 to 6 p.m. in the wood-paneled library, where Rudyard Kipling penned "The Jungle Book" and where a pianist on a baby grand somehow renders George Michael's 1980s pop hits into tasteful background music. The tea has a rich, citrusy flavor, and the accompanying classics like tomato-and-cheese finger sandwiches and pastries are salves for a traveler who has walked all over central London.

A word to those who aren't actually a member of the landed gentry: Brown's is not cheap. Rooms start at $562 a night, although the service and fine touches won't fail you, as when the attentive staff bring fruit and bottled water to your room for an evening snack. In the lobby, I overheard a longtime patron complain grouchily and haughtily about the newly refurbished restaurant, but the attending staff remained gravely attentive.

-- Yuki Noguchi

Info: Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London, 011-44-20-7493-6020, http://www.brownshotel.com. Rooms start at $562.

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