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Two short strolls in pursuit of ambiance

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Following the dreadful period of lockdowns, pandemics and general unpleasantness, your intrepid reporters set forth on an inspection tour of some well known and other less prominent (at least to us) locations.  The past 18 months have been exceedingly tough on the hospitality industry and wanted to make sure everything is in order and ready to welcome back our ilk for various pleasure jaunts, before making inaccurate recommendations.

A few days ago, we visited two sets of locations: the eastern end of Kensington High Street, near the Palace Gardens, and the northern part of Knightsbridge, abutting Hyde Park. This is a brief report of what we found there.

The first spot we visited was the Ivy Kensington Brasserie (96 Kensington High Street).  We have discussed separately one of its sister locations, the very pleasant Ivy Café in Marylebone.  The Brasserie is, if anything, livelier and equally as pretty.  We were seated at the bar and the service, on our visit, was truly excellent, despite quite a busy room.

We are sorry to say that the Ivy folks did blot their copybook, however.  Upon sitting, before ordering, we were asked if we’d like “a glass of water” (as many of the better bars routinely provide) only to find that we were charged five £ for a bottle of water…

A little further along the high street, we popped our heads into Zaika (1 Kensington High Street) a highly-rated Indian restaurant.  It is noteworthy not just for its innovative but still very characterful and well-spiced sub-continental cuisine but also the spectacular, neogothic Victorian dining room.  We can confess that we were sorry not to have booked in for lunch, having been briefly exposed to the aromas wafting over from Zaika kitchen.

Both Zaika and the Ivy Brasserie are places we had visited before and our brief recce was simply to confirm the current status.  A few yards east of Zaika, a wonderful surprise awaited us, in the form of the Milestone Hotel (1-3 Kensington Court). We say “surprise” because although they have been open since the 1990s, they were until recently rather a well-kept secret.

The building is a very well-preserved, Grade II-listed former mansion facing the southern border of Kensington Garden, with views of the Royal Palace of Kensington itself.  Despite showing up unannounced (always a good test of the service ethos of a hospitality business), we were courteously and informatively shown around the various public spaces b y the knowledgeable concierge.

Tea in the Park Lounge, at the Milestone Hotel

The front room, so to speak, is the Park Lounge, ideal for afternoon tea.  The dining room, towards the rear and with quieter side-street aspect, is Cheneston’s, focused on British cuisine.  Next, we took in the Stables Bar, unsurprisingly sporting an equestrian theme and a very gentlemanly atmosphere.  There is also an attractive private dining room (the “Oratory”, formerly a domestic chapel) and a bright conservatory.  The retention and beautiful upkeep of the full panoply of Victorian decorative elements, of course, brought a special gladness to our historically minded hearts and we have resolved to hold one of our soirees for “elegant people in elegant places” at the Milestone as soon as possible.

Cheneston’s, at the Milestone Hotel

Rather giddy with our “discovery” of the Milestone, we headed on to Knightsbridge to see if all was well there, too.  First, we popped into the Lanesborough.  We are happy to say that the excellent Library Bar (as well as the more daytime-oriented Withdrawing Room) were in fine fettle and attracting a healthy clientele.  The Michelin-starred Celeste restaurant: exquisitely, even ethereally, refined, was being re-stocked with an astounding quantity of fresh foliage and blooms, when we visited.  The preparation scene reminded us of certain passages from The Age of Innocence, about the extravagantly gorgeous and luxuriant use of floristry in the Gilded Age.  Although only opened in its present form in 2015, the Lanesborough has become as much a London institution as some of the older Grand Hotels.

The Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel

The next happy surprise came almost next door to the Lanesborough, at the Wellesley Hotel (11 Knightsbridge).  This is a complete remake of a building that has over time housed a tube station, offices and a previous hotel, as well as the now-defunct Pizza on the Park.  The decorative theme applied through the complete renovation is Art Deco, both in ‘revival’ form as well as in more authentic style.  Again, we must congratulate the management on a particularly welcoming staff.  The outstanding features at this hotel include a high-grade humidor room (largest in Europe, for a hotel) with attached cigar lounge and Crystal Bar, the Oval Restaurant and a Jazz Lounge that could be out of a Golden Era Hollywood movie.  They play live Jazz there, on Fridays and Saturdays.

Lastly, we performed a quick inspection of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel; alas with less overall success.  Yes, the welcome is to the rarefied standards of the Mandarin Oriental chain.  Yes, the latest incarnation of the Mandarin Bar is distinctly less clinical than it was a decade ago (or two? we cannot recall…), thanks to cosier lighting. Yes, the food at “Dinner by Heston Blumenthal” comes under the aegis of an indisputably talented chef.  But why, oh why, gut the aesthetics of an Edwardian grand dame like the 1908 Hyde Park Hotel with ‘contemporary’ blingy style?  The hallways, stairs and interstitial spaces still drip with the richesse of that Gilded Age, but the actual bar/restaurant rooms are, well, generic lux.  You could be in Dubai, or downtown Houston.  Pity, really.

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