One of the contrasts of our age is between a presentist culture and the powerful commercial appeal of ‘heritage authenticity’ (firmly in brackets!). We are told by the rather grim ‘wellness’ industry to forsake our individual and collective memory but, all the while, that very same history is mined relentlessly for marketing purposes.
The British, we are always told, ‘do’ heritage well. And so they do, but commercial entities are also attuned to shifting fashions. It is not easy to balance a respect for history and provenance with the commercial imperative of trendiness; such characteristics do not always sit comfortably together.
For places and products that actually have a valid claim to the past, this presents something of a conundrum and it is interesting to examine how this tension is managed at Brown’s Hotel, in Albemarle Street, Mayfair. Brown’s is probably the oldest surviving hotel in London, being founded in 1837 by Lady Byron’s former maid. The current conglomeration of much-altered Georgian buildings dates from the 1889 merger with the neighbouring St. George’s Hotel.
There are three spaces at Brown’s where one may sup or dine: Charlie’s Restaurant, the Donovan Bar and the Drawing Room. Charlie’s Restaurant perhaps best encapsulates the dilemma we just mentioned, with the official blurb telling us that it “is a cheerful blend of much loved tradition and modern excellence [offering] the great classics with a present-day twist […] a romantic, stylish, warmly-lit, memory-making place with a welcome touch of theatre.” In other words, the original late Victorian fixtures and panelling are well preserved but the artwork is quite colourful and, in some instances, errs on the zany side. The food is more modern than traditional. We like Charlie’s, we really do. Nothing at Brown’s is less than good. But there is a degree of incongruity to it.
The Donovan Bar, named after the mid-century photographer whose images adorn the walls, is arguably the most often mentioned of Brown’s social spaces, not least because it occupies a reasonably prominent place in the history of cocktail mixing. Also, the executive barman is the eminent Salvatore Calabrese. Its current incarnation is sleeker and more carefully studied than the preceding one. Is it evocative of its glorious origins, if one does not know the backstory? That is more debatable.
And that brings us to the Drawing Room, which sits between The Donovan and Charlie’s and where you can take afternoon tea but also have an evening drink and eat some dinner. The ‘Supper Club’ menu falls under the presently very popular category of comfort food produced to restaurant standards. Not every place can swing this approach without sliding into overprice pub grub or irritating fussiness. The food struck the right balance was struck between high quality, an acceptable mix of innovation and familiarity.
This space has been recently refurbished and we are happy to report that the new touches do not clash with the excellent architectural panelling, stuccoed ceilings and other original detail. It is an uncommonly successful case of injecting freshness without diluting pre-war refinement. The tastefulness of the décor is heightened by the careful lighting and elegant table setting. The embroidered linen (not cotton…) napkins were impressive, in particular. We realise that it’s not fashionable to care about such things but they matter to us. Quality above trendiness.
Despite the difficulties faced by the London hospitality industry in recruiting and retaining personnel following the UK’s exit from the European Union and the Pandemic, the staff was as gracious as one could hope in such circumstances: unflappable and attentive.
In both the design and management of the Drawing Room, then, we find Brown’s to have managed that very difficult trick: to keep a historic space true to itself and very spruce at the same time; elegant as well as welcoming. We highly recommend it.
Rating (Drawing Room at Brown’s Hotel): ■■■■
33 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, W1S 4BP
Tel.: 020 7493 6020