Inside London's Dorchester Hotel: The London hotel everyone must visit

My guest has been waiting for 45 minutes outside the Dorchester Hotel's world-famous restaurant, The Grill, before my transport even arrives at the prestigious Park Lane address where I'm staying for the next couple of days.

As I breeze past the impeccably uniformed Dorchester doormen, I search for her forlorn face, wondering if she thinks I've stood her up.

She's not in The Promenade lounge where I'd asked her to wait. Has she left already?

No, the two young women on The Grill's front desk inform me. Jo's seated at our table and has already taken the liberty of a glass or two of wine on my account.

Jo and I have known each other for 25 years, as work colleagues, then close friends.  So I'm not surprised she anticipated I'd be "delayed".

But I've invited her today, not only because we haven't seen one another for three years, but also because she's a born cynic.

Jo's seen so many swish London establishments (including The Dorchester) that she's a perfect companion to assess whether the newly revamped The Grill is sizzling, or simply sozzled on its own reputation.

But let's step back a bit.

The Dorchester, along with Claridge's, the Savoy, the Grosvenor and the Ritz, is in that handful of London's classic five-star hotels that have survived the test of time.

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Since it was opened in 1931, it has entertained royalty (Prince Phillip held his bucks party here before marrying the Queen); celebrity (Taylor and Burton, Alfred Hitchcock and Barbra Streisand, though not all in the same bed), and infamy – in World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower took a suite at what was reputedly "the safest building in London" while he continued his affair with his driver Kay Summersby. Meanwhile Lord Halifax, Britain's wartime foreign secretary, shared a mistress with Mussolini's man in London, Dino Grandi).

And now the Dorchester has had a major makeover. Not only have most of the rooms been refurbished and upgraded, but the public areas have been reinvented too – even The Grill.

Since the hotel opened, The Grill has been one of The Dorchester's main attractions. Its original Moorish-style decoration is said to have been inspired by the London exile of Spain's King Alfonso XIII who was deposed the same year The Dorchester opened in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War.

There were always beautiful Flemish tapestries, ornate ceilings with gold leaves, and mirrored arches in The Grill. Fortunately, the 2014 revamp, by Parisian interior designer Bruno Moinard, has retained the original gold doors, and the other historic features.

More importantly, the cuisine (memorably described by one food critic as "comfort food for the fading ruling classes at ridiculous prices") has been reinvented too.

French chef Alain Ducasse, who has his own three Michelin star restaurant in another part of the hotel, trained The Grill's new head chef, Christophe Marleix​.

Marleix's modern interpretation of "a grill" relies heavily on finest fresh vegetables as well as meats and fish.

Classics from The Grill's past, including the carving trolley, Sunday roast and signature blue lobster chowder have been retained. But new favourites include Highland wagyu sirloin, peppered organic Aberdeen Angus prime rib, and organic Welsh lamb, two ways.

Marleix's menu also includes an extensive sweet souffle menu – the first in London, featuring such delicacies as Sicilian pistachio and salted caramel and Diplomatico Reserva rum and raisin ice-cream.

To start, Jo orders the fresh crab meat on toast, herb salad and grated horseradish and I go for the coddled egg, green asparagus and bacon.

Jo goes for the duck breast, spring vegetables with Maltese sauce  and  I choose the organic Aberdeen beef tournedos with potatoes, onions and Perigourdine sauce.

Once the ordering (and my grovelling apology for being late) are over, our French-born sommelier convinces us to let him match a glass of wine to each of our choices rather than order a single bottle. It's a service available to every diner, and not only proves an amusing education but also shows off The Grill's extensive wine list – one of the best in London – to great advantage. 

Needless to say, each course (and accompanying wine) is outstanding, while the service is friendly but thoroughly efficient.

Nothing for it then, but to press on to desert, A "contemporary" lemon tart for Jo, and a rhubarb and strawberry crumble for me.

Jo's seasoned verdict on such a spectacular lunch? I was forgiven for being late, and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon stroll across Hyde Park to walk it off as she made her way back to a rendezvous with her husband (another friend).

But The Grill is only one part of the Dorchester's multi-million dollar makeover. Since 2011, all the room and suites have been painstakingly refurbished. There are many different categories (the most expensive Park Suites start from $7700  a night).

Mine is a deluxe king room (from $1000), which is stylish, classic and uncluttered with a sumptuous bath and a lovely view of Hyde Park.

Yet the main reason for staying here, of course, is its location on Park Lane (its proximity to Buckingham Palace, the West End theatres, royal parks, and Trafalgar Square with its magnificent galleries).

Plus the elegant public rooms, restaurants, bars, tea lounges, private dining rooms, and huge exquisite spa (I had a facial: don't ask) on the floors below.

The Promenade, often called "Mayfair's drawing room", has always been the heart of The Dorchester. It's the first thing you see once you are directed in through the revolving front doors.

Whatever time of day you arrive, something will be going on in The Promenade. But perhaps the best time is after 1.15pm every day when afternoon tea (a seasonal parade of speciality teas, sandwiches and pastries are served) is served as you sit on plush, goose-down cushions on the high-backed divans while listening to the resident pianist.

At the very end of The Promenade is the oval Promenade Bar, which serves seafood and 14 champagnes from 11am until well past midnight, with live jazz music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.

I don't have enough time in the capital to dine at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, the only three Michelin star restaurant in a London hotel. But I poke my head around the corner while they are setting up for dinner.

It's spectacular, with glass, mirrors and light wood creating an illusion of space and magic (check out the private dining room surrounded by an oval curtain of glass). Jean-Philippe Blondet, a longtime member of Ducasse's kitchen, was appointed executive chef in January 2016.

The hotel's other fine dining restaurant, China Tang at The Dorchester (sense a theme here?) was opened in 2005 by the Hong Kong businessman, Sir David Tang. Essentially it is a dim sum and noodle joint. But what dim sum! What noodles!

This Saturday afternoon the clever, wood-panelled, individual dining booths are full of high income families, with lots of young children who presumably don't realise how lucky they are to have this as their local Chinese restaurant.

I return to the art deco bar at China Tang later that evening because I've heard this is one of the best places in London to spot visiting celebrities. The bar is modelled on a Shanghai nightclub in the decadent 1930s.

Sadly, there are no celebrities (at least none I recognise) though there does seem to be a surfeit of loud businessmen and their equally loud (but much younger) wives.

So I go upstairs to The Dorchester Bar. The English-born Harry Craddock, one of the world's most famous barmen, learned his skills at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel before Prohibition forced him to leave the US for a position at The Savoy's American Bar.

But he was The Dorchester barman from 1938-47, and is credited with inventing the Dorchester of London cocktail (gin, Barcadi rum and Forbidden Fruit - a liqueur that had disappeared until today's head barman, the handsomely moustaced  Giuliano Morandin recreated from Craddock's cocktail recipe book, published more than 60 years ago).

Like The Dorchester, it's strong yet subtle – with a certain fruity twang.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

dorchestercollection.com

TRAVELLING THERE

The Captain's Choice 17-day Bespoke British Isles tour spends 2 nights in London at The Dorchester prior to joining the MS Hebridean Sky for an expedition cruise to the Channel Islands, Dublin, Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Edinburgh. Priced from $22,270 a person, twin share, it departs Australia on June 4, 2017. Call 1300 176 681 or see captainschoice.com.au

Steve Meacham travelled as guest of Captain's Choice and The Dorchester Collection.

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