Oscar Humphries on Le Bristol — quite possibly Paris’s most perfect palace hotel
remember hearing, around the turn of the millennium, about the most expensive hamburger in New York City: $24 at the ‘21’ Club. These days such a price doesn’t seem unreasonable. If it’s a good burger — and the ‘21’ burger enjoys high praise — $24 may even represent good value.
Some prices have gone down — property prices, contemporary art prices, anything sold in British pounds. Other prices, such as burgers, or anything once owned by a famous fashion designer, or premium watches, have gone up. I think this trend will continue, as in some areas we are seeing the inflation that may follow profligate quantitative easing and spread beyond the luxury market.
Having seen so many of my friends’ careers go the way of the dodo, there are times when I question my own fiscal mortality. What would I do? Move to Paris and write? A cliché, yes — but also my plan B. Paris is a lot of people’s favourite city, including mine.
The days when you could languish in Paris — broke and half pissed, bumping into Hemingway on the Rue du Bac — are, of course, over. My experience of Paris in the 21st century has been consistently enjoyable but expensive. Saint Germain once teemed with consumptive artists but now I’m told ‘it’s only Americans and Russians’ that live there. It’s a life-affirming place and so much brighter than London, even if everyone at L’Avenue — including the wait staff — are better dressed than I am.
Normally I spend my time trying to find the perfect Left Bank hotel from which I can explore the galleries. When I’m there I become a total tourist, saying things such as ‘I love Paris — it’s so French’ and expecting a smile from a waiter when I order ‘salade vert’ in a passable accent which I’m told is more Swiss than French.
Sara and I often walk past the larger, grander ‘palace’ hotels near Place Vendôme and the Champs-Elysées and wonder what it would be like to stay there. We stayed in the Ritz last summer in a huge suite written down for August, when there’s no one in Paris. The Ritz is beautiful and the location perfect, but there is something about the corridor that leads to the lifts — lined with kitsch knick-knacks and Swarovski crystal-encrusted hair clips — that suggests the hotel has evolved since Coco Chanel lived there.
I often ask friends where to stay in Paris. Everyone gives different answers but all my friends who wear Loro Piana Vicuña give the same answer: Le Bristol. I’d nod and say, ‘Thanks. I’ll be sure to try it,’ knowing that even for me, a confirmed spendaholic, Le Bristol might well lead to ruin for Sara, Elmo (our bulldog) and me. Balls to ruin, I thought, and for our last trip to Paris we booked a room at Le Bristol. I was there for meetings so this was a work trip, not simply continental self-indulgence.
O f all of the ‘palace’ hotels, this one is truest to the ideal. On the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and dating from 1715, the hotel at first appears discreet, understated even. The lobby is smaller than expected, without a Swarovski crystal in sight. Our room was delightful, with a view on to the courtyard, where lunch is served in summer. The pool, hidden on the sixth floor, is small but perfect, the walls lined with teak. You could be on a very smart ‘yaught’ were it not for the view of the Parisian skyline.
The rooms at the Bristol are expensive, but that means the lobby is quiet and that you don’t bump into anyone tracksuited in the lift and wonder whether they are paying less for their room than you are because they ‘booked online’.
The restaurant in Le Bristol is almost more famous than the hotel itself. Awarded its third Michelin star this year and decorated in Louis XIV style, it must have one of the most beautiful dining rooms in France. Indeed, I’m told that it’s the place to go to let fellow Parisians know that you’ve arrived. Sara and I had arrived — in Paris, at least — but no one seemed to care.
The concierge got us into La Société, the new Costes restaurant on the Place Saint Germain designed by Christian Liagre. It was grey and full of very chic people who must have had something wrong with their eyes because they kept looking me up and down. We loved it because it gave us that feeling — so hard to find in a city one doesn’t know well — of being in the right place.
The great advantage of staying at a hotel like Le Bristol, apart from the food, the old-fashioned service and the perfect courtyard, is that they can make you feel at home when you’re not at home. For me at least, the substitute home and lifestyle was far nicer than my actual one.