William Cash says none of London’s hotels can match Le Meurice, the grande dame of Parisian palais with a witty twist. Just don’t go there alone; its luxury, humour and glamour are best appreciated with company.
IF THERE IS a word that sums up Le Meurice, it is ‘wit’. The tradition of wit, combined with luxury, is why since 1835 228 Rue de Rivoli has been the favoured Paris address of European aristocracy and the socialite, literary and fashionista demi-mondes, as well as the pied à terre of Picasso, Dali and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The current incarnation of the hotel – its fourth since 1835 – is something of an homage to Dali who used to live at the hotel for a month every year, installing his own furniture and tipping the staff with signed lithographs; he used to ask them to catch flies for him in the adjacent Tuileries Garden. In the hotel’s brochure, the phrase used to describe the ambience of Le Meurice is ‘where past and present meet with humour and glamour’.
Bar 228 at Le Meurice
But ‘wit and glamour’ is a more accurate description. Philippe Starck, who was commissioned to redesign the hotel in 2007, is not a comedian. He is a designer and an artist. He is also a savvy commercial businessman who has occasionally taken on too many projects and lost his creative soul in pushing branding above his talent.
But Starck’s reinvention of Le Meurice is as close as he has ever come to fulfilling his perfect commission. Almost every quirky bespoke piece – all indirectly inspired by the art of Dali – that he has made for the hotel stands up as a masterpiece. Le Meurice is what Stark will be remembered for – not for the bathroom taps in some designer hotel in downtown Miami.
Just inside the entrance to the Dali restaurant is the Shoes Table, a triptych table with three gilt legs dressed in designer shoes. Yes, you can sit on it. Even more inventive and eclectic are the Winged Chair, made in beech, covered in silver leaf, and the Swan Armchair, with a silver swan’s head built into the armrest, suggested by the swans that inspired various works by Dali in the 1950s.
Yet the hotel is not a Contemporary art museum, preserved in aspic. It is a living hotel. You can sit on such works of art, just as you can stand in front of the Frosted Mirror as you enter the hotel. The mirror is a classic piece of artistic wit; in many ways it symbolises – and freezes – the creative spirit of the hotel. It nods back to Dali, who considered mineral water his ‘ultimate addiction’ but also looks forward as it reminds guests that the hotel is itself a grand patron of the arts, this year celebrating the fifth year of the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art.
The restaurant at Le Meurice
Fashion also. Walk into the lobby – its marble and mosaic floor glints and dazzles and shines just like Claridge’s. But you are unlikely to see any loud Americans in bermuda shorts and baseball caps sprawled on the lobby sofas. The moment you walk in, you see why the hotel is the HQ of the world’s elite during Fashion Week in Paris; why the world’s top editors will only stay at Le Meurice; and why the phrase ‘Le genie francais de l’arte de vivre’ (‘The French genius for the art of living’) is not trite or cliché when emblazoned in discreet gilt lettering against an exquisite silvery verdigris on the hotel’s brochures. Rather it expresses the philosophical spirit behind everything that Le Meurice does.
THE FRENCH ARE often knocked by the Brits – and some Americans too – for being a little too pleased with themselves. For being a nation of flaneurs, dilettantes, decadents. For indulging in their beautiful past rather than being serious about a realistic future. But if you want to be taken seriously in the world of business in Paris, you go to Le Meurice rather than the Traveller’s. Because le Meurice is about being bold. No other hotel has more of an innovative pedigree.
But, at its heart, the hotel is a place to stay in Paris. It is not the sort of hotel where you would ever want to book a single room. It is the sort of hotel you take a girlfriend whom you are falling in love with, and want Paris to become part of your menage. A hotel you will always come back to together. Le Meurice may be rooted in the formal grandeur of the past, but its chic and sexy spirit means that you feel — it helps if you have a suite with two front doors filled with white and pink roses overlooking the Tuileries Gardens — that your time in Paris is spent in the present and future tenses, which is what romance is all about.
To stay at Le Meurice is to be reminded what does make (and part of me as an Englishman dies as I write this) France – in particular Paris – so unique, so worldly, so sophisticated and so surreally chic and refined, in a way that London simply cannot manage. As head chef Yannick Alléno says, ‘My cuisine is like my city, and my city is Paris.’ Can you imagine Gordon Ramsay saying this and not being parodied in Private Eye?
Le Meurice really does carry the grand soul of elite, worldly and unapologetic Paris with it – such as how you can order a glass of Dom Perignon by the glass in Bar 228 (makes Blake’s look almost provincial) while also nibbling at one of Alléno’s Mikado canapés. These are specially dressed crisp bread matchsticks lightly covered in foie gras and truffle or avocado, shrimp and grapefruit. The idea of peanuts and crisps simply is inconceivable at Le Meurice.
A bedroom at Le Meurice
Yet despite the disdain for the corporate, the vulgar and the obvious, the creative ambition does not disappoint. On winning his third Michelin star, Alléno became an example of an overnight success that has taken over twenty years in the making.
THE HOTEL IS more than a hotel, it is a Parisian state of mind, and an attitude towards life. From every corner of my sumptuous white veined marble bathroom, to the range of suites and rooms that differ wildly, from the Louis XVI style of the presidential suites to the empire style (chicly modernised by French decorator Charles Jouffre.)
My suite looked out across Paris and included a small library, two entrances, and a drawing room large enough to seat thirty for dinner. I’d recommend it as the ultimate metropolitan suite while also being more romantic than any honeymoon eco-villa with its own pool and beach and personal spa in the Maldives. It was vast, aesthetically intoxicating and pure Phillipe Starck.
I didn’t need the ocean to stare at. The view of Paris between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde contains pretty much everything that life has to offer you – the Palais Garnier opera house, the shops of the rue de Rivoli and the rue Saint-Honoré are all within ten minutes’ walk.
But for dinner or lunch, there’s no good reason to leave the hotel. Alléno’s third Michelin star was awarded because of the innovative style of such signature dishes as ‘Dodin Bouffant’s Pot-au-Feu served in five dishes’ or the ‘chaud froid of Sole with mushrooms sautéed in butter with shallots, lightly gelled stock and Bouchot whipped cream’. At lunch in the Dali restaurant, I had another Meurice favourite: the ‘Saint-Honoré’, which is an indulgent concoction of éclairs in the grand Parisian tradition from the hand of head pastry chef Camille Lesecq.
Even breakfast was a gastronomic triumph – not because it was fussy or because the buffet was piled up like a smorgasboard fit for the Sultan of Zanzibar or the Maharaja of Jaipur or King George VI (all of whom stayed at the hotel). But because the table linen was pressed so well it seemed like felt, and because the staff – almost Zola-like caricatures of Belle Epoque waiters – never even so much dared utter the dread phrase: ‘self-service’.
This is rare today at breakfast even in the world’s soi disant best hotels. Everything was brough to the table — even a little shooting stick-style seat for my briefcase. Yes, it was given its own seat. My companion said the scrambled egg with black truffle was the best breakfast she had ever had in her life.
London may have its Mayfair icons like The Connaught and Claridge’s (alas The Savoy’s $200 million re-invention was a decorative suicide note) but we have nothing that can combine the grandeur of a classic French palace hotel like Le Meurice. While its flagship restaurant may be modelled on a dining room in Versailles, the sense of intimacy comes from such delicate touches as pink and white roses on any table in sight, black leather sofas in the Dali restaurant that border on the designer erotic and a collection of Contemporary art that looks like it has all walked in from the Pompidou.
BOLD FRENCH PALACE grand tradition combined with quirky Parisian glamour can be an intoxicating — if expensive — drug. With its history and utter anti-bourgeois embrace of the avant-garde, Le Meurice is one of the chicest business hotels in Paris. At lunch you will see a melee of dark suits, women in heels so high they can hardly walk and men in oversized sunglasses so dark they cant possibly read the menu. It is all fashion meets finance; decadence meets haut design; moguls and mistresses; models and Maîtres de l’Univers.
The Dali Restaurant at Le Meurice
Le Meurice is really more of an artistic or luxury cult than a hotel. Hotels that try too hard be ironic or post-modern or even just trendy usually end up having to be reinvented every few years. The beauty of Le Meurice is that the entire hotel is so self-assured in its creative spirit — partly thanks to designer Philippe Starck and Picasso having chosen the hotel to host (one of) his wedding dinners.
But my favourite reason for going back is that they take pets seriously. And I mean truly seriously: the logo of the hotel even incorporates two greyhounds because of a stray greyhound that was rescued by the hotel when it was being renovated at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, general manager Franka Holtmann has declared that the grand tradition of the hotel welcoming dogs will continue as ever. Dogs are given their own tag and bowl on check-in (even a bowl engraved with their name for VIP dogs).
Dogs get a special Meurice basket to sleep in, known as The Sofa O’, with a snug faux-fur interior trim. Designed in the shape of a Dali egg, the basket takes the tradition of Meurice pooch pampering back to when the hotel was the residence of choice for travelling royals who wanted their pets to be given every indulgence. I can’t wait to go back – in a party of four next time, including two very pampered labradors.