Review by Fiona Duncan, published 3rd November 2011.
It's gone, along with the oxygen canisters that used to be in the minibars: that tremor of excitement, the hint of profligacy, the feeling of glamorous excess. Though its looks have remained unchanged for more than 30 years; though Lady Weinberg, aka Anouska Hempel, herself is in charge of refurbishment; and though the restaurant remains in the same excellent hands (Neville Campbell, since 1994), Blakes just doesn't have the cachet of yore. It used to be very dark, with a whiff of decadence; now it's just very dark.
Although its aura may have dissipated with the passage of time, all is not lost and Blakes still makes a very amenable and particularly friendly South Kensington bolt-hole. Since Anouska Hempel sold it in 2004, its downward spiral had been alarming, falling into administration in 2008. Last year, however, it was rescued by the new owners, Meir Abutbul and Navid Mirtorabi, who have plans to roll out more Blakes in other cities and who immediately implemented a massive programme of refurbishment, employing Hempel to oversee the design.
Some rooms have been given a contemporary look, but my own, called Dorian Gray, and other dens I was shown, were very much Blakes-of-old: dark, opulent and crowded with cushions, velvet hangings, Oriental and Biedemeier-style furniture, with black and white classical prints on the walls. An Eighties time warp, but in a good way.
It deserves to be preserved, for with its advent, in 1978, Hempel invented the boutique hotel. Fashioned from a row of town houses – painted black – between Old Brompton Road and Fulham Road, it combined, for the first time, the luxury of Claridge's with the intimacy and exclusivity of a private club.
It had an opulent, secretive, hedonistic character that no London hotel, indeed no city hotel anywhere, had offered before. Couples without luggage checked in. Diana Ross checked in. Princess Margaret checked in. Film stars and directors by the dozen made it their London home from home. A smooth young German publisher told my husband that he wouldn't consider a deal unless we managed to secure him a room at Blakes, which was full, during his visit to the London Book Fair. No deal.
The lobby, shaded by a giant parasol, is almost a joke it's so Eighties, all bamboo and bound leather, trunks piled on top of trunks and a pair of lovebirds in a pretty birdcage. Downstairs are the Chinese Room and the glossy little bar and restaurant: black and white tablecloths, slipper orchids, candles, books, fans and Oriental oddities on the walls. Here three of us dined, and here, finally, we were seduced.
The staff are charming, the restaurant is intimate, the food divine. The weird mix of Mediterranean and Oriental dishes on the menu made uncomfortable reading at first, but all our choices were good ones, whether soft-shell crabs or angel-hair pasta, black cod with miso and ginger sauce or rack of lamb with rosemary and mint couscous.
I could easily manage life without the bedrooms, now that the thrill of them has waned, but I'd return to dine in Blakes's intimate little basement sanctuary in a heartbeat.
- 33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 3PF (020 7370 6701; blakeshotels.com). Doubles from £245 per night; singles from £175; breakfast from £12.50. Access possible for guests with disabilities
Where to shop
If you are staying at Blakes, chances are you are also in town to shop, in which case you could take advantage of the hotel's dedicated shopping experts Hiscox Mavroleon. Sarah Hiscox and Sacha Mavroleon will take you to great places from small boutiques off the beaten track to long-established departments stores.
Kensington Church Street offers a wide selection of arts and antiques, selling everything from furniture to paintings, and is a nice way to spend a few hours. And the Hummingbird Bakery is a great place to stop for cupcakes. Or head back to the hotel for a Chinese-themed afternoon tea which is wheat free, taken either in the Chinese Room or the pretty outdoor courtyard.
What to do
South Kensington makes a great location for 'Albertopolis', the museums set up by Prince Albert just a few minutes' walk away: the V&A, Natural History Museum and Science Museum, and of course the Albert Memorial and the Albert Hall for concerts and events. Kensington Palace is close by too while Kensington Gardens with its famous Round Pond and playground and Hyde Park are the places to go walking, or boating on the Serpentine.
Where to eat
A couple of in-the-know places to eat in South Ken are Le Bistrot at the Institut Francais (17 Queensbury Place, SW7; 0871 971 7667;institut.francais.org.uk) and the Polish restaurant, Gessler at Daquise (20 Thurloe Street, SW7; 020 7589 6117; gessleratdaquise.co.uk), little changed since 1947 but now run by the Gessler family, restaurateurs from Warsaw.