Review by Fiona Duncan, published 26th October 2008.
I once worked for a wealthy East Coast American couple on their private yacht. In summer Mrs Dickerson would don her jewelled bird-of-paradise sunglasses and plastic nose guard and drink bull shots on deck. In winter, she would repair to the Connaught.To Mr and Mrs Dickerson the Connaught was England; they didn't need to visit the rest of the country.
All that clubby, dark wood panelling, heavy silver on starched white linen, reverential service – they loved it. But then, with only seven managers since 1897 and Michel Bourdin ruling the kitchens for what seemed like an eternity, the Connaught, like my employers, began to age and creak. Even Bourdin's replacement by Angela Hartnett couldn't stem the decline: no chef, however fashionable, can make up for century-old plumbing. But now the old girl has been restored.
What would the Dickersons make of the changes? They would doubtless admire the magnificent mahogany staircase, now divested of its institutional glass enclosures and embellished with lashings of gilt; and the suites, with much original furniture but altogether far lighter and sexier than before. Bathrooms are dazzling in their white Thassos marble and Art Deco chrome livery; antique Chinese armoires hold the drinks; you just float to sleep on the beds.
They would have been drawn too to the curving new conservatory for breakfast and tea, but they'd have recoiled in horror at the two new bars. Designer makeovers of previously cigar smoke-filled bolt-holes, they make one think of crusty old Great Uncle Henry suddenly appearing in a shiny tracksuit.
Copying the success of similar bars at Claridges and the Berkeley, they lure a preening, chattering crowd each night and on our visit were so full that we, humble guests, could not be accommodated. Imagine the Dickersons being turned away from the hotel's old American Bar. But then it was always half empty. It's a tricky balance that hotels such as these have to strike.
Less of a shock would be the gently contemporary enhancement of the dining room, and modernisation of the service, with butlers trained in 21st-century practices such as dealing with Blackberries and Apple Macs.
All very useful I'm sure, yet the request for a radio in a room costing hundreds of pounds a night caused consternation. And while we're at it, I could have done with a jar of cotton wool. Oh, and the doorman was missing when I arrived. But these are hiccups: the staff were all kept on during the hotel's closure and many are delightfully "old school", while Anthony Lee, engaging manager for 30 years, remains in beneficent command.
And what of the much-vaunted new chef, Hélène Darroze, who also has a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris? "Born in a saucepan", she's evidently charming and admirable and lunch was a real treat, but we found some dishes a bit odd.
Caviar in a black jelly with oyster tartare was like "eating the English Channel…or possibly the great, grey, greasy Limpopo," according to my companion, who was also forced to point out that my lips had turned black after eating the squid with black rice. Flavours didn't quite zing; the food never completely took off.
The Connaught, though, is flying.
Carlos Place, London W1 (020 7499 7070; www.the-connaught.co.uk).Doubles from £365 to £3,500 per night, excluding breakfast. Access for guests with disabilities.