One suspects that, for many Londoners, St James’s is one of those neighbourhoods that you’ve heard of but don’t really know. There’s a vibe of private members’ club to the entire postcode, a sense that, if your surname isn’t double-barrelled and your net worth isn’t at least seven figures (not including the decimal places), then someone’s going to unleash the hounds if you don’t head back to the cheaper parts. Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, it’s an unfair view because it’s basically just a lovely part of the city, and, with DUKES London, also home to some of the capital’s most legendary hospitality…
Why come here?
DUKES is an institution, a discrete and charming hotel that, for all its fame, still feels like something of an “address book secret”. Tucked just off the main drag – with close neighbours including the likes of Green Park, Berry Bros. & Rudd, and Lock & Co. Hatters – it’s hiding in plain sight. You’re unlikely to stumble past DUKES by accident and, even if you did, it’s unlikely you’d recognise it as one of London’s finest somewhat boutique hotels. And if you’re stumbling out, having experienced the thing DUKES is most famous for, there’s a very good chance you won’t remember anyway. But we’ll come to Alessandro and his martini trolley in a paragraph or two…
It has been a hotel since 1908 and remains proudly independent, low key and, by London standards, quite compact, with some 90 rooms and suites. There is a hint of private club to it, and there’s a very good chance the team will greet many of your fellow guests with obvious familiarity. Whether you’re a regular or a first timer, however, the welcome is warm. For the record, the welcome is also extended to dogs.
Entering this hotel is almost “a parody of Englishness”, said Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re really into the “fantasy London” of “cobblestone streets and red phone boxes”, then DUKES “fills the bill perfectly”. Akin to “arriving at a stately home”, the entrance to DUKES is “one of the capital’s most iconic”, said The Luxury Editor. The cascading flowers covering the façade and the courtyard “make it feel like you are arriving at some great aunt’s home, rather than visiting a hotel”.
Rooms and suites
Rooms are comfortable and smart but, knowingly, some considerable distance from cutting edge. That’s not to say they’re lacking in some way, or haven’t moved with the times: TVs are large, workspaces accept the existence of laptops, showers are powerful. They’re simply rooms that belong in a smart building of Victorian origin so, well, yeah. Exactly.
Well, it has to be a martini. And, perhaps, shaken, rather than stirred? DUKES has the kind of cocktail pedigree any bar worth its salt (rim) would kill for. As Ian Fleming’s favoured watering hole, DUKES Bar is said to be the inspiration for James Bond’s favourite tipple, a fact reflected in the famous martini trolley. You may be lucky enough to have one made for you by head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, but, whichever white-jacketed chap you get, your drink will be exceptional.
The Vesper is perhaps the biggest nod to the Fleming-esque history and the solution to those unsure whether to order a gin or vodka martini as this recipe includes both, poured from the freezer, in measures that take your breath, and your regrets, away. You will be cut off at two drinks but, frankly, as you approach the end of the second you’ll be very grateful for that rule. The bar is “as fine a venue as ever”, said The Telegraph. The cocktails “aren’t cheap”, but they are “worth it”.
Eating is a slightly different story. The restaurant, GBR – Great British Dining Room – does pretty much what it says on the tin, celebrating either British ingredients, or British ingredients turned into British classics, in a very solid, thoroughly delicious style. The sourcing is impeccable. The cooking is spot on. The menu is full of things you want to eat and, while much is predictable – a risotto, scampi, steaks – the execution frequently surprises.
The risotto, for example, is made with Hodmedod’s grains, rather than rice. The scampi is made from monkfish, and served with a ballsy caper and parsley mayo. Steaks are… well, brilliantly sourced and grilled perfectly so are, by definition, pretty much faultless. And yet the place lacks a little spark, a sense of identity. You’ll have a fine meal – and such fare in staggering distance of martini number two and your bed must never be underrated – but compared to the rest of DUKES, the restaurant feels a little light on personality although that could just be in direct comparison to its destination bar and century-plus of exquisite hospitality.
Breakfast, incidentally, is excellent: nods to modern foibles (peanut butter, banana and cacao porridge anyone?), but mostly classics, good quality pastries, and seriously good meat, including Bury black pudding. It also serves until a very generous 11am.
What to do?
You are but minutes from The Royal Academy or Green Park, a moderate stroll to Fortnum & Mason, Waterstones, the chains and fashion brands of Regent Street/Oxford Street, the more rarefied air of Savile Row or Jermyn Street. Whatever your fancy, it’s probably available within a 15- or 20-minute radius of this exceptionally central address, which makes the relative calm and quiet of DUKES seem all the more remarkable.
Neil Davey was a guest at DUKES London. Nightly rates in a DUKES room start from £425 inclusive of VAT and breakfast. 35 St James’s Place, St James’s, London SW1A 1NY; dukeshotel.com
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