Inching your way through London’s rush hour traffic towards The Langham, something strange happens: the neat beaux arts facades home to flagship Apple, Nike and H&M stores, the bright red double-decker buses and the hordes of intense-looking shoppers abruptly disappear. The high-street rough-and-tumble of the capital’s Regent Street suddenly gives way to something altogether more stately and refined. And it all happens so fast. A porter in a bowler hat opens your taxi door then politely ushers you beneath a grand porte-cochère. Before you know it, you’re in a world of neo-classical columns, metalwork fixtures and seriously spot-on service.
The sense of remove from the outside world is one thing that defines The Langham; it’s long history is another. Few hotels have endured so much, and even fewer come out the other side. Designed by the British architect John Giles, whose list of credits includes other mid-19th century London landmarks such as Stratford Town Hall and the Petersham Hotel, The Langham was the grandest stone confection in town when it opened, with quiet fanfare, in 1865. Almost immediately it found itself at the vanguard of Victorian luxury: it was the first hotel to have running hot water, the first to have an hydraulic elevator, the first to have a telephone, and allegedly the first to charm high society with the afternoon tea set.
Its indulgences attracted a long list of the lovely and the louche—not just royalty such as Louis Napoleon III, who holed up at The Langham during his enforced exile, but also business magnates, bohemia and literary talents such as Arthur Conan Doyle, a regular guest who set several Sherlock Holmes stories there. Then there’s the connection with that great public British institution, the BBC. After the Second World War, the BBC used the building as a base, and by 1965 had bought it outright. During this period, the BBC orchestra would broadcast live from the Palm Court, the resplendently ritzy room where afternoon tea is still served today. Eventually the building’s relationship with the BBC soured—its application to replace it with a Norman Foster-designed building was denied—but there appear to be no hard feelings. Today the Art Deco, George Val Myer-designed BBC headquarters, Broadcasting House, looks on admiringly from the other side of Portland Place.
If the weight of all this history bears down heavily on The Langham (and the fact that the staff are wont to drop historic anecdotes at opportune moments means it does), it doesn’t feel stifled by it. While clearly proud of its past, The Langham is not standing still, as so many heritage hotels are wont to do. Now owned by the Hong Kong-listed Great Eagle Group and managed by the Langham Hospitality Group, the property is now unmistakably a 21st century one.
A fresh gleam—neither too corporate, nor too fashionable—is the most conspicuous sign of this revitalisation. Unless you can afford the six-bedroom Sterling Suite, London’s largest hotel suite, this thoughtful rejuvenation is best experienced in the Club Lounge, which was added in 2015 to mark the hotel’s 150th anniversary. Whether you come here for the fleeting check-in or the buffet breakfast, this open-plan space has a cheerful, neo-British townhouse feel and a soft white colour scheme offset with smatterings of the hotel’s signature Langham pink. The design by Richmond International is neither too minimal, nor too fussy and, as elsewhere in the property, comes jazzed up with paintings and sculptures by a roll-call of British artists.
Things are a bit more subdued in my spacious and classically elegant suite—where old-world mainstays such as a writing desk, plush settee and armchairs mingle with slick mod-cons and a plump king-size bed to blissful effect—but, I stress, only a bit. There’s a calm logic and classiness to it all, a compact yet extravagant marble bathroom, and, on peeling back the chiffon curtains, a postcard-perfect view of the grey stone street below.
Food is another highlight—arguably the highlight. In 1879, Charles Dickens noted in his guide to London that The Langham was the most expensive hotel meal ticket in town, and that for large dinner parties simply nowhere else was up to snuff. Since then, the choices available in the British capital have broadened somewhat, and a simple soup and joint of meat no longer as sophisticated as suppers get, but The Langham’s dining venues still form a vital and dynamic part of the London cityscape. Take afternoon tea time, when tourists and residents alike come to languish in the very seemly splendour of the Palm Court, with its high-ceilings, polished mirrors, clued-up tea curator and dainty pastries by award-winning executive pastry chef Cherish Finden (a judge on the hit TV show The Great British Bake-Off, no less).
Another type of chic refinement is also served at the snug and intimate Artesian bar located just across the lobby. Here, the city’s moneyed yet discerning come to quaff concept-driven libations such as The Langham Cobbler, a blend of lychee and aged sake. In 2015, this boiseried rabbit-hole of a venue beat off stiff competition from the likes of New York’s PYT to top the World’s 50 Best Bars list and, during my stay, its hallowed position as “a place of pilgrimage,” as the judges put it, is plain to see every evening. And completing The Langham’s world-beating wine-and-dine triumvirate is Roux at The Landau. The second restaurant of father and son team Michel Jr. and Albert Roux (the first is the two Michelin-starred La Gavroche, also in London’s Mayfair) recently featured in the film Chef starring Bradley Cooper. But it’s the classically-constructed modern French dishes, the sharp and discreet service and the understated yet luxurious detailing of its wood-accented dining room that attracts the accolades and gourmands.
It’s easy to be seduced by the screenplay-worthy anecdotes that linger around The Langham like a stubborn cloud of cigar smoke, from the underground tunnel that is said to connect with the BBC to the story of how Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey was commissioned here. But at the end of the day it’s the unapologetically English sense of place, the ease with which you can hit the shops and the service-driven experiential touches—from the sophisticated Chuan Spa to the clubby bonhomie of Artesian—that make a stay here really stick in the mind.