Feature – The Bar at the Dorchester
London’s great hotels are world famous for their quality, and their bars have been serving cocktails way before the current ‘revival’ resulted in such a liberal sprinkling of excellent bars in cities across the world. In this series we look at what makes the great hotel bars so successful, why they have stood the test of time, and whether they are still relevant in todays drinking culture. In the first part we stop by at the bar at the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.
The Dorchester celebrates it’s 80th birthday in 2011 having first opened in 1931 and rapidly gained a reputation as one of the cities finer water holes. Indeed during the war the hotel was seen a one of the safest places in London due to it’s ‘modern’ construction. A little known fact is that Harry Craddock, the bartender so synonymous with the Savoy, actually worked at the Dorchester for several years from 1938. It seems to have been at this time that it took on the name of the American Bar, subsequently relinquished a few decades later.
Entering the bar today reveals an uncompromisingly glamorous spectacle. Purple glass stalagmites border the seating area like noble sentries protecting against unimaginable danger. The purple theme is continued through the rest of the space, which blends classic luxury with modern design to create a bar that is unashamedly indulgent but also welcoming and contemporary. Having visited on a few occasions, there is always great vibe to this bar; seemingly never too quiet and never too busy. It also enjoys the business of a diverse range of clientele; gone are the days where bars such as the Dorchester are the preserve of jet-setting business people, instead this bar embodies a much more inclusive atmosphere. Sure, there are rich city-types drinking expensive cognac at the bar, but there are also families relaxing after a stroll in the park, young couples enjoying a pre-dinner drink, or groups of friends relaxing in the laid-back atmosphere. Stuffiness? Not a hint; this is a bar that welcomes all.
The interior design is complemented by other luxury touches such as bespoke glassware and a generous staff-customer ratio that ensures a truly high-end experience. With such opulence comes a price and in-line with 5* hotel prices in London, cocktails at the Dorchester are in the £13-£16 bracket. With the standard of non-hotel bars ever increasing, it is now possible to drink some exceptionally good cocktails for under £10, so I wondered if bars like the Dorchester might be losing relevance with cocktail enthusiasts, and once again becoming the preserve of the rich and famous. If I had any such doubts, Guiliano the bar manager soon put them out of my mind. Guiliano is that rarest of creatures that can only be described as the perfect host. Sure he mixes up some great cocktails, but as I said there are many that can do that. What Guiliano has perfected however is a style of service that just feels magical. He seems to know what you want before you do, he cares about his customers in a way that makes them feel as if they are long-lost friends, and he takes a degree of pride in his trade that simply isn’t matched in many of even the best cocktail bars around town. Of course he has honed his skills over several decades, but the passion runs through the whole team.
Despite most certainly being a contemporary bar, history is clearly important here. To celebrate the 80th birthday, Guiliano has dug out an old recipe book that included the ‘Dorchester of London Cocktail’. Unfortunately one of the ingredients, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ is no longer made, but this only inspired Guiliano to set about recreating the product, and he did a rather good job. I was fortunate enough to sample a tot of the original product and compare with the Dorchesters recreation. Both use Pomello fruit to create a liqueur that is sweetened with honey (although there are theories that the original would have used maple syrup). Both have a nice citrus bite with a bit of spice. The original (now being several decades old) had a smoky character and a huge depth of flavour that was quite unlike anything I have tried before. The Dorchesters version is much lighter with a good honey sweetness and works wonderfully in the Dorchester of London Cocktail which combines it with Bacardi rum and London Dry gin. The rest of the menu focuses on the classics but they do like to have a bit of a play and a whiff of interest from a customer will result in all manner of delightful concoctions coming your way. Even something as simple as a G+T comes with the option of 3 bespoke bitters to add an interesting and tasty twist.
The bar at the Dorchester has shed any image that hotel bars had of being stuffy and only for the rich and famous. It delivers excellent cocktails in an environment that is of the highest quality. The service is not only professional and friendly, but also personal and caring; the customer truly is king here. Relevant? Absolutely; this is one hotel bar that I have no trouble recommending.