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  It's MAGIC - London's Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park

Two massive, bronze dogs of an Oriental cast stand guard at the front entrance to one of London’s great hotels: the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Their tongues are rolling balls, and when Liam Lambert arrives at the hotel every morning, he turns to the one on the right, puts his hand in its mouth and rubs the ball.

click to enlarge Sure it’s a bit of magic that the director/general manager is engaging in, and why not?  Wizardry comes natural to the Dublin-born hotelier whose magician father would amaze audiences by having a row of bullets shot into his mouth which, after a moment of savoring, he would calmly spit out. So does raconteuring. Handy attributes for a man who oversees an enchanted, fabled property in the heart of  stylish Knightsbridge.

Magically, the sun breaks through the clouds this June afternoon just as we settle in for tea with Liam Lambert in the Mandarin Oriental’s Park Restaurant. On the other side of the window, leafy Hyde Park has suddenly become radiant with dappled light and dark green shadows.

We are about to put the jam on the scones when before our eyes, the Queen’s Royal Horse Guards appear in full regalia astride sleek black steeds.  They’re changing the guards at Buckingham Palace, and a troop of horsemen are trotting down the bridle path en route to the barracks.  Is this real or has Liam Lambert conjured up the vision to create the perfect mood?

The golden-tongued director/general manager: Liam Lambert - click to enlarge
The golden-tongued director/general manager: Liam Lambert

The charismatic Irishman with the gift of gab demurs. This happens every day, he assures us, adding the hotel’s association with the royals is one of long-standing. Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret learned to dance in the ballroom adjacent to the restaurant. Prince Philip used to bring the children here for tea. Queen Mary was a regular. But there had been a falling out early on, he confesses, launching into the first of the many stories we would hear from the golden-tongued General Manager.     

“It was way back in 1893,” Liam Lambert began, “when Queen Victoria, passing by in a landau, saw a sign by the hotel’s Hyde Park gate stating it was a gentlemen’s residence – which is what it was at the time. Hyde Park being her park, she took offense and wrote a letter to the owner, Mr. Balfour. ‘How dare you have a sign on royal land? Please take it down immediately. And by the way, that gate that I gave you, please lock it.’

“After that,” he continued, “the Hyde Park gate to the hotel remained locked. Years later, the Queen relented somewhat and allowed it to be opened ‘on call.’ And so it continues. It was open to guests during the coronation of George VI in 1937. When we have princes, princesses, heads of state, prime ministers as guests, we contact the Palace: ‘So and so is arriving this day. May we have permission to open the gate on Hyde Park?’ Or if a couple is getting married, the Palace will bring the key and open the gate whereupon we will lay the red carpet for the bride and groom.”

Claire Mead-Briggs, Director of Communications before the red carpet - click to enlarge
Claire Mead-Briggs, Director of Communications before the red carpet

Liam Lambert has been laying the red carpet for this five-star property and greeting guests at its (never locked) Knightsbridge entrance since May 2000 when the hotel re-opened after an extensive seven month restoration that followed its acquisition by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. Today, the grand turreted edifice of red brick and stone looks much as it did when Queen Victoria ruled the realm. Inside the palatial proportions and marble floors and walls of its public halls are still there. But the hotel has been transformed to reflect the standards, imagination, and mystique of the Mandarin Oriental brand.
click to enlarge Every one of the 200 rooms and suites, reconfigured to meet 21st century needs, has been re-decorated in Victorian style accented with oriental themes. “The two looks compliment each other very nicely,” Liam Lambert said. “When we did the renovation, we thought about what materials were used in Victorian times -- satin, silk, gingham, velvet – and we used these fabrics for the upholstery, heavy drapes and bedspreads.” But, as we saw in our own room, and no two rooms in the hotel are alike -- the effect is lightened by such Far Eastern touches as Chippendale chairs, oriental lamps, and the purity of fresh white orchids in a Chinese vase.

A zen-like aura permeates the softly lit, aromatic Mandarin Oriental spa where one is asked to arrive forty minutes ahead of the appointed time to go through a process that seduces the senses into a state of total tranquility. Only then does the personally-designed treatment of exotic therapy begin in a setting of touchstones, plunge pools, scented soaps and heated coals designed to rejuvenate both body and spirit.

“The oriental theme of the hotel stems from the company’s heritage,” Liam told us. “Mandarin Oriental properties are owned by Jardine Matheson, a Scottish firm that began trading in Asia in the 1820’s and went on to become one of the British trading companies that colonized the economy of Hong Kong. When the lease on Hong Kong came due in 1997, Jardine Matheson was its biggest landlord owning $2 billion worth of land and buildings as well as the biggest supermarket chain in Asia.

“The company opened its first hotel, the Mandarin, in Hong Kong in 1963,” he added. “A few years later, they bought the Oriental in Bangkok and amalgamated the two names. Today the group owns 18 luxury hotels; five more are under development.”

In Foliage, the Mandarin Oriental’s  award-winning restaurant, the British-Asian ethos fuses seamlessly. Hearing it was designed by Adam Tihany of Le Cirque 2000 fame, we anticipated primary colors, bold swathes of fabric, and playful circus motifs. But Foliage is a serene, bi-level space of minimalist design with butterscotch leather chairs and rosewood paneling. At the same time, its soaring windowed wall looking out onto Hyde Park that blurs the distinction between interior and exterior makes it seem a bewitching garden.

It was still light out when we arrived for dinner, and the Roman shades covering the facing side walls were a glinting green reflection of the park’s hues. But when night fell, the shades were raised, and thousands of illuminated silk leaves behind glass panels were revealed to stunning, shimmering effect. The subtle play of light, the use of shades and panels, the simplicity of the furnishings, and the Hyde Park panorama combined into a Japanese aesthetic that was enhanced by a bonsai centerpiece on every table and a mis-en-place of a japonica leaf imprinted on rice paper beneath a plate of jade-colored glass.

In keeping with the Far Eastern themes, an Asian chef has signed on of late, and we sampled some of his imaginative creations like a cube of raw tuna atop spicy white noodles, a shot-sized glass of melon soup -- the juice of honeydew with a touch of basil and strawberry liquid, and a corn fritter all beautifully presented on a single square dish laid on the diagonal.

To enter the restaurant, one walks through a crystal-like corridor lined with glass shelves. More than 5,500 bottles of wine are stored here. Because they are available by the glass, we had the opportunity to match a sublime dish of roasted sweetbreads in cream sauce with onion compote and gnocchi with a slightly sweet and flowery sauterne (Domaine de la Bessane, Pays-d’Oc); rounds of poached Scottish lobster and caviar dressing with a pungent New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the Hawkes Bay region; stimulating sea bass with fricassee of peas, walnut and sherry vinegar, and ravioli of roasted turbot with horseradish cream with a fruity, amber-colored chardonnay from Sicily (Planeta). Sated, we thought to skip dessert until a miniature soufflé appeared followed by miniature servings of apple green sherbet and swirls of chocolate mousse. Partnered with the Tuscan dessert wine Vin Santo, they fittingly concluded a splendid repast.

click to enlarge click to enlarge
click to enlarge click to enlarge

Sommelier Sebastian Chevalier amidst the glass shelves of wine - click to enlarge
Sommelier Sebastian Chevalier amidst the glass shelves of wine

The culinary accomplishments of Executive David Nicholls and his fifteen associates combined with a friendly, informed, and highly competent staff operating in a setting that seems to have stepped out of a dream have earned this relative newcomer a Michelin star, making it the only Michelin-rated hotel restaurant in the city.

Foliage is but one chapter in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park success story. But Liam Lambert is unwilling to rely exclusively on fine dining, luxurious appointments, and a staff whose standards of service exceed the expected, we discovered, when we met the G.M. for drinks in the Mandarin Bar on the other side of the glass wine corridor. In this cool, contemporary space with a back-lit glass wall that reveals the silhouettes of bartenders at work and amidst a young lively crowd that has claimed the space as one of London’s premier nightspots, he revealed why he feels the need to add a dose of magic to the mixture.


Asian ambience in the Mandarin Bar - click to enlarge
Asian ambience in the Mandarin Bar

“It was in 1986 when I began working at the Mandarin Oriental’s Excelsior in Hong Kong that I first heard about feng shui,” he said. “I was told it’s very important to the local community.  Okay, I thought. I’m the visitor here. So I called in the local feng shui man and put in everything he said I should put in. It cost a lot of money. But guess what happened? In three months the occupancy rate went up. The average rates of the hotel went up. The restaurant business went up. I was so successful they transferred me to the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, their flagship property.

“I was there for three months when I called the feng shui man. It was early January. He sat down with me and said ‘The Chinese new year is January 28. What are you going to do?’


“‘I’m going away.’

“‘No, you can’t go away. You’ve got to be here.’

“‘I have plans to go away with my family. It’s a holiday.’

“‘No you must be here for the two days.’

“He was so insistent I delayed my holiday. My family went off without me.

“The feng shui man told me ‘On the 29th of January, you must install a great big gong in the lobby, and you have to beat it 38 times.’

“‘Come on man.’

“‘Then every day for the whole year when you come to work you have to beat the gong once.’

“I bonged the bong 38 times. Then the New Year was over, and I went to join my family in Bali. When I returned I saw the gong had been moved from the middle to the side of the lobby beside the front door. So every morning for that entire year, whenever I walked into work, I picked up the bong and hit the gong – ‘BOING!’

“The word went around. Before I knew it every morning there would be people sitting in the lobby reading newspapers waiting for this English guy who comes in and goes ‘BOING!’

“One day I got a call from BBC-London. ‘Are you the gentleman who bangs the gong every morning?’


“‘Can we come out and film you?’

“It became a special on BBC that was viewed by eight million people.

“And guess what? The occupancy of the hotel – swoosh! Average rates of the hotel – swoosh! Restaurant – swoosh!

“Now I’m transferred to London. What do I do? I go down to Chinatown and ask around for a master feng shui man. He comes to the hotel and says, ‘Very bad feng shui.’ The shui is the energy. It’s coming in the front door and shooting out the back door like moving through a tunnel, he tells me.

“‘Okay,’ I say. ‘So that’s the problem. How are we going to solve it?’
“‘Let me think, let me think, let me think. Aha -- you have to close the back door.’

“‘I can’t close the back door.’

“‘You have to close the front door.’

“‘I’m not closing the front door.’

“‘You can’t keep the shui in if you don’t close.’

“There was no way around it. He went away. A few days later he came back.  ‘I figured it out,’ he says. ‘You need two dogs to keep  all the bad shui out. You need two dragons to keep all the good shui on the ground so it doesn’t fly away.’”

One of the pair of Chinese goddesses who keep the shui inside. Click to Enlarge
One of the pair of Chinese goddesses who keep the shui inside.

So that’s it. The dogs at the entrance with the rolling tongues; the two little dragons in the lobby discretely sitting across from each other at the base of the grand stairway; the two Chinese goddesses looking at each other at the top of the stairs. They’re there to keep all the shui inside.

“Does it work?” we ask.

“I don’t believe a word of it. But in the last few years, this hotel has gone from number fifteen in the market to number two,” says the magician’s son.

We are reminded of the story of how bullets were shot into his father’s mouth so many years ago. “How’d he do it?” we ask.

“Ah,” says Liam Lambert. “That’s what made him a magician.”

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London
66 Knightsbridge
London SWIX 7LA

Phone: (020) 7235 2000

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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Travel Bytes

From the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, it’s a lovely walk down Brompton Road, with a stop at Harrods if you like, to the Victorian and Albert Museum. Reputedly the world’s greatest museum for applied and decorative arts, the V&A was host to “Art Deco 1910-1939” this summer, an extraordinary exhibit that encompassed art, photography, film, fashion, textiles, sculpture, glass and jewelry from such disparate locales as Mexico and India, Egypt and Paris, America and Africa. It even included the foyer of London’s Strand Palace Hotel. What distinguished this exhibit was the ways in which it was set into the context of time and place from the hedonistic spirit following World I when modernity signaled a changed world to the diminished expectations of the 1930’s when an economic downturn led to fine arts giving way to mass produced items like toasters that still retained the streamlined glamour of Art Deco design. The exhibit has “crossed the pond” and can be seen in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in the fall of 2003, the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco in the spring of 2004, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the fall of 2004 while “Gothic Art in England 1400-1547” comes to the V&A the fall of 2003.

Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, South
Kensington, London SW7 2RL

Phone: 44(0) 20-7942 2502

What is a trip to London without theater? And what play is more quintessentially English (despite the fact that it was written by an Irishman and turned into a musical by Americans) than “My Fair Lady”? Trevor Nunn directed the production we saw this summer. Anthony Andrews (PBS Anglophiles: remember “Brideshead Revisited?”) played Henry Higgins and, unlike Rex Harrison, he can really sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” In this 21st century version, a more emboldened and self-aware Eliza transforms Professor Higgins even more than he does her. This “My Fair Lady” was a smash on the East End. And the good news is it’s coming to Broadway, and we’ll hope to see it again.

In our book It Happened on Broadway (Harcourt 1998; to be re-issued next year by University of Wisconsin Press), Kitty Carlisle Hart tells the story of how the original production of “My Fair Lady” directed by her husband Moss Hart came to be: “The summer we were renting a beach house on a little spit of land off the Jersey shore, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe came down with the score of their new play to see if Moss would be interested in directing it. A couple of other directors had already turned them down.

“Across the weeds in this godforsaken spot was a kindergarten the local population used in the wintertime. And in the basement of this school was this big, old upright piano with some missing ivories. That’s where Moss and I heard the music to ‘My Fair  Lady’ for the first time. They did ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and ‘Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?’ And I tell you, it swept everything else away.

“‘I’ve got to do this,’ Moss said.

“‘You do indeed,’ said I.”

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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