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.
||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
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
“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
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.
||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
In Foliage, the Mandarin
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
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.
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
“‘No you must be
here for the two days.’
“He was so insistent I delayed my holiday. My family went off
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
“‘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
“One day I got a call
from BBC-London. ‘Are you the gentleman who bangs the gong every
“‘Can we come out and
“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
“‘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
“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.’”
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
“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
London SWIX 7LA
Phone: (020) 7235 2000
Photos by Harvey Frommer
# # #
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.
& 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,’
# # #
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights