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Newest In The Rocco Forte Niche:
Brown's Hotel of Mayfair, London


The oldest operating deluxe hotel in London - click to enlarge
The oldest operating deluxe hotel in London

A new chapter is about to be added to the story of Brown’s Hotel, the fabled property in the heart of Mayfair. This is a place that still speaks of the London of Charles Dickens, especially in the cozy Drawing Room where from the depths of a plushy couch or oversized wing chair, one chooses among canapés and scones during the traditional Afternoon Tea. But great changes are in the offing. A fifteen million-pound renovation scheduled to begin in early 2004 promises to bring London’s oldest operating deluxe hotel  well into the 21st century.


The cheerful Sally Rouse, Director of Sales & Marketing - click to enlarge
The cheerful Sally Rouse, Director of Sales & Marketing

“On our last trip to the States, the feedback was: don’t take the atmosphere away,” says the cheerful Sally Rouse, Director of Sales and Marketing. We’ve joined her for lunch in the Library, a high-ceilinged noble room whose tall windows look out onto Albemarle Street, lively this early afternoon with pedestrian traffic. “And we won’t,” she promises. “We’ll keep the English charm, the Edwardian oak paneling, the Jacobean detailed plaster ceilings. At the same time, we will modernize, tone down the colors, use much simpler curtains and lighter drapes.

 “The exterior is listed so we can’t change the façade at all,” she adds. “We can’t even buy new glass for the windows because it will be too perfect, and that will alter the look of the building. We have to get imperfect, slightly beveled glass.”

A piece of a past worth preserving  - click to enlarge
A piece of a past worth preserving

But, Sally agrees, the past is worth preserving in the “genteel inn” that James Brown, former valet to Lord Byron, opened in 1837. Formed out of a group of Dover Street townhouses, it was expanded some twenty years later  when a new owner incorporated St. George’s Hotel behind the property into Brown’s. The joining resulted in the additional entrance on Albemarle Street and the atypical layout with corridors that turn down unexpected directions and stairways punctuated by interior stained glass windows that appear in unexpected recesses.

Brown’s is a building of nooks and crannies. An atypical hotel interior -- but then again, the place where Queen Victoria entertained foreign dignitaries, Rudyard Kipling wrote stories of the Raj, and Alexander Graham Bell made Britain’s first successful telephone call from his room to a house four miles away is an atypical hotel.

Brown’s more recent history is equally compelling. For decades it had been one of 800 Forte hotels, part of a company that also owned restaurants, motorway cafés, and catering services. What had begun as a series of ice cream bars by an Italian immigrant to Scotland was expanded by his son Carlo (now Lord Forte) into an international enterprise. Control of  the firm  had just been turned over to the third generation of Fortes, Sir Rocco, when the entire operation fell victim to an aggressive and hostile takeover in 1993 by  the British media giant Granada.

Three years later, Sir Rocco was back in business, buying up and re-doing old hotels and building new ones under the banner Rocco Forte Hotels, a small, select, and exclusive niche in the luxury market. Brown’s is its most recent  acquisition.

Bill Howard, the concierge from Liverpool - click to enlarge
Bill Howard, the concierge from Liverpool

and his assistant, Martyn Cope

Head concierge Bill Howard has been witness to it all. “I remember the takeover,” he says. “I was with the hotel through the Granada period and afterwards when it was sold to Raffles. Then last July, one of the guests told me Rocco Forte had bought it.

“My immediate response to was to be very pleased. Sir Rocco has a love of hotels; he grew up in them. Now there would be an owner who’d be interested, involved in Brown’s. And that’s how it’s been. He walks in the door and talks to the porters, the waiters, everyone. Very unusual in this day and age.”

The Liverpool native who grew up with the Beatles and still plays a mean saxophone told us that news of the Forte return has traveled fast. “People are coming back to Brown’s whom we haven’t seen for years. Many are from the neighborhood. Mayfair may be exclusive with Bond Street nearby. But it’s also very warm, a real neighborhood. Sir Rocco has a feel for it. Since he took over, Brown’s is a warmer, livelier place. The staff is happier. There’s an intimacy that wasn’t here before.”

Aware of the imminent makeover, long-time Brown regulars convey a message to Bill similar to the one heard by Sally, namely the hope that as every one of the 118 rooms and suites, the public rooms and lobby are redone, the traditional look of the hotel will not be lost. But he and assistant concierge Martyn Cope are already looking forward to one promised change: the moving of the concierge’s desk from its present locale in a crowded cubicle off the hallway to an open space beside the Albemarle Street entrance.

1837 set for breakfast - click to enlarge
1837 set for breakfast

Change has already gotten underway in 1837, Brown’s award-winning restaurant famous not only for its cuisine but for its extensive list of quality wines which can be ordered by the glass as well as the bottle. In this expansive, oak-paneled room, tables are comfortably spaced apart, and the full English breakfast they serve with kippers, black pudding and corn beef hash can rival the buffet at any Kent or Yorkshire manor house. This much will remain.

But lunch and dinner are undergoing a kind of “back to the future” operation under the direction of a new Food and Beverage Manager who has re-introduced a long-time staple of the English dining scene.

“Not many restaurants in London have the carving trolley any more,” said the beaming, exceedingly warm and friendly Angelo Maresca who had been on the job for only six weeks when he joined us at our table in 1837. “But we have many regular customers who come several times a week for lunch. They don’t have three hours to spend. They welcome the trolley coming to them and the carving of a leg of lamb one day, a saddle of lamb the next, a rib of beef with Yorkshire Pudding the following day and so on. These customers want a choice but they also want good, basic cooking.”

For twenty-one years, the Sorrento-born Maresca was the contented manager of the Savoy Grill. Then things began to change. “Of late, the Savoy – like many other London establishments -- was going more in the direction of the celebrity chef-type restaurant,” he said. “In that situation, the chef is working so hard for a Michelin star, feeling so much pressure to be creative, he is no longer thinking about what the diner wants. At the Grill, it was no longer possible to get something that wasn’t on the menu.  I felt the regular customers weren’t happy about it; I was not happy about it either.

“As a restaurant manager, I always found it’s not that difficult to run a restaurant if you are prepared to listen,” he continued. “The customers talk to you. They tell you what they like and what they don’t like. If you are prepared to act upon such information and satisfy their needs, you can’t go wrong. And so I paid attention when a regular customer said to me ‘I used to come for the grill because it was very special. Now I live in Surrey. For me to come from my home, I pass 20 restaurants that are similar. So why should I travel all the way to the Savoy?’

Happy on the new job: Food & Beverage Manager Angelo Maresca

“It got to the point where I was no longer enjoying my work. I gave notice. Then the last few weeks before I was to leave, I started panicking. All these people I had known for so many years -- I had quite a following -- I’m not going to see them any more. What am I going to do? I can’t just retire.”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Just around that time Sir Rocco bought Brown’s. An extraordinary and fortunate coincidence. He had been a regular at the Savoy Grill; I had known him for a long time.  He rang me. ‘I heard you are not very happy there any more. Come and see me.’

“I went to his office. As we talked, I knew the position at Brown’s would be exactly right for me. We both believed in the same thing. It was only at the third meeting that he said, ‘How much am I going to pay you?’ And I said ‘I’ll leave it to you.’”

We had just completed a meal of crisp asparagus spears in mustard sauce and truffle shavings, langoustine topped with bits of caviar, Dover sole meuniere expertly filleted tableside, sirloin steak in Bernaise sauce with accompanying roasted potatoes and spinach served out of little copper pots.  It was an excellent dinner in a reposeful candle-lit setting. The food was classical, eminently satisfying, elegantly served. Some things should never change.

“Aside from the carving trolley, the menu will be similar,” the amiable F&B man assured us. “But if someone wants a grilled sole, or sautéed potatoes or whatever, we will make it for him even if it is not on the menu.

“We will keep the restaurant’s look  -- it is such a special room,” he added. “But we will freshen it up, change the lighting, eliminate the dark corners, use round tables which are more elegant than the square ones.”

Some things should never change: filleting Dover sole at 1837

He looked around as if envisioning things to come and laughed. “There were these heavy horrid curtains on the windows. One day I just pulled them down. Then I thought, what will Mrs. Polizzi say? (Sir Rocco’s sister Olga Polizzi is the exclusive interior designer of RF Hotels.) But she thought it was fine.

“Already we have more than doubled our business,” Angelo Maresca happily concluded. “Tonight we are fully booked; we even had to turn some people away. I had quite a following at the Savoy, and many of the regulars have followed me here.”

As it turns out, Brown’s new general manager had, for a time, been one of Maresca’s regulars – albeit at a very young age. “My grandfather used to take me to the Savoy barber to cut my hair which, in those days, was underneath the old Savoy Grill,” the handsome and impeccably tailored Matthew Dixon told us. “And if I was very well behaved, he would say, ‘All right. We’re going to have lunch in the Grill now.’

“Those experiences gave me rather a privileged liking of the hotel. And one day after lunch at the Savoy I said to my father, ‘Maybe I’d like to work in hotels.’

“‘Good idea,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you try it out for a few years before you commit.’

“I left my academic school in London as the head boy. They were upset I didn’t go on to Oxford or Cambridge. We were expected to become lawyers, professors, bankers. Instead I became a waiter at the Grand Hotel in Brighton.”

By the time we met him, Matthew Dixon had been general manager of Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Russie in Rome for a while and was soon to leave for London where he would become general manager of Brown’s. “I’ll miss Rome,” he told us over drinks in the de Russie Bar. “It’s an incredible destination and the de Russie is an extraordinary place.” It’s clear, however, that London is where Mathew Dixon belongs.

Brown’s new G.M.: Matthew Dixon - click to enlarge
Brown’s new G.M..: Matthew Dixon

“The more you talk to people from all over the world, the more you realize how many people have had some experience at Brown’s,” he said. “And the common denominator is how much it contains the ambience of London, how essentially English it is. Our job will be to preserve that ambience while creating something that works in the 21st century.        

“We hope to develop the concept of the two entrances more fully. Instead of adding rooms, we want to add space to existing rooms and weed out the rooms that were let to the valets, the chauffeurs and butlers when people traveled with their entourage. We’ll preserve the bar and tea areas. But they are a little fragmented; we plan to open them up a little bit more. The hotel will be contemporary but familiar, combining the modern touches with the feel of being at home. After all, Brown’s is a connection of houses from front to back. It will always have the feeling of a home, not a grand palatial hotel. It’s not the Ritz.”

Actually the man who runs the Ritz today had been director of the Savoy management training program back when Matthew Dixon was a trainee. And Giles Shepard’s manner has left its mark. Like his imperious mentor, Dixon speaks the “Queen’s English” and projects an upper crust manner enlivened by the charm of one who does not take himself too seriously. At the same time, he looks forward to competing with his elegant rival who is virtually down the block.

One of the great things about this business is its unique characters,” Dixon told us probably with Giles Shepard in mind. But a cast of unique characters has been assembled at Brown’s as well, each one as suited to the locale as the characters of a Dickens novel to its pages. The energetic Sally Rouse, the unflappable Bill Howard and Martyn Cope, the ebullient Angelo Maresca, the charismatic Francesco Sardelli, Brown’s longtime lounge and bar manager, the dashing Matthew Dixon himself  -- all share an excitement, a sense of purpose and commitment as this latest chapter of the Brown’s story begins to unfold. We’ll have to come back to see how it all turns out.

Brown’s Hotel
Albemarle Street, Mayfair
London, England W1S 4BP

Phone: +44 (0) 207 493 6020

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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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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