In 1850 Hope House was the private address of MP Henry Hope, and the handsome mansion on prestigious Piccadilly was said to attract the attention of many, including Charles Dickens who admired the extravagant interiors. Inherited by the rather roguish Henry Pelham-Clinton, coincidentally the 6th Duke of Newcastle, the property was sold to the Junior Athenaeum Club to pay off the Duke’s gambling debts. As a gentleman’s club, the Junior Athenaeum entertained the great and the good of London society until the Athenaeum and its near neighbours were bought by The Rank Organisation, who turned the property into an iconic five star hotel to accommodate its movie stars when they were filming in London – and as such hosted many famous faces over the years.
A family-run hotel since the 1990s, The Athenaeum remains a five star hotel with a gloriously independent spirit, and one perhaps undeservedly overlooked in favour of its more showy neighbours.
With the expanse of Green Park on its doorstep, it is perfectly placed for Knightsbridge, Mayfair and St James with Buckingham Palace a short walk across the park. Behind the hotel is Shepherd Market with its specialist shops and Victorian pubs and along Piccadilly is The Royal Academy, Fortnums and The Burlington Arcade.
Despite its eminent location there’s a welcoming, laidback feel to the lobby area, which also serves as a restaurant and bar area. There’s no formal reception desk here, just mobile stations for the staff, as is now popular with so many contemporary hotels. We loved the individual touches, odd shoes, intriguing art work and the life-size dog in the foyer, but hardly had time to take in the light, airy surroundings before being checked in and whisked up to our suite.
Many of the rooms here, including ours, have floor to ceiling windows overlooking Piccadilly and Green Park which helps to make them feel fresh and light. They are perhaps not the largest of suites but of a more practical size. The sitting room was adequate for a writing desk and sofa with a large wall-mounted TV, fridge and (hallelujah) Nespresso machine (that’s morning coffee taken care of), and the bedroom and marble-lined bathroom were modern and contemporary. We were without children and office dog at The Athenaeum but were readily assured they would have been made equally welcome by the noticeably super-friendly staff.
We wasted little time before heading out to explore. The Athenaeum really is the most perfectly placed hotel – we headed straight through Green Park towards the palace before turning down The Mall and then back past Clarence House, pausing to watch the changing of the guard there, and then headed back to Piccadilly via St James. Back at the Athenaeum it was time for tea and the lobby-cum-restaurant was fairly heaving with guests enjoying what looked like a very sumptuous afternoon tea. It’s such a popular thing now and the Athenaeum certainly seemed to have attracted its fair share of ‘tea takers’.
Michelin-starred chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin are now responsible for all the food and beverage in the hotel, including the afternoon tea, and they know a thing or two about how it should be done. The restaurant extends back into the hotel and away from the bright, floor length windows and bustle of the lobby area the atmosphere is calmer and more sedate, but still suitably relaxed. The Galvin restaurant menu is spot on with an easy mix of classic British dishes combined with Galvin favourites. Burgers sit alongside poached lobster salad, Denham Estate venison and Fowey mussels whilst desserts included the most deliciously decadent rum baba with golden raisins and soothing vanilla ice cream. There’s an extensive wine list too. We hopped and skipped our way across the menu trying to do justice to the Galvin brother’s work, and it was definitely one of the better meals we have had in a while.
The bar here is now a destination in its own right. Open 24 hours and, despite a recent revamp, retaining the Athenaeum’s famous whisky collection (300 blends), it also offers a vast selection of wine and champagne alongside signature cocktails. It’s cosy and intimate. The hotel’s distinctive living wall is made a feature here and with so much exotic greenery it feels very cosmopolitan and, as we discovered, is a great place for that all-consuming occupation of people watching. For two evenings in a row we watched the comings-and-goings of fellow guests and visitors (the bar is open to non-residents), sipping cocktails and feeling all was well with the world.
We checked out the hotel’s basement spa but didn’t actually make it into the double hot tubs nor take advantage of the wet room or treatment rooms despite being tempted, as it was empty when we scoped it out.
Breakfast at The Athenaeum is a civilised affair. Available until late morning (why do more hotels not allow for longer lie-ins?) the Continental buffet featured everything from comb-fresh honey and healthy green juice, to a multitude of just-baked pastries, yoghurt, cold meats, smoked salmon and smoothies. We picked on most of it before devouring just-perfect eggs Benedict (day one) and a full English (day two). Copious amounts of coffee saw off the last vestiges of the previous night’s over-indulgence in the bar and we were up and ready to go all over again.
It is hard not to think of this contemporary five star hotel as something of an unsung hero in the world of hospitality. It’s location, its laid back yet ultimately luxe feel, friendly staff and quirky bar, secret spa and accomplished Galvin restaurant mean there is absolutely everything you need, and there’s still the whole of London on your doorstep.
116 Piccadilly, Mayfair W1J 7BJ