HOTEL PLAZA ATHÉNÉE
I like to compare hotels to motor cars. In the case of the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris, such comparison affords me considerable pleasure – because it allows me to bring to mind one of the supreme names of automotive art. For the whole hotel gleams and shimmers with all the style and panache of a highly polished Delahaye from the 1940s. Such Delahayes carried their privileged passengers in examples of the most extravagantly beautiful coach-work ever to grace the horseless carriage: and the Plaza Athénée accommodates its fortunate guests in some of the loveliest accommodation in Europe.
My comparison is doubly appropriate, as the General Manager of the hotel has a grand name. He is François Delahaye. Monsieur Delahaye was once Butler to the Queen, and I hope that I am allowed – in the context of republican France – to opine that his establishment offers a level of service and comfort which would grace a royal palace.
Opened in 1911, the hotel occupies eight floors, built around a courtyard of Virginia creepers, wrought iron balconies and bright red blinds. As soon as I entered, I felt at home, embraced by the luxurious confection of bronze, gold, silk, velvet and Lalique crystal. I looked up at the high capitals of the 8 marble columns in the entrance hall and purred with pleasure at the exuberance and fun of their Art Déco forms. We are in the middle of the avenue Montaigne, the epicentre of Parisian haute couture. In this noble pile, 500 employees work to satisfy the needs of those who occupy its 188 rooms.
Most of those rooms (which start at 690 euros a night, for a double) are decorated in the elegant French style of the 18 th century. But the top two floors offer more of the delights of Art Déco. This style always puts me in mind of an ocean liner. So it was with a jaunty nautical step that I made my way along the 7 th floor corridor to room number 750. This would undoubtedly be the cabin for the Captain’s favourite guest. I walked in and found it delightful. Designated a Presidential Suite (and therefore 4,550 euros a night, breakfast extra), this apartment was exactly what I wanted in the middle of Paris. Light colours – for the walls, the carpeting and the woodwork – accentuated the feeling of spaciousness. (I estimated the sitting room at around 15 feet by 35 feet.) Splashes of colour were provided by the reds and blues of the 4 easy chairs and the sofa.
My dining table was in satinwood, with dabs of black and silver. Its chairs were upholstered in imitation leopard skin. By the sofa was a life-size reproduction of one of the soldiers of the Chinese clay army. On the walls, silver-framed, were original sketches from the ’40s and ’50s by Christian Dior. Here and there were cabinets in the form of travelling trunks, with brass studs and beige leather. Playing with the controls of the large, wall-mounted television, I came across Radio Classique (it is number 4 of the radio stations). In this context, it should have been playing William Walton’s Façade, with Edith Sitwell reciting her poems. Instead, out came Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Still, it made dramatic background music for my exploration of the rooms upstairs.
With a steadying hand on the chromium bannister rail, I climbed past the porthole window of the curving staircase and arrived in my bedroom. Later, I would discover that the bed was wonderfully comfortable; now, it looked impressively large under its cover of silver velvet. Through French windows I stepped out onto the terrace. To the left were the soaring girders of the Eiffel Tower; to the right, in the hazy distance, were the exotic domes of the Sacré Coeur. A wooden table and four chairs beckoned, but it was too inclement to linger. Back inside, I admired the bathroom of sparkling brown marble – with its two wash basins, walk-in shower and separate loo.
But there was yet another door. I opened it to find… my own gymnasium. Never willingly having taken exercise, I was nevertheless intrigued by its machinery for – I think – cycling and stepping up and down. From the gymnasium was the entrance to my very own sauna. Had I an inclination to use these facilities, I could probably have left the Plaza Athénée several pounds lighter.
But, as usual, I preferred eating to physical jerks. And there was some seriously good eating to be done. Alain Ducasse has one of his Michelin three-star restaurants in the hotel, but for dinner I went instead from my Art Déco suite to the Art Déco dining room on the ground floor, the Relais Plaza. This is also overseen by Monsieur Ducasse, so I was expecting standards to be high. And they were.
Sitting on a brown leather banquette, close to brightly coloured stained glass and surrounded by mirrors, I surveyed my fellow diners. A well-dressed crowd, to be sure. As the young lady at the next table took out her cigarette holder, the pianist tinkled ‘Singing In The Rain’ and waiters in white jackets moved to and fro in front of a bronze of a young fellow about to throw a spear. A warm golden glow enveloped the chamber.
Chef Philippe Marc commands a most capable kitchen. I was impressed by the appearance and tastes of sautéed sea scallops in a thin tart with a cream of cèpe mushrooms. Crispy shavings of prosciutto added a lovely contrast of texture. Next, a splendid truffle risotto, the rice properly al dente. The portion was far too large for me, but the flavour was so captivating that I ate it all. (Perhaps I really should have used my gymnasium and my sauna…) My meat course was the work of a visiting chef – Boris Campanella from Chambéry. This roasted rack of doe was glorious, tender, tasty meat; but, for my palate, it was overpowered by the accompanying fruit chutney and chicory. A decent crème brûlée ended this enjoyable meal. (150 euros for these four courses.)
From the 300 (mostly French) bottles on the list, I went for a white burgundy and a red rhone. The 2001 Saint Aubin was elegant, with a hint of peach and a long aftertaste (Chateau de Puligny – 72 euros). The 1999 Hermitage was still young, tannic and purple; but its heat, its vegetal nose and its intense damson fruit were quite thrilling (Gambert de Loche, Cave de Tain L’Hermitage – 140 euros).
I breakfasted in the Restaurant Plaza Athénée (over which twinkle those three Michelin stars). This large classical chamber has chandeliers enclosed in gauze – an eccentric arrangement, which somehow works. No buffet here, thank goodness, so the components of the continental breakfast (33 euros – the American version is 45 euros) were brought to my table: Granny Smith apple juice, ethereally light brioche, a pot of chocolate mousse and excellent coffee (this last poured from a silver pot into a large white cup by a young lady in a black jacket). Such good food in such a cool and sophisticated atmosphere was a fine way to start the mornings.
And the afternoons were passed with equal pleasure. For I love my tea. Here it is served in the handsome Galerie des Gobelins. Comfortably settled in a gilt-framed fauteuil, bathed in the glow of half a dozen (uncovered) crystal chandeliers, I sipped Assam (8 euros) and nibbled on chocolate eclairs decorated with gold leaf (12 euros). I must commend to you one particular comestible: terrine of duck foie gras on toast. This is an unusual tea-time offering, but it goes surprisingly well with a cup of tea. Six pieces are 18 euros. All these delights were brought to me by waiters in dark jackets with high collars. Their attentions have become popular with Parisians, so you will need to book your table for tea.
Having stayed in such luxury, having eaten so well and having received the very highest standard of service from every single member of staff I encountered, I have no hesitation whatever in pronouncing the Plaza Athénée one of the great hotels of the world. This Delahaye would certainly win the grand prix at the concours d’élégance.
HOTEL PLAZA ATHÉNÉE
25 avenue Montaigne, Paris 75008, France.
Telephone +33 (0)1 53 67 66 67
Fax +33 (0)1 53 67 66 76
Double rooms from 690 euros, breakfast extra