“The perfect hotel”: Celebrating 90 distinguished years of The Dorchester

On April 20, The Dorchester will celebrate its 90th birthday. To commemorate, we've looked back on its historical highlights...

Louis Armstrong. Twiggy. Alfred Hitchcock. Peter Sellers. Stevie Wonder. Brigitte Bardot. Rod Stewart. Elizabeth Taylor. What do they all have in common? It sounds like the line-up for a dream dinner party, or a really, really interesting game of Cluedo (our money’s on Hitchcock). But no, there’s another thread that strings these illustrious individuals together; they were all guests and admirers of The Dorchester Hotel.

And we can see why. Just try to imagine London without The Dorchester. It’s hard, isn’t it? It would be like Los Angeles without The Beverly Hills Hotel, or Dubai without its iconic Burj Al Arab. The world-famous hotel is woven into the fabric of our capital; a reinforced concrete emblem of luxury, quality and steady, unmoving consistency. It survived World War II, continues to be the five-star go-to for the world’s elite — and, on April 20, will celebrate its 90-year anniversary.

So what makes The Dorchester so special? To commemorate this latest milestone, we’ve spoken to a selection of people who hold the hotel dear — to gain insight into what makes it such an incredible, enduring institution.

“I had a dream of working for The Dorchester as a child,” executive chef Mario Perera tells Gentleman’s Journal, “after seeing an advertisement in a catering magazine that said: ‘The Dorchester: the place to be and the place to work’. Over the past two decades, this historic institution has become like a second home to me.”

To most people alive today, it feels as though The Dorchester has been around forever. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that it is less than a century old. But, in the past 90 years, the London landmark has made history on more than one occasion. After first opening its doors in 1931, it has seen more superstars, celebrations and headlines than most hotels do in centuries. And, if the hotel’s walls had ears, we’d bet our June 21st restaurant reservations that they could tell a tale or two.

So let’s relive some of the storied history. Don your best black tie — and let’s take a time-travelling tour of one of the most revered, respected institutions in the hospitality industry.

In the early days...

The Dorchester is a gift to London. And the men we have to thank for its presence are both Sir Malcolm McAlpine — a partner in building company Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons — and managing director of Gordon Hotels Ltd, Sir Francis Towle. Back in 1931, the two wished to create ‘the perfect hotel’ — something ultra-modern and utterly state-of-the-art.

And the duo’s ‘perfect hotel’ was breaking records as soon as they broke ground. Built in record time, construction took only 18 short months — with a pace so speedy that, at one point, builders were whipping up one floor per week.

1957: Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at The Dorchester. Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy

And the pioneering approach to design didn’t halt when the hotel opened. Instead, as the decades rolled by, the hotel adapted to reflect the changing times. After the Second World War, for example — during which General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the American Forces in Europe, had stayed at The Dorchester to plan the Normandy invasion — management built ‘The Eisenhower Suite’. Decorated with historical memorabilia, it’s one of many touches that honour the heritage of past guests.

The Dorchester has always been seen as a prestige establishment. When its lavish doors first opened, the rate for a double room was 45 shillings (£2.25). It doesn’t sound like a lot and, needless to say, the prices have ramped up a little since those early days — but one look at the hotel’s historic guest book will tell you that The Dorchester was the place to stay…

An A-list hotel, from top to bottom...

The recent news of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing, is particularly poignant for The Dorchester. The hotel itself has some serious royal credentials — with it becoming one of the Duke’s favourite destinations in the city over the years. 

The Duke of Edinburgh’s engagement to Queen Elizabeth II was announced to press at The Dorchester in July of 1947, and he even famously threw his bachelor party in the Park Suite later that year. In the subsequent decades, Prince Philip was a regular guest of honour — and, in October of 1990, he unveiled the plaque commemorating the triumphant re-opening of the hotel following a two-year refurbishment. 

3rd March 1960: The Duke of Edinburgh presents the British Film Academy Awards at The Dorchester. Image Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy

Hollywood, too, has made its starry presence known at The Dorchester over the years. We can easily imagine Louis Armstrong’s trumpet echoing down the corridors from his suite, where he stayed in 1956. If we close our eyes, we can picture Ralph Richardson arriving for lunch, crash helmet under his arm after arriving on his motorcycle.

And, if we concentrate really hard, we can just about hear Alfred Hitchcock’s dulcet tones suggesting the hotel as the perfect murder location. Given its proximity to Hyde Park, the famous director famously said, you could kill at your leisure on this side of Park Lane, and bury the bodies on the other. Grisly stuff. 

20th October 1977: David Bowie at The Dorchester. Image Credit: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

But it’s not all thrillers and Hitchcockian conspiracy. The Dorchester also has a lighter side — and has played Cupid on more than one occasion. It’s where Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster met for the very first time. ‘The Look of Love’ was written by Burt Bacharach at The Dorchester in 1967. And, in 2012, Stevie Wonder gave a headline-grabbing impromptu piano performance when a newly-married couple were walking through The Promenade lounge. 

And love was really in The Dorchester’s air for actor Peter Sellers, who made the hotel his ‘second home’ for many years. In 1964, he first met 21-year-old Swedish star Britt Ekland under this very roof. Allegedly, after seeing a photo of Ekland in the press, Sellers realised they were both (fortuitously) staying at the same hotel. He promptly bought her the entire contents of The Dorchester’s flower shop not long after, and proposed by a phone a few days later.

A culinary wonder

Mario Perera, who spoke of his Dorchester ‘dream’ above, is the ninth executive chef to bring considerable culinary expertise to the hotel’s kitchens. His predecessors include Henry Brosi, Anton Mosimann (of Mosimann’s) and Jean Baptiste Virlogeux. Virlogeux, especially, was forced to push the boundaries of artistry and inventiveness to their limits during his tenure — constrained as he was by food rationing during the Second World War. During his time in whites, the British government imposed a price restriction of just five shillings for a three-course meal. 

But The Dorchester spirit prevailed. Now, almost a century later, The Dorchester shines with three glittering Michelin stars; two under Mosimann, and a third under Alain Ducasse (who opened his own restaurant in The Dorchester in 2007). And the innovation will continue into 2021, under the expert hand of Tom Booton — head chef at The Grill restaurant, and widely regarded as one of the most talented young chefs working in London today.

Tom Booton

“The Dorchester has an incredible reputation,” Booton enthuses. “It’s an honour to be able to lead one of its legendary restaurants. With a history of 90 years, we’re always thinking of new and innovative ways to keep our guests intrigued and surprised.”

Shaken, not stirred...

But there’s not only invention, intrigue and surprise on the plates of The Dorchester. Its drinks cabinet is also stocked with world-famous cocktails, intoxicating hospitality and quintessentially English spirit.

The Bar at The Dorchester has long enjoyed a comfortable status as one of London’s hottest spots. When it was rebuilt in 1938, then-bartender Harry Craddock — who, thanks to the Savoy Cocktail Book, needs no introduction — whipped up a Martini, a Manhattan and a White Lady (three of the most popular cocktails of the 1930s), sealed them into phials and built them into the walls of the bar, ‘for posterity’.  Come the bar’s reconstruction in 1979, the cocktails — complete with scrolls and recipes — were found to still be in excellent condition. 

And 2021 marks another anniversary for The Dorchester. The Mayfair establishment may be turning 90-years-old, but Giuliano Morandin, manager of The Bar, is also celebrating 40 well-spent years in his post. Morandin has been instrumental in the creation of The Dorchester’s Old Tom Gin, a spirit made exclusively for the hotel by the City of London Distillery — and one that has scooped up award after juniper-forward award.

Giuliano Morandin at The Bar

“I joined The Dorchester in 1981, and over the four decades I have been bar manager here it has been an honour to be part of one of the greatest hotels in the world,” Morandin tells Gentleman’s Journal. “Over the years, I’ve served everyone from royalty and celebrities to presidents and dignitaries, but nothing can compare to the feeling of serving a guest who has returned year after year and has become one of our true friends.” 

But Morandin, despite clearly being integral to the hotel’s ongoing success and prestige, is also keen to acknowledge how every member of staff makes The Dorchester special. “And I could not manage The Bar without my wonderful and talented team,” he says, “for whom I have the utmost respect. Our combined time of working together under this one roof exceeds 100 years.”

26th September, 1973: (L-R) Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, Prime Minister Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson at The Dorchester. Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy

Of course, this past year has been a tough time for the hotel industry. But, if any institution’s example should be followed, it would be that of The Dorchester.

This week alone saw the launch of the hotel’s first ever rooftop restaurant and bar, The Dorchester Rooftop, as well as the return of both The Dorchester Terrace & Garden and The Spring Garden. If a rise in al fresco dining has been one of lockdown’s sole silver linings, then it’s a gift The Dorchester has wrapped up with the most exquisite ribbon imaginable.

And, though the pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to any establishment, The Dorchester has long proved, throughout history, that it can weather even the harshest of storms. This Tuesday, we’ll be raising a glass (of Old Tom Gin, naturally) to toast the birthday of this world-renowned hotel; a jolly good fellow, indeed.

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