On a recent day in Bloomsbury you could hear the clank of the last scaffolding boards being removed from around the vast thé-au-lait terracotta Principal. Of the Londoners who have long admired this city-block-sized hotel, few could have imagined the revamp that this once shabby hotel has undergone since the scaffolding went up in 2016.
“The original specifications are to a standard that most people today wouldn’t even consider,” says Simon Willis, brand director of the Principal group, part of Starwood, which is behind the grand 334-room hotel that dates from the late 1890s. “The architecture was an incredible starting point.”
It’s easy to see why he thinks so. We’re standing in a vast atrium that forms the centrepiece of the refit, where a painter’s palette of different marbles in red, green and white preside over a huge mosaic floor depicting the signs of the Zodiac. This is fin de siècle finery at its loudest, loveliest and most oddball – but it’s exactly what architect Charles Fitzroy Doll wanted.
Doll, whose other commissions included the first-class dining room and lounge on the Titanic, was a turn-of-the century bon viveur and renowned for his outlandish taste (the phrase “dolled up” is said to be derived from his surname). There’s a sense that the refit has allowed his eccentricity to shine again and in contrast to the concrete floors and faux industrial finishes that many hotels plump for now.
Dressing the rooms and public areas fell to London-based Tara Bernerd, whose eponymous studio designed the rooms and public spaces, plus much of the furniture and lighting (proper chairs with backs, rather than slouchy sofas). epr Architects were, as Willis dubs them, the “unsung heroes” of the restoration, which involved the stripping-back of carpets, knocking down fake ceilings and touching up of timeworn details – including the soon-to-open Palm Court in the hotel’s heart.
But surviving in London’s fickle hotel scene will take more than looks, so the Principal team tapped Robbie Bargh’s restaurant consultancy the Gorgeous Group to oversee the food-and-drink line-up.
To the left of reception as you enter is Burr & Co, a light-filled wood-panelled coffee shop that smells pleasingly of pastries and serves coffee from London firm Caravan.
Back across the marble lobby is the moodier Fitz’s, a two-room bar with soaring ceilings, a dreamy mural, a stacked-high bar and a roguish air. It’s here we meet Bargh, who’s mulling over the wiring of the sconces with Principal’s design director.
We ask Bargh how he plans to tempt Bloomsbury locals, as well as visiting guests, into the hotel. “Our kitchens and living rooms are smaller than ever before,” he says. “With Netflix we can turn our homes into theatres, food-delivery apps allow us to eat any cuisine at home. But you can’t recreate a good bar.”
Bargh’s inspiration for Fitz’s comes in part from the archival 1920s illustrations by John Held Jr that adorn the cocktail menu but extends to staffing (he interviewed every bartender personally to ensure that even those muddling drinks hit the right note). The pink-hued Neptune restaurant, for which Brett Redman and Margaret Crow of The Richmond in east London were tempted to move west to be a part, rounds off the f&b line-up.
“One Starwood executive described Bloomsbury as ‘the hole in the donut,’” says Willis as we discuss the location while light dapples through the stained-glass window behind him. “It’s not the most obvious place to open.” After years of London’s best bars, new hotels and hippest restaurants ebbing east, the Principal is turning the tide. Whether or not it provides the filling in the proverbial donut remains to be seen.
Why it works
Some new hotels pander to guests but the Principal feels properly grown-up. The lower price point of its smaller rooms could also tempt disillusioned Airbnb users back into hotels. The real sell, however, is the buzz and the flicker of fun found in the restaurants, bars and soon-to-open Palm Court. Not forgetting the madcap, marble-heavy architecture and imposing scale.
London’s Principal hotel: breakdown.
€225: standard double
€96.5m: cost of renovation