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.
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.
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.)