Paris’ Palace Hotels Get A Royal Transformation

Le Bristol, Le Crillon, Le Meurice, Le Ritz, and George V don’t just represent some industry- approved pinnacle of excellence; they’re points of national pride akin to the Sorbonne and the Pompidou. They convey the inimitable ability of the French to transcend what is otherwise a mostly banal, unseemly, global race to the top of the luxury market and actually cultivate history through impeccable hospitality. Amenities are just so much stuff—mythology is what makes a hotel grand.

Yet those same storied Paris hotels have been basking in an unofficial but earnest classification unduplicated anywhere else in the world: they were “Palace” hotels, a lofty designation that conjures the opulence of Louis XVI without, until recently, really meaning much. When the decision by the French government came down in late 2011 that the Palace title would be subject to a comprehensive set of criteria, those responsible might just as well have announced that a KFC would be opening in the Louvre. Only Le Bristol, Le Meurice, the Plaza Athenee and, a bit surprisingly, the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme were initially honored with the title. The release of the list conjured a cultural tempest: both Le Crillon and Le Ritz announced two-year closures for the purpose of carrying out extensive modernizations. The legendary George V, which had undergone a complete renovation in the late ’90s, appealed the decision and was admitted.

The point of the whole exercise was to identify the finest hotels in a city where outrageous luxury is merely a starting point, and while many have decried the omissions, there’s no arguing that the members of the inaugural class of official Palace hotels are among the sweetest sleeps on the planet.

No longer able to skate by on history and reputation, today’s Palace hotels have to work overtime to capture the mix of modern amenities and timeless elegance required to earn the designation. Perhaps anticipating such a defining shake-up, Anglo-hearted Le Bristol had already begun facing down such lavishly appointed, foreign-owned new competitors as the Mandarin Oriental and the Shangri-La, as well as the hundred-million-euro update of Le Royal Monceau by Singapore’s Raffles Hotels. Le Bristol had recently scored perhaps the ultimate coup, having been significantly featured in Woody Allen’s dazzlingly reviewed 2011 film Midnight in Paris, all while deftly carrying out a sweeping renovation. Its parade of celebrity devotees (Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio, etc.) were left quite unbothered by it all, as the hotel unveiled the new Matignon wing and the chic 114 Faubourg—a culinary complement to Chef Eric Frechon’s exalted, three-Michelin-starred Epicure restaurant—in 2009, and the Spa Le Bristol by La Prairie in 2011.

The transformation was completed in October with the unveiling of Le Bar du Bristol. Bearing the aesthetic stamp of French superstar designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, the hotel’s glamorous new lounge evokes a classical, club-room feel, with an ornate 19th Century marble fireplace, plush leather armchairs, and Thierry Bruet’s Aubusson-tapestry-referencing mural fresco—yet it also cagily plans a rotating series of contemporary works of art and guest DJ appearances.

Perhaps Le Bar Du Bristol’s true stroke of genius was luring talented young cocktail alchemist Maxime Hoerth—who sharpened his skills in swish hotels from Strasbourg to Luxembourg—away from rival hotel George V. His drinks program favors clever re-imaginings of the classics, such as the Bristol Old Fashioned No. 1, which is made with coffee beans and maple syrup.

So the question is: with Le Ritz shuttered, with Eric Frechon now regarded by many as the top chef in Paris, and its movie star and fashion industry following unwavering in their loyalty, could Le Bristol now be regarded as the new benchmark of Paris luxury hotels?

CEO Didier Le Calvez thinks so. “Le Ritz was likely first in the 1990s and Four Seasons George V in the early 2000s,” he says. “But if we consider the investments of Le Bristol’s owners, the hotel has the vocation to be the palace for this decade.”

Like Picasso and Matisse, or Camus and Sartre, it’s one of those grand French contretemps that is likely to carry on in gloriously dramatic fashion.

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