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The Dorchester, the beginning

Once part of Henry VIII’s hunting ground as ‘The Manor of Hyde’ where generations of British monarchs ambled around its woodland, and later the celebrated ‘Dorchester House’ bought in 1792 by Joseph Damer, the space occupied by The Dorchester has always held an important place in British history.

It was during the 18th century that the building was catapulted into the eye of high society thanks to its easy access to ‘The Row’ in Hyde Park, the exclusive promenade frequented by the upper echelons of high society. Although the building took the name Hertford House while undertaking renovations by the Marquess of Hertford, it soon returned to Dorchester House under the ownership of Captain Holford, where it became famous across London as one of the finest palatial mansions in the capital.

Dorchester House was then sold in 1926 to Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons, in partnership with Sir Frances Towle, managing director of Gordons Hotels Ltd, whose ambition it was to create the ‘perfect hotel’, a vision of modernity, efficiency and style. The Grand Opening was held on the 18th of April 1931 with a gala luncheon in the ballroom for the elite of high society.

Its success as a venue of incredible luxury was instantaneous and the first of its many balls was held on the 21st of April by Lady Violet Astor. The Ballroom soon became the venue for Queen Charlotte’s annual ball and the debutantes’ ball, setting the tone for decades of society events and significant occasion.

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Historical highlights

The reputation of The Dorchester, among the great hotels of the world, is unique in having established itself within a few months after the hotel’s opening in 1931.

Ever since, The Dorchester’s combination of elegant luxury, sumptuous decor and unrivalled standards of personal service has made it more than a constant venue for the famous and influential – for many it has become a regular ‘home from home’.

Royalty and political leaders, both British and foreign, have been frequent visitors. Princess Elizabeth, the present Queen, attended a dinner party at The Dorchester the day before her engagement was announced on 10th July 1947, and it was here that Prince Philip celebrated his stag night on the eve of his wedding. He has subsequently been a regular guest of honour and renowned after-dinner speaker at events and charity functions held in the hotel, and on 26th October 1990, unveiled a plaque commemorating the reopening of The Dorchester after a two-year closure for refurbishment.

During the Second World War, several members of the government as well as service chiefs moved into The Dorchester on a semi-permanent basis. General Eisenhower, then occupied with the planning of the Normandy invasion, set up headquarters in the hotel in 1944.

Early on, The Dorchester became a haven for figures from literary and artistic circles. In addition to the famous Foyles Literary Luncheons, beginning in the 1930s, the hotel has also welcomed writers and artists such as novelist Somerset Maugham (a frequent guest up to his death), the poet Cecil Day Lewis and the painter Sir Alfred Munnings. In more recent years, Jack Higgins and Jackie Collins have been frequent guests.

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The list of visitors to The Dorchester from the entertainment world is of prodigious length. To name but a few: Danny Kaye, who originally appeared in cabaret at the hotel for £50.00 a week in the 1930s, became a lifelong regular guest… Elizabeth Taylor, always occupying a suite, came with a succession of husbands… Sir Ralph Richardson, who tended to arrive by motorcycle, bringing his crash helmet into lunch… Alfred Hitchcock, who viewed The Dorchester as ideal for a murder given the scope for burying bodies in Hyde Park across Park Lane.

In the last decade, prominent guests have included Dr Mandela, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Glenn Close, Karl Lagerfeld, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and many, many more. Glamorous patronage of The Dorchester is only part of the legend…

The Dorchester hotel

From the beginning, soundproofing at The Dorchester was of exceptional quality. Bedroom floors and ceilings were lined with compressed seaweed and outside walls with cork. The most recent refurbishment programme has reduced external noise levels still further, particularly through the introduction of double glazing throughout and triple glazing on the Park Lane side.

The Dorchester Bar is one of London’s leading meeting points. When the bar was rebuilt in 1938, Harry Craddock, one of the most famous barmen at the time, produced three of the most popular cocktails of the day – the Martini, Manhattan and White Lady – and sealed them in phials, which were set into the wall of the bar ‘for posterity’. When the bar was reconstructed in 1979, the cocktails, scroll and recipes were found to be in excellent condition.

Celebrated attributes

The exceptional quality of its cuisines. The Grill at the Dorchester, an iconic Mayfair restaurant has been transformed for a new culinary chapter with Alain Ducasse’s protégé Christophe Marleix. Whilst China Tang at The Dorchester, offering Cantonese cuisine, is the most sought after Chinese restaurant in town.

Leading chefs have been responsible for The Dorchester’s culinary renown. The current Executive Chef is German Henry Brosi. His predecessors include the internationally famed Anton Mosimann, fellow Swiss chef Willi Elsener, Eugene Kaufeler and Jean Baptiste Virlogeux. One of the great chefs of his day, Virlogeux’s inventiveness was severely tested during the Second World War both by food rationing and the government-imposed maximum price restriction of five shillings for a three-course meal.

Outstanding decor and design. Some of the key glories of The Dorchester were only added in the 1950s by the theatrical designer Oliver Messel. The luxury apartments on the 7th and 8th floors were his creation, and his name lives on in the world-renowned, architecturally ‘listed’ Oliver Messel Suite. The London Plane tree in the front garden was named one of the ‘Great Trees of London’ by The London Tree Forum and The Countryside Commission in 1997. It was deemed to be ‘a memorable sight in London’s Park Lane and a tree to give directions by’. In the year 2000, the BBC dedicated an entire programme to the tree, as part of its series Meetings with Remarkable Trees.

Nor are more basic comforts forgotten:
Afternoon tea to live piano music in the glittering setting of The Promenade has long been an institution among Londoners. In fact, The Dorchester was named London’s top ‘Afternoon Tea Venue’ by the Tea Council of Great Britain in August 2000 and 2003.

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