One of my friends, a journalist for one the largest-circulation newspapers in the U.K., is not allowed to write about bubble bath. Her editor has declared it “too out of touch” in this moment, when the cost-of-living crisis has been disastrous for many Britons. “There are two different worlds,” she explained. “And we speak to both of them.”
There’s no such conversation happening in the corner of Whitehall where Raffles London at the O.W.O. is finally welcoming the public. Well, not quite the public public. Its Web site describes it as an “Epic Stage for Modern Tastemakers.”
This all made sense on Wednesday afternoon, when I attended its opening festivities. The Old War Office was constructed between 1901 and 1906, and its magnificent Edwardian Baroque exterior is looking better than ever after a $1.7 billion face-lift. Looking into the lobby, I half hoped to see the ghost of Winston Churchill, a regular presence in the building (along with nearly 3,000 bureaucrats) more than 100 years ago.
Instead, I got a staircase full of seductively dressed ladies with heavily painted faces and finger-waved hair. Attempting to re-create the Roaring 20s—the O.W.O.’s glory days were two decades later, but no matter—they writhed around the banisters like flappers jonesing for their first gin fizz while a jazz band wailed away somewhere up in the rafters.
“Welcome to the Oh-Whoa!” enthused one of the hundreds of suits swarming around the place, offering to take my coat. (I wasn’t wearing one.)
London has been waiting for this moment. For the past six years, the transformation of a down-on-its-heels office building into the U.K.’s first Raffles hotel had preoccupied the papers. The force behind all this is Gopichand Hinduja, an Indian billionaire whose Hinduja Group made most of its money the old-fashioned way: in fossil fuels. He was around somewhere, but he wasn’t speaking to the press, at least not until Princess Anne had cut that ribbon. (Royals gotta work.)
And so I wandered, swatting away trays of champagne while trying to make sense of what little of the Oh-Whoa I was able to see. In the lobbies, tea rooms, and reception areas, the aesthetic is Trumpian, all gaudy chandeliers, upholstered furnishings, and the kind of thick industrial carpets that can easily absorb a spilled bottle of Cabernet.
I was looking for a gold toilet when a parade of women (young, slim, beautiful) came streaming out of the ladies’ room. Smiles pasted on their faces, they wore matching strapless dresses in a garish shade of red, each carrying her very own violin, à la Musical Barbie. (The gowns may still be available on Amazon.)
They paraded into the courtyard and mounted their pedestals. Before long, they were playing an instrumental version of Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars,” accompanied by piped-in timpani and, bizarrely, chirping birds. Ballerinas in white leotards and stiff tutus pirouetted along. (Andrew Lloyd Weber apparently had something to do with this.)
The grandeur of the open-air courtyard’s architecture was diminished by its Wayfair-esque chairs and sofas, upholstered in gray flannel. I told myself they were rentals and sat down to take solace in the hors d’oeuvres. From the fringes of the crowd, chef Mauro Colagreco was monitoring the waiters. There was no need, because the most appealing things about this particular event were located on their trays. A tomato-and-burrata salad, arancini, ravioli, samosas—all scrumptious, and reminiscent of Colagreco’s good work at Mirazur, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Menton, France. He is overseeing three of the hotel’s nine restaurants, and if any locals find themselves at the Oh-Whoa, he and his fellow chefs are probably responsible.
A broadcaster who is well-known in the U.K. (but was mistaken by this American as a onetime host of Love Island) reminded us that the festivities were about to begin. We were waiting on Princess Anne, who was touring some of the 120 accommodations. An entry-level room costs $1,600 a night, and the Haldane Suite goes for around $22,000 in low season.
This place is full of bells and whistles. Liveried Range Rovers, iPad-operated curtains, and even Boris Johnson’s trainer, huffing away in the basement gym. Not sure that’s a selling point. Eventually, the speeches began, and the masses heard from Hinduja himself—at great length—who explained that his nickname, “G.P.,” stands for “gross profits.” Cringe.
I couldn’t help but think that they spent $1.7 billion on something that could have been mistaken for a Grand Hyatt. And for whom? To what end? Due to an onset of existential crisis, I left before the performance by Andrea Bocelli, but on my way out, I ran into one of London’s most stylish bon vivants. “Is it as bad as I think?,” I whispered. “Well, if you scrape away a few layers … ” he said diplomatically. “Nah. It’s worse.”
Ashley Baker is a Deputy Editor at AIR MAIL and a co-host of the Morning Meeting podcast