New life, new ideas and new money have been injected into the former St James Court hotel to create the first Crowne Plaza for central London.
The announcement in April that Bass Hotels & Resorts was going to franchise the four-star property from Taj International Hotels came at a time when the hotel was already on course for major changes.
Officially relaunched as the Crowne Plaza, London St James on 31 August, the hotel joins properties in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Heathrow Airport to become the eighth Crowne Plaza in the UK.
New general manager Bernard de Villele arrived in April to oversee completion of the £18m refurbishment programme and the launch of three new restaurants.
Of these, two involve outside partners - Zander, a new concept from the rapidly expanding Bank Group Restaurants (BGR), and Quilon, a spin-off of one of London's most successful Indian restaurants, the Bombay Brasserie - and the third, Cafe Mediterranean, is a relaunch of the hotel's existing eaterie.
For de Villele, putting big-name restaurants in the hotel is simply following in the footsteps of those that have led the way - Nico Ladenis at the Grosvenor House; Marco Pierre White, initially at the Hyde Park hotel and now at Le Méridien Piccadilly; and Vong and La Tante Claire at the Berkeley hotel.
"The hotel was not of the same standard as the rest of the 50 or so properties in the Taj portfolio," says de Villele, who took up his new position after a three-year stint running the Orient-Express Hotels property, La Samanna, in St Martin in the Caribbean. To help with the challenge de Villele has appointed seven new executives.
The entire hotel is being refurbished, but the emphasis of the relaunch is on the three restaurants. Not only are they expected to create major revenue centres in their own right, but it is hoped that the publicity they generate will boost the hotel's business.
Rebranding the property and adding the restaurants should increase hotel occupancy by about 12% to 89% over the next 18 months. The hotel will also have access to Bass sales offices worldwide, computer reservation systems and increased buying power.
Quilon opens in mid-September and Zander in the early new year. All the restaurants will have direct access on to the street as well as through the hotel.
"I'm confident that with these three restaurants we are going to have the best hotel food and beverage outlets in London," says de Villele. To achieve this, he is adamant that it has been necessary to go to the people who best know how to operate restaurants - and that means restaurateurs, not hoteliers.
New food and beverage manager Derek Andrews is overseeing the Cafe Mediterranean as well as all the other food and beverage outlets in the hotel: banqueting facilities for up to 400, room service, Hamptons lounge bar, and the courtyard, which can seat up to 50 covers outside in the summer months.
Business has already increased by 32% since Cafe Mediterranean was relaunched on 12 July with its more contemporary decor. "We are in a prime residential area and by moving away from the fuddy-duddy hotel image and by simply flinging the doors open on to the street we have boosted covers," says Andrews. Executive chef Sid Dhardy, who arrived at the end of July, has launched a new menu.
Adi Modi, the public face of the Bombay Brasserie since it opened in South Kensington 17 years ago, will move between Quilon and the original restaurant as director and general manager. Quilon will be run as a completely independent unit from the Crowne Plaza.
Head chef Aylur Sriram will head the five-strong brigade, whose members have all been brought over from India on three-year work permits to prepare food from the west coast of the country, a style of cooking that is still in its infancy in London restaurants.
After the millennium fuss has died down, Zander is likely to attract a fair number of column inches as the first mega-style eaterie to open within a hotel. An extension into the hotel's courtyard will help accommodate the 160-seat restaurant, with two private dining rooms for 20 covers each, as well as what is believed to be the longest bar in Europe, seating up to 80 diners.
Designed by the man behind Bank, Julyan Wickham, Zander will be the most cutting-edge of the three restaurants. The food will be similar to the modern European menu available at Bank, but with a few additional classic dishes such as roast leg of lamb for two. Fish will also feature heavily. BGR's chef-director Christian Delteil will oversee the menu which head chef Steve Carter will put into practice.
Surprisingly, it is Zander rather than Cafe Mediterranean that will be providing breakfast for hotel guests and outside customers. The size of the restaurant and the company's successful breakfast operation at Bank won Zander the business.
Staff have not been forgotten either, when it comes to improved restaurant facilities. More than £300,000 has been spent on refurbishing the basement staff café, which was opened on 31 August by outside catering company U-Select-It of Huddersfield. Once all three restaurants are operating, there will be a total of 600 employees working within the building.
"I cannot expect staff to provide a moment of magic for guests unless we provide the same for them," says de Villele.
Prior to three years in the Caribbean, general manager Bernard de Villele was manager of the Berkeley hotel from 1994 to 1996, and had opened the Lanesborough hotel as number two to Geoffrey Gelardi.
Food and beverage manager Derek Andrews was recruited from the Berkeley hotel where he helped introduce the Vong concept.
Restaurant manager of Quilon, Richard Hand, previously worked at the nearby Goring hotel.
Executive chef Sid Dhardy was formerly number two in the kitchen at Quaglino's.