With its balcony bathtubs, Brutalist design and racy reputation, the Standard has burst onto the London hotel scene with a bang. Andy Lynes discovers how the hotel hopes to combine an American-tinted sense of hospitality with a shout out to the tribes of London
They do things differently at the Standard. From the upside-down logo to the baths on the eighth-floor balconies overlooking London's St Pancras railway station, the unexpected is never far away.
The London outpost is the US-based hotel chain's first international opening, and the first since the departure of founder André Balazs of Chiltern Firehouse fame. Other hotels are due to open – in the Maldives in the autumn, and Milan, Paris, Lisbon, Bordeaux, Mexico City, Bangkok, Jakarta, Ko Samui, Phuket and Chicago are also in the pipeline.
After a decade-long search across London, the site for the hotel was decided: the former Camden Town Hall annex in King's Cross, built in 1977. Once described as a "concrete carbuncle" by The Guardian, the site has been transformed, thanks to LA-based visionary designer Shawn Hausman, who is responsible for all the seven-strong group's interiors, including the High Line in New York.
The Brutalist-style office block couldn't be a better fit for the hotel's wildly creative retro styling. A bright red external "pill" lift whisks customers from the street to the glamorous 10th-floor Decimo restaurant (passing one of those balcony baths on the way), while oversized blue revolving doors lead to a reception desk, which sits in front of Perfect Time, an original commissioned ceramic installation by London-based artist Lubna Chowdhary.
The expansive library lounge, with its retro, overstuffed, beige leather chairs and sofas, references the space's original use, with its own in-house librarian and the books arranged in pairings such as romance and technology, politics and tragedy, and order and chaos. The lounge is also home to the wood-panelled, soundproofed Sounds Studio, which will host, stream and record DJ sets, interviews, podcasts and live shows, as well as acting as a platform for London's creative community.
"I describe the aesthetic as a sort of Logan's Run view of how the future should have been. It's like it's from a time that's not yet happened," says managing director Bruce Robertson, who has been working on the project for four years and previously worked with Malmaison founder Ken McCulloch for 17 years.
"I think it dates very well. It reminds me of that phrase that Steve Jobs came out with: if you smash an Apple product, the components should look like a bunch of Apple components. I think that's what Shawn's done here. You could smash this building up and the rubble would look like the Standard."
Ironically, Robertson says the Standard was the only developer that didn't want to reduce the site to rubble and start again. This, he says, would have been the "sensible" thing to do, rather than paying £70m including fees for the building and spending an undisclosed sum developing it into a 266-bedroom hotel.
The Standard is an American brand and key staff have been brought over for the launch, including Stephane Vacher, executive vice-president of culture and entertainment, and equipment director Chloe Osborne. Robertson is keen to stress that the London hotel will be a "springboard for our ambitions into Europe", with much thought having gone into its location and measures taken to ensure its presence is positive for locals.
Robertson held fortnightly meetings to talk a residents' group through the planning and licensing process and to ensure that concerns were met – measures were taken to cut frequencies from the hotel's sound system and reduce noise pollution. An artwork by Banksy on the back of the hotel has been preserved and donated to Camden council, and a garden opened up to the community.
However, Robertson says there is one aspect of the hotel that is all-American. "I think there's more ambition here than I've ever seen working with a company. And that level of ambition means that you're not instantly closing down ideas just because something hasn't made sense in the past."
Food and beverage is at the heart of the Standard and the programme will bring something new and distinctive to King's Cross, an area already flourishing with restaurants and bars. Executive director of food and beverage Helenka Fletcher, who has previously worked for Hakkasan and Gordon Ramsay, describes the hotel's ethos as "playful". She adds that each outlet, including the Isla restaurant and the Double Standard bar, both on the ground floor, along with Decimo, has a nuanced offering.
"They're all symbolic and they all mean different things in different ways," she says. "What holds them together is the sense of quality and they're all within the Standard."
Double Standard combines an American bar and an English pub, with a drinks list that includes a stout-based martini, a classic negroni and a ginger margarita. It throws in a generous helping of style in the form of a mosaic-tiled floor in shades of baby blue and pink, a Formica bartop and a pink back bar.
"You've got all of these great brands in Coal Drops Yard and Granary Square, and the staff from Google and LVMH and all the guys in suits were at these pubs at the back of King's Cross. We thought, wouldn't it be great if we could create a space for them that was stylish, but with a very sensible price point," Fletcher says. "We really wanted it to have that warmth and a pub vibe about it, although it's in a very stylish setting. So it's £5.50 for a pint of Standard Helles lager – exactly the same as you'd pay at the boozer across the road."
Adam Rawson's bar menu focuses on comfort food, including a burger, something for which the chef is renowned, with several Slider Decider titles and the launch of Bite Me Burger Co chain in 2017 to his name. The Standard burger features an aged beef patty served with Branston, Stilton, bacon, truffle aïoli and fries, and it sits alongside versions of British classics such as fish and chips with fennel tartare, mushy peas and curry sauce.
Isla's menu features lighter, more sophisticated creations, such as turbot with sea aster and wild fennel, and kohlrabi bagna cauda with Exmoor caviar, demonstrating the range of Rawson's food.
Time for tacos
For Decimo, Fletcher harvested more homegrown talent, albeit from further afield than the capital, appointing Bristol-based chef Peter Sanchez-Iglesias to head it up. When the 140- cover restaurant opens in October, Sanchez-Iglesias will draw on his Spanish heritage as expressed at his Michelin-starred restaurant Paco Tapas, rather than the fine-dining tasting menus of his flagship Casamia – but with an unexpected twist.
The chef explains: "About six years ago I took a trip to Baja California, where they were showcasing what they do to the rest of the world and vice versa. Chef Diego Hernandez of Corazón de Tierra gave us a masterclass on all the places around the area. It was amazing and we said, wouldn't it be wicked to do a taqueria?
"When Decimo came up, I understood what they were doing from a design point of view and that there was a south American theme. I had the idea of bringing my knowledge of Spanish food together with this Mexican kind of style and have a croquette and a taco in the same meal. And that's how everything started to gel together."
With a team of 16 to 18 chefs, Sanchez-Iglesias says that once fully up to speed he could be serving between 350 and 400 covers, with key dishes to include the jamón croqueta from Paco Tapas, three types of taco made using a specially imported taco machine, including one inspired by his Baja trip made with fried fish, and a Caesar salad titled "Homage to Caesar Cardini, Tijuana", prepared tableside.
One dish in particular will reflect the sort of racy decadence for which the Standard group has become renowned. "The tortilla is different from what we do in Paco Tapas. I've got a fetish for caviar at the moment, and we're putting a shit-load of caviar on this tortilla and it's just incredible," Sanchez-Iglesias adds.
With more than 40 items on the menu, he wants to ensure guests who stay several nights can return to Decimo and have a different experience each time, as well as keep things simple and manageable with a number of dishes cooked on a Grillworks wood-fired grill.
"We're doing a quail and we're going to treat it almost like Peking duck – poaching it in a master stock, drying it above the grill, then glazing it with mole sauce made with the master stock and quail stock, drying the quail again and finishing over the grill," he says.
"We're going to look at what we can do with the residual heat from the grill overnight and do some barbacoa-style dishes. All these little ideas come to us as we use the grill. At the moment we're just trying to make sure we don't burn the place down."
With it's distinctive F&B programme, stunning design, cutting-edge arts programming and community awareness, the Standard is set to make a big impact – not just on the London hotel scene, but on north London's cultural and social life.
"I think it's the tribes of London chiming together," says Robertson. "You get everyone in a room together and they rub past each other in corridors, and that's where the magic happens. And there's a real opportunity to do that here, because we're the dead centre of the compass in London."
Rather than replicate successful concepts from other Standard hotels, the strategy in London has been to create site-specific outlets using homegrown talent that will be as attractive to non-residents as residents.
"If you live in New York, we could maybe show you a little window of what your life would be if you lived in London," says managing director Bruce Robertson. "To do that, you can't be doing restaurants and bars as a response to guests staying with you. You have to attract the local tribes, and that was put in the pitch from the start."
The choice of Adam Rawson to head up the Isla restaurant and Double Standard bar and oversee room service was made after a long search. "We knew what we wanted from Isla and we went and dined at Laylow, where Adam was cooking previously, and his food just absolutely nailed the brief more than anybody's," says F&B executive director Helenka Fletcher.
She adds that the Standard wasn't looking for a big established chef for the hotel. "One of the great things about promoting local talent is that it fits so beautifully with our brand. The Standard is different things in different places to different people and what we do as part of the brand is really take on the locality. That's the thing we had to signify in London, so harvesting local talent was a no-brainer."
Rawson's breakfast menu touches on a lot of bases, from a traditional full English to a more health-conscious chia seed smoothie with ginger, blueberry and coconut milk. Guests can indulge in caviar-scrambled eggs with chives and dashi, and duck hash with potatoes, chimichurri and fried duck egg, or make a restrained start to the day with fruit salad with yuzu.
Room service draws on the Isla and Double Standard menus so that guests can sample Rawson's signature burger or order a lighter salad, as well as staples such as a bowl of soup or pasta.
"Room service follows a specific brief: it needs to be quick, it needs to be hot and it needs to be tasty. If people are ordering room service, they're ordering it for a reason rather than going down into the restaurant and committing to having a full meal, but it's great that we can showcase Adam's food and encourage people to come down into the restaurant while they're here," says Fletcher.
Even the contents of the minibars have been overhauled for London, with the addition of McVitie's Digestive Nibbles and Yorkie bars alongside pretzels.
"You'd be amazed at how long it took to nail our minibar brief and how many packets of crisps we ate," says Fletcher. "Our minibars have gone through a revolution in the US. They had been following the trend of healthy food, but what we realised is that a lot of our demographic enjoy that little bit of escapism, that little bit of naughtiness, and to give them a muesli bar and a can of kombucha just felt really off. We shouldn't be dictating the trends, it's our guests that do that for us."
From space oddities to Beyoncé-ready bedrooms
There is a wide range of room types at the Standard, from the 13 sq m single rooms to the eight-floor suite terrace, with a 68 sq m interior and 64 sq m terrace. "The building's a strange one: it's 42m deep and that means getting natural light in is always going to be a problem. But we couldn't cut in a traditional atrium to allow light through the centre of the building and, as a result, we've got rooms without windows," says Robertson.
"We exploited every other oddity of the floorplates, so instead of trying to standardise things, we've celebrated the differences. We've got 42 architecturally very different types of room and we've got three complete design philosophies within those 42 room types. You can stay for under £200 or you can spend £1,000; we've got single bedrooms and we've got those that Jay-Z and Beyoncé would be delighted to be in."
Press previews, reviews and features on the hotel have picked up on a number of aspects of the hotel room design, including exposed concrete waffle-slab ceilings, curved windows ("recalling those of a ferry", according to The Guardian), geometric bedspreads by Wallace & Sewell, the fabric designers for Transport for London, vintage and bespoke furniture, including leather desks, and, of course, those eighth-floor outdoor baths, a design feature that reflects the Standard group's famously racy approach to the art of hospitality. This has previously found expression in the group's New York hotel, where its Boom Boom club houses a single cubicle with four adjacent toilets in the bathroom, or the floor-toceiling windows in the rooms that have encouraged some guests to indulge in a spot of exhibitionism.
"There are two floors of the hotel that are new-build, effectively, and the palette of materials there is solely a response to our roots in California. It seemed an opportunity to do something crazy. We have external baths in Miami and it just seemed like the perfect place to put them. The ninth floor has slightly larger rooms and that nice overhang that allows protection for your bath, so you're not that exposed," says Robertson.
You need to be a premium member to view this. Subscribe from just 99p per week.
Already subscribed? Log In