Hamish Smith heads to The Dorchester and the grande dame hotel's new semi-themed Vesper Bar.
Ah, The Dorch – a true icon of luxuriously upholstered hospitality. For almost a century the rich and the royal have frequented this 1930s grande dame, taken in its panorama of Hyde Park, and peacocked down its famous promenade of eating parlours. They too will have visited its flagship bar – uncomplicatedly named The Bar – though this, in recent years, had felt more of an optional attraction.
It was a dated and slow-moving sort of place, in a way that made it less appealing to the new generation of Tweethearts, and ever more appealing to its old-money regulars. At its helm for a faintly conceivable 40 years was Giuliano Morandin, a splendid gent and a host’s host among the hotel bar community.
And within these walls, coddled by soft furnishings and lashings of Louix XIII, you could be forgiven for not noticing that the game had changed. In the decades that drifted by, powers had emerged: The Langham had erected Artesian with maverick drinksmiths Alex Kratena and later Simone Caporale, the Connaught had launched with a precocious Ago Perrone and The Savoy had young, ambitious blood in Erik Lorincz and Declan McGurk. Together they formed a holy trinity of cocktail-forward F&B hotels that would all go on to be named The World’s Best Bar.
In Hotel HQs across London– and other major cities in the world – the pendulum was starting to swing. There was a dawning realisation that a celebrity chef alone wasn’t going to cut it. They wanted a destination bar – and so did their customers. There followed a shiny-shoe stampede for global acclaim, with hotels dusting off their drinking rooms to ever more lofty standards – think Blue Bar at The Berkeley, The Coral Room at The Bloomsbury, The Bar & Lounge at The Goring… I could name dozens more.
But The Bar remained The Bar. Sure, it’d had a refurb in this time, but it remained a space that lived more for its past than its future. Until, that is, now. Finally, in the last breaths of 2022, The Dorchester awoke. Two new bars launched as part of the hotel’s most comprehensive overhaul in 30 years. And in something of a thematic three-point-turn, The Bar, which existed for so long in a state of namelessness, had a name – and a theme. Welcome all to Vesper Bar – London’s second most associated bar to James Bond.
As with most bar themes, the link is part genuine connection (Fleming and Bond actors were regulars at The Dorch), part trivial association (so did 14 Bond Girls, four Ms and nine Bond villains), but outside of the name and inside Vesper, you realise this is loosely fitting motif – more of a bar-room anecdote, than a full-costume production.
More impressively, the bar space has been extended, an entrance added and the décor – unfathomably not by David Collins, but Martin Brudnizki – that straddles both floors is brand new, but seems gloriously lived-in 1930s. There’s a low-set palladium leaf ceiling, polished woods, mirrors, chintz-chic armchairs and jazzy carpets only big houses and hotels get away with.
The bar team also seem at home in their surroundings. Their levels – of attentiveness, explanation, charm, chat and familiarity – are delicately balanced as if by mixing board. I’d like my last drink on earth to be served by Giacomo Faure. There’s something about an experienced host, someone who has walked a million miles on those carpets (okay, not these exact carpets) but still cares about his customers.
I suppose we should get to the drinks. They were created by head bartender Lucia Montanelli, who has quietly risen to the role of chief drinksmith over almost a decade at The Dorchester. To a drink, they all sat within the nuanced spectrum of yummy. We started with the Vesper (Elit, Old Tom gin, redistilled Forbidden Fruit liqueur, Del Duque 30 Years/£25), which arrived in a slender-stemmed glass and under a mist of Vesper Scent standing in for a twist [pictured below]. It was clean, crisp and sensibly spiked – and a Martini-drink that could have easily made the night its own.
Brenda, on her second visit, chose the Rose (kaffir lime-infused Belvedere vodka, Campari, hazelnut, discarded champagne & rose petal, lacto-fermented cherry soda/£22), a sort of amalgam of rich red and pink notes that seemed to compete and complement at the same time.
She followed up with Busterkeys (Tapatio blanco tequila, genever, Acqua Bianca, Vetiver Gris, clear petit pois, silver leaf/£22) – so florally aromatic you could have put it in a vase – while I took on The Gilded Three (roasted pineapple Flor de Caña 12, Siete Misterios Doba-Yej mezcal, Noe Pedro Ximénez sherry, carob honey, pepita horchata/£22), which was a sort of rum-mezcal Mai Tai and had convinced me of its purpose in life at the very first sip.
One more round? In came the Licence to Chill (Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Bitter Fusetti, black plum Sauternes reduction, pomelo, ‘golden bullet’/£22), which was a delicious form of proof that the grain and the grape do mix. While The Glass of Fashion (Calvados Dupont VSOP, Cynar, China Clementi, figs, fenugreek syrup, lemon oils/£22), could have done with being a little cooler, but was the Old Fashioned-style drink that had the desired effect of sating what appetite was left and sending us on our way.
Which we did, with warm memories and a bill that would weigh on the minds of all but millionaires. Where Vesper Bar sits in the pantheon of London’s elite hotel bars, I'm not entirely sure. But it’s now much more in the conversation.
ON THE SCORE BOARD