London’s black-cab drivers are the best in the world: honest, courteous, and trained for five years to know pretty much every street in the Big Smoke. The only trouble with this is that they refuse to admit defeat. In that respect, Hazlitt’s is the cabbie’s nemesis. A small door with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign means a navigational headache for London’s finest.
‘Hazlitt’s – er, right you are, fella,’ said our cabbie, scratching his head. After a couple of random right and left turns he started the give-us-a-clue game that every driver plays on the rare occasions that they’re stumped by an address. You could almost hear the mental filing-cabinet doors opening and closing. Finally, after a circle of Soho Square and a perfunctory probe down Greek Street, we found Frith Street and the understated entrance to Hazlitt’s. You could see the cabbie studying the sign carefully, burning the boutique hotel’s location into his memory bank.
To be fair to him, few people know of Hazlitt’s. Part of its considerable charm is that, despite its central location, the hotel’s success is based solely on word-of-mouth recommendations. Spread across three historic houses in the heart of Soho, it takes its name from William Hazlitt, the 18th-century essayist who lived there. If few people know the hotel’s address, then fewer still know of its namesake. Mrs Smith and I compared our scant literary knowledge, and decided we really must find out more about this writer sometime – it's only polite seeing as we're staying in his house.
When Hazlitt was scribbling here, there were no lifts, of course. There still aren’t but, fortunately, the plumbing and heating have been recently updated. Despite some necessary modern functionality (including satellite TV and broadband access), the whole place still retains an olde-world charm. From the creaky stairs up to our room to a wonky landing at the top, its tilt the result of 300 years of slowly shifting woodwork, Hazlitt’s offers comfortable, stylish accommodation with an air of quirky elegance.
All the rooms are named after famous writers or famous residents, which, in any other hotel, might be unbearably twee. This place pulls it off. Our room, Jonathan Swift, is named after the writer of Gulliver’s Travels and, true to form, the vast bed made us feel positively Lilliputian when we climbed onto it. The hotel’s owners had the good sense to retain much of the original panelling, and the good taste to furnish it with antiques and period furniture in line with its Georgian grandeur. A beautiful old writing desk sits against one wall, with a bookshelf of yellowing hardbacks adding further literary flourish. Heavy curtains and secondary glazing keep out the bright lights and noise of Soho, but I’d encourage you to keep them open so you can soak up the atmosphere of London’s most vibrant neighbourhood.
A squeal from the bathroom suggested that my lady had just discovered the generous selection of Aveda goodies that was awaiting her. In fact, it was the bathtub that had tickled her fancy – deep enough for two, and fed by brass pipes that looked as though they’d be equally at home in the pump room of a Victorian bathing house. For those less inclined to wallow, an oversized rainfall showerhead provides an eminently satisfying drench.
After our bit of sport with the taxi driver, we thought we’d give the front-desk staff a little work-out too. We wanted a recommendation for a pre-dinner drink, and reservations for two at Hakkasan, London’s hippest restaurant. ‘There’s no way that they’ll sort that out,’ said my partner. In my heart, I had to agree, since there’s usually a week-long waiting list but, hey, what’s the point of reviewing a hotel if you can’t be a little bit difficult? Ten minutes later, the phone rings. It’s the front-desk girl confirming, with just a touch of pride in her voice, that the reservation is secured.
Armed with the knowledge that we’d soon be tucking into Michelin-starred Chinese food, we struck out for a stroll across Soho. Its ‘den of vice’ incarnation firmly in the past, it’s still unpolished enough to have an edge, but generally filled with nice people eating in nice restaurants and being nice to each other.
There’s an overwhelming choice of fine drinking spots, from cute old pubs to spendy cocktail bars and secret members’ clubs. Most of the latter are closed to the casual visitor, but a bit of inside knowledge from our hotel concierge let us know that there was one place that we’d get into: the ever-so-cool Milk and Honey on Poland Street. As we were ushered in and our names crossed off a list (we’re not members but rang beforehand) we had a brief moment of nervous giggling as our eyes adjusted to the low lighting. Once inside, you can see why previous visitors have compared it to an American speakeasy. Jazz plays in the background, the service is fast, and the whole place is just outrageously decadent, from the discreet banquettes to the well-chosen cocktail list.
Several martinis later, we found our way to Hakkasan. It’s another sexy subterranean joint, crammed with beautiful people (and us) eating high-end Oriental cuisine. Think about the best Chinese restaurant you’ve ever eaten at, and then forget it, because it can’t touch this place. We stuck to dim sum and, it has to be said, over-ordered hugely. The giveaway was when we asked the waitress if we’d ordered enough and she started giggling. Space doesn’t permit me to list the lot but you have to try the soft-shell crab, the fried crispy-duck rolls and any of the steamed dim sum dishes. We had every one of the latter, so I can safely recommend all of them.
Back at the hotel, the massive bed gave us a memorable night’s sleep. Perhaps the greatest pleasure came first thing in the morning as we sat by the window and watched Soho awake. It’s a curious thing to see a city come alive from an historic room like this one – the experience wouldn’t have been the same had we been looking out from the window of some centrally located chain hotel. With our first-floor sash window open, we could hear the sound of shop traders exchanging banter, and smell the first coffees of the day being brewed down the street at Bar Italia. We felt part of the city, rather than simply tourists. And that is surely the mark of a special hotel.