A waiter in a cream-coloured jacket places two of the chef’s signature starters on the table in front of us: caviar from the Loire Valley on a silky bed of mashed potato. With a flourish, he pours me and my dinner companion a glass of champagne each and withdraws, leaving us to admire the dish, almost too beautiful to eat.
“Did you order this?” I ask. “I think they must have made a mistake.”
“No,” my friend replies, as she dips in her spoon. “But this does not seem like the kind of place where they make mistakes.”
We are at Epicure, the restaurant in Le Bristol, which is run by celebrated chef Éric Fréchon and has had three Michelin stars for more than a decade. It is the opening night of both the hotel and the restaurant after nearly six months of forced hibernation because of Covid-19. Whether mistake, or a whim of the chef, the caviar is delicious — the meal, and my stay, off to a winning start even if the outlook for the hotel itself seems altogether less certain.
Located a short walk from the Elysée Palace, the Bristol opened in 1925 and is today one of a dozen so-called palace hotels in the French capital — a distinction accorded to a rarefied tier of establishments that not only have five stars but also offer particularly spectacular amenities to clients. They include the Hôtel de Crillon, the Plaza Athénée and the recently renovated Lutetia, an Art Nouveau gem that was requisitioned during the second world war by German occupation forces.
Although they account for only 2,033 out of the roughly 80,000 hotel rooms in Paris, the palace hotels occupy an outsized place in the city’s imagination by catering to celebrities, corporate titans and billionaires. During the French Open every spring, it is not uncommon to see tennis fans crowded out front, eager to catch a glimpse of Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, and the hotels often have hidden back entrances so stars can escape unseen.
But the palace hotels, many of which remained open during the first and second world wars, could not withstand coronavirus. They all closed in March as France’s lockdown began, and nearly all of them chose to remain closed even as restrictions began to lift in mid-May.
It did not make sense for them to re-open initially, given that they cater largely to a wealthy clientele from the US, the Middle East, and China, who were barred from France because of travel restrictions.
Although their restaurants and bars are also frequented by Parisian power brokers, the economics of these hotels simply do not add up without international travellers. To maintain their levels of service, they rely on large numbers of staff who cannot easily be cut back when hotel occupancy is low. For example, La Reserve Paris, the smallest of the palaces, has only 40 rooms but employs 150 workers; the Bristol has 600 staff for 190 rooms.
Nevertheless, the palaces are coming back to life. Le Bristol, Le Meurice, the Plaza Athénée and the Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme all reopened on September 1, a week behind the Crillon. Three more palaces are due to open later this month.
With international travel still very limited, it will not be easy to fill their sumptuous rooms. France’s Covid-19 case counts have been rising steadily for the past six weeks to reach 7,000 new detected infections per day, prompting the UK to impose quarantine restrictions on people returning from the country and Germany to issue a travel warning for Paris and the Côte d’Azur. Upcoming events such as Paris Fashion Week and the French Open risk being scaled back dramatically. Some even worry that the Tour de France, which started in Nice a week ago, might be abandoned before it reaches the capital.
“We have had cancellations coming through,” admits Luca Allegri, Le
Bristol’s chief executive. “It is a complicated situation to manage. The impact on the business [from Covid-19] will be considerable.”
The occupancy rate at the hotel hovered around 22 per cent this week, he says — a far cry from the 70 per cent or higher in a typical September. The
restaurants have fared a bit better. Epicure is already fully booked for the next two weekends, but remains only open for dinner.
To tempt people to book, the hotel is upgrading guests to larger rooms, waiving cancellation fees and offering discounts (though rates remain eye-watering by conventional standards). It is also allowing late departures so people can linger to enjoy the newly renovated garden or the rooftop pool.
It remains to be seen whether such incentives will be enough. Already the Four Seasons George V, which had also planned to reopen on September 1, has delayed the big day for another three weeks. Others such as the Peninsula and the Mandarin Oriental have not even set opening dates.
How these high-end establishments fare will be an important test for France’s tourism sector, which generates 8 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs roughly 2m people. Before Covid-19, France was the world’s top destination for international travellers, with more than 89m visitors arriving annually.
The pandemic has left businesses scrambling to retool their offerings — and their pricing — to appeal more to locals and Europeans. Hotels and restaurants in beach and mountain areas managed to save the summer season, thanks to French people who chose to stay in the country, joined by a trickle of European tourists. But this autumn, business travellers are nowhere to be found, dealing a body blow to French hotels, which usually rely on them for roughly two-thirds of revenue.
Paris’s top hotels may struggle to cope with the new reality, according to Vanguelis Panayotis, a tourism expert at market researcher MKG Group.
“The palaces are going to have to change their way of doing things,” he says. “It will be very expensive to maintain the same level of service with fewer guests. They are opening despite the fact that they will very likely lose money at first. But they also want to send a signal to their clients that it is possible to come back and experience Paris again.”
Attracting more locals might help but to do so, the hotels may have to relax the very exclusiveness that underpins their brands. As a Paris resident who is not exactly a regular palace customer, I initially felt self-conscious about being in the immaculate hotel bedecked with orchids and gilded period furniture, and found it difficult to relax. To counteract such wariness, some of the palaces are trying to project a more casual vibe.
La Reserve, which was the first palace to reopen, in May, has started offering take-out meals and markets a “staycation” offer with one night in the hotel and dinner. The Crillon has opened a rooftop bar offering cocktails, tapas, and a panoramic view of Place de la Concorde, and attracted crowds ahead of its reopening by parking a vintage Citroën truck outside to hawk elaborate ice creams designed by its pastry chef.
“We are trying to attract a different clientele, more Parisian and younger, who may have hesitated to enter our doors,” says Vincent Billiard, director of the Hôtel de Crillon.
As I explored the Bristol during my stay, I realised that even without such changes, these high-end hotels do have something distinctive to offer guests amid the pandemic. At a time when going out to work or socialise can trigger anxiety about getting infected, they can offer the ultimate luxury experience of 2020 — splendid isolation.
Not only was the suite I stayed in large and newly renovated, it had nearly
everything you would need if you decided you never wanted to leave it, including a kitchen, a hammam steam room and a well-stocked library. Need a Covid-19 test? No problem, the hotel will bring in a doctor to swab you in your suite — no waiting for hours in pesky queues that have become a common sight along Paris sidewalks lately.
I even went to the gym for the first time since Covid-19 began because the Bristol has engineered it so that you do not have to encounter anyone at all. They have transformed a series of bedrooms on the first floor into single-person workout spaces, each one stocked with a different cardio machine. It was a bit strange to run on a treadmill under a crystal chandelier but I did appreciate not having to worry about maintaining an appropriate distance from sweaty strangers.
Beyond such isolation, the Bristol’s chief concierge Sonia Papet has been dreaming up new ways to keep clients entertained in Paris despite Covid-19. She can arrange exclusive visits to museums before or after opening, or helicopter rides to châteaux that are usually closed to the public.
“Our clients will want even more exclusivity so as to be safe while still enjoying themselves,” she said.
When I ventured up to the pool on the Bristol’s rooftop, I again found myself alone and free to admire the views of the Sacré Coeur in the distance. The pool itself is an eccentric folly: designed to look like a boat complete with a wooden deck, a wheel at the helm, and trompe l’oeil paintings of masts and sails. Once in the water, I swam laps in silence as the morning light streamed in.
Leila Abboud was a guest of Le Bristol (oetkercollection.com); with the current discount, double rooms cost from €990 including breakfast. Suites range from €1,665 to €25,000 per night
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