I was amazed that the idea of combining retail with lodging is 110 years old. In 1910 the management of Le Bon Marché department store, which had been founded by Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut in 1852, decided to open a hotel for their most favoured customers, but instead of calling it Le Bon Marché they named it Lutetia, the original Roman name of Paris. Obviously, the store was doing well. Sculptors Léon Binet and Paul Belmondo, father of Jean-Paul, were commissioned to decorate the façade in Art Nouveau style. Now, all these years later, the 184-room hotel’s seven-floor exterior is as iconic worldwide as is, in a different way, Frank Gehry’s design for the Elciego Marques de Riscal hotel. Lutetia reopened 17 July 2018 after a total closure (it had been shut since April 2014 when Starwood Capital sold it for €150 million to the Alrov family).
After a sunny walk, south through the Tuileries, across the Seine and past a long snake of culture seekers waiting to get into Musée d’Orsay, I could see the hotel on Blvrd Raspail from two blocks away. Now that the stone exterior has been washed and scrubbed within an inch of its life it has even more Gaudi-like features. The 450 team members are dressed by Gaspard Yurkievich; young men in soft flat caps and long winter coats manned the 180-degree automatic door (they were not needed, in fact, they merely supervised). Inside, I looked along designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s lobby, a wedding cake of illuminated arches (perhaps half a dozen in all), white stone and lots of lights… where did this lead to? Offset to the right was the Conciergerie. Eight metres further on, slightly off to the left was the reception, a dark-veneer lacquer fence. Behind were men in more of the many-shades-of-grey and a charming young lady from Tianjin who must have realised that her blue dress did not quite fit and, because of the fabric used, looked far removed from Paris catwalks.
Miss Tianjin took me up in an elevator with a white marble floor embellished with inset copper patterns, astronomy style. At the fifth floor we exited, looking at a back-lit, three-metre-tall black and white photo of architectural shapes. We turned left and then right, going past corridors leading off right. Corridor walls are what I now call Lutetia lamination, dark multi-hued varnished eucalyptus, with vertical shafts of yellow light. Carpeting was dark brown. Room numbers, bronze, are quite difficult to see. At the far end, diagonally across the corner, we find #508, with a tiny patch that is the proximity key activator.
This is the 75-square-metre Josephine Baker Suite. It is on the corner, wrapping around from Blvd Raspail (living room) to Rue de Sèvres (bedroom). Flooring is mostly parquet, with rugs in the living room and bedroom. There are French windows on to narrow balconies in the living room, an adjacent walk-in close, next to it the bathroom and finally the bedrooms. Walls are off-white, with wedding-cake moulding. The living room ceiling has a three-metre-long black and white photo of a can-can dancer (get her full view by lying on the floor, head by the window). Art Deco furniture is mostly taupe, and the refreshment centre has a Nespresso machine and an automatic mini bar. The closet has a washbasin and a closed off toilet. Beyond is a Dyson hairdryer, plus the safe and plenty of hanging space, with two sizes of The Set paper carry bags. The bathroom – toilet on left, shower on right – has a white marble floor inset with copper geometric lines. The Roman-type bathtub is white marble and the toiletries are green Hermès. The bedroom’s headboard is a flat eucalyptus board. A pair of wall-set mirrors, angled to each other, give full-length viewing. Headboard-set fibre optics allow in-bed reading.
Despite my walk earlier I need the gym. It is in a purpose-built basement (that is where some of the Alrov’s spend went), one floor above a 17-metre indoor pool. The gym deliberately looks retro – think the facility at New York’s Greenwich Hotel. Its scarlet flooring matches the seats and other leather works of the Technogym equipment. I take a hotel inspection with the inhouse PR, a charming Chanel-catwalk type wearing a must-be-Faubourg suit, deliberately short trousers.
I head for a drink in Josephine (for Baker). This is a glorious bar, with big windows over Blvd Raspail, and a seven-metre-high barrel ceiling embellished with Art Nouveau frescos. I immediately feel part of a weekday ritual with local business people, those with the artistic/creative bent that you find here on the Left Bank, coming in regularly after a day’s toil. It is packed (open Monday to Fridays from 5-8.30pm) with many regulars. The bar menu offers vodkas from West to East: the Rive Gauche signature is 26 Vodka Guillotine – St-Germain, shrub-flavoured with citrus, celery and champagne. Snacks include free olives and Kaviari caviars plus dishes called ‘North’, say smoked butternut marshmallow with blackcurrant and crisp seeds; ‘South’, yellowtail ceviche with pomegranate; ‘East’, steamed buns with crispy chicken, black radish, chilli and coriander; and ‘West’, Charolais sliders with barbecue sauce and onions.
A second bar, Aristide, with a cigar facility, is named for M Bon Marché. I congratulate Josephine on how a server so felicitously made me feel like one of the regulars (apart from the white-coated mixologists, all the team are flexible and move around the outlets, apparently) The hotel plans a Lutetia literary event, with an international jury – the hotel has a superb library, open to anyone (I immediately spy interesting tomes called Everest and Icons).
Brasserie Lutetia, on the corner of Blvd Raspail and Rue de Sèvres and with Gérald Passedat’s Michelin reputation, is probably going to be the face of the hotel’s dining. The squash court-sized space is dominated by a flat ceiling with Chagall-type multi-colour back-lit stained glass by Fabrice Hyber (now, Le St Germain opens to a terrace and on to a courtyard, a new garden made by removing the previous ceiling of an inner room). At 7.30pm I am the only guest, but within an hour the room is almost full. At the far end, solo guests sit reading and perhaps having teas: the menu offers black, blue, green, red and white leaves. My setting has Montgolfier ceramics, Lutetia-brand cutlery, Lehmann glasses and a Garnier-Thiebaut napkin. I am brought chunks of Poiläne-type bread from Dallas bakery, the butter is Bordier. I check the main food menu, composed by chef Benjamin Brial. I go for the trendy lettuce salad (baby gem), its open heart embellished with slices of pink radish and the dressing the Paris-2019 ubiquity, lemon and virgin olive oil. I go on to beef tartare, presented in a wrap of crisp flatbread – I had a paper-lined cup of fries. I watch my neighbours, a local trio of considerable maturity, all presented with LVT burgers, named for Lutetia written the old way, Lvtetia – these are nine-centimetre-high towers of Charolais ground beef, Beaufort cheese and bacon, with accompanying fries and the chef’s special sauce, called Rive Gauche. The house Champagne is Taittinger, which had sold the hotel to Barry Sternlicht in 2005, and today’s pour is Cuvée Lutetia Extra Brut 2008. I have, however, chosen a glass of Pessac-Léognan 2014 Ch Les Hauts de Smith, Daniel & Florence Cathiard.
I sleep magnificently and join two other fitness addicts in the gym when it opens at 6.30am (it is next to the 17-metre pool and the Akasha Holistic Wellness Centre, which offers Aromatherapy Associates, Carita, Cellcosmet – and Christophe Biot plant-based hair attention). I walk along the main lobby corridor, past perfectly illuminated vitrines. I make for the dedicated breakfast room which, with a small inner garden at one end, is also ideal for special events. Tables have linen cloths. Cleverly, there is a well-composed continental-only buffet (somehow, coils of smoked salmon and boiled eggs, brown shells of course, have got in to a display that offers more types of croissants than I knew existed). I take a Bordier yoghurt and a Bordier butter wrap, and order eggs, thus adding €3 to the basic €55 cost. Superb coffee is brought in a shiny silver plunger.
I think about previous Lutetia habitués, including authors Pierre Assouline and James Joyce, plus long stay resident Pierre Bergé and artists Serge Gainsbourg and Juliette Greco, and even current fan Carla Bruni. And then I am once again on my way.
See Mary Gostelow’s travelogue, www.girlahead.com