The vibe: A building steeped in world history becomes one of London’s grandest hotels
Location: 57 Whitehall, London | View on Google Maps
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The AFAR take
Situated in the heart of Whitehall, one of the world’s most pageanted thoroughfares, the hugely anticipated Raffles London at the OWO (aka Old War Office) finally opened in September of 2023. Located in the cupola-crowned Edwardian baroque landmark clad in pale Portland stone, the hotel was the grandiose site of some of the most dramatic decisions of the 20th century.
Secretaries of State for War Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, and scandalous John Profumo presided here; T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) worked here. The OWO is where the storied British secret services, MI5 and MI6, were born; its agents inspired Ian Fleming’s 007. Inaugurated in 1906 during Britain’s imperial heyday, then superseded in 1964 by the new Ministry of Defense nearby, the OWO was acquired in 2016 on a 250-year lease from the Ministry of Defense by the British Indian multi-billionaire Hinduja Group. It’s the first hotel project for the global conglomerate, which started as a trading company in India in 1914.
After a reported $1.76 billion, eight-year overhaul and expansion by EPR Architects, with the guidance of 37 heritage consultants, the legendary building unlocked its doors to the public for the first time ever on September 29, 2023. It’s been reborn as the London flagship of the Raffles brand founded in Singapore and is now part of the French hospitality giant Accor. The late Thierry Despont, whose panache with heritage luxury properties showed at the Ritz Paris and the Carlyle in New York, designed the interiors that feature original British oak paneling, rich textiles, and marble. Ten-foot wide guest room corridors that seem to go on for miles are now carpeted in patterned red and white, with leather-trimmed scarlet window drapes echoing the outfits of the Household Cavalry just across Whitehall.
Below ground, the state-of-the-art Guerlain Spa in conjunction with nutrition and movement specialists Pillar Wellbeing spans 27,000 square feet on four floors. Designed by Goddard Littlefair, it features a 65-foot swimming pool and nine treatment rooms for such signature pampering as the ultra-relaxing Spirit of London massage, which involves LED light therapy.
Like most arriving guests, I gawked at the restored winged Grand Staircase—steps of Piastraccia marble, balusters of English alabaster, handrails of veined Brescia marble—rising two stories to a piano nobile balcony. “From the balcony Churchill would speak,” the doorman informed me, adding that Sir Winston would touch one of the carved lions at the foot of the staircase handrails for good luck. All around me fellow guests worked their selfie poses under the opulent iDogi chandelier of Venetian crystal, a grand ornament of the OWO’s new incarnation.
Who’s it for?
The combination of luxury and British historical heritage will draw appreciators of both. So too fans of Raffles’s brand of atmospheric elegance. For 007 devotees, the lure will be further shaken and stirred by the building’s cameos in five of the “Bond, James Bond” pics. Culture vultures will love the proximity of London’s greatest museums, while their kids will get excited by glimpses of the cavalry horses across the street.
This is prime central London. Right across Whitehall stands the Georgian edifice of Horse Guards and its parade ground, which gives on to the greenery of St. James’s Park, where I wandered by white pelicans and black swans on its pastoral lake to reach the gates of Buckingham Palace. A 10-minute walk south on Whitehall, past the Imperial War Museum and Downing Sreet—wave to the prime minister—rise Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey, while a brief walk north leads to Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery; the entertainment hub of Leicester Square is just a few minutes beyond that.
A short amble eastward will take you to the Thames and the Victorian river walk of the Embankment. The London Eye’s massive wheel looms across the tide. Admittedly, it’s hard to find untouristed restaurants right nearby, but the vibrant dining scenes of Soho and Bloomsbury are all within walking distance. For first-time visitors, the location is an awe-inspiring introduction to London; for city habitués such as myself who might spend most of their time in trendy East and North London, it’s a reminder of why we fell for the city in the first place.
For city habitués such as myself who might spend most of their time in trendy East and North London, it’s a reminder of why we fell for the city in the first place.
Thierry Despont fashioned 120 guest rooms and grand suites from former offices and state rooms. (There are also 85 branded residences.) My 893-square-foot Ministerial Suite was a comfort zone of historically resonant, yet chilled-down elegance—private-club Edwardian gone Zen-serene. From my living room armchair in pale gray and white plaid I looked down at Whitehall and Horse Guards with its mounted plumed sentries. Underfoot, the black-speckled carpeting echoed the delicate mosaic tiles of the corridors, while the drapes of the floor-to-ceiling windows carried on the gray and white theme. The deep mattress of the bed beckoned with the softest custom-made linens. The “1906” amenities in the marbled bathrooms with heated floors were sandalwood-scented bespoke creations by award-winning London perfumer Azzi Glasser.
At entry level, Classic Rooms are a generous 334 square feet, with original artwork, marble bathrooms, and such mod cons as bedside touch screen control tablets. At the high end, the Heritage Suites, once the realms of politicos and military leaders, feature sumptuously restored oak paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows, and decorative marble Georgian fireplaces (now nonoperational). The Haldane Suite, where Churchill toiled at his desk and Profumo daydreamed no doubt of Christine Keeler, can be combined into the almost 5,400-square-foot Whitehall Wing for up to 12 guests, making it one of the largest luxury hotel wings in London. The eight art deco–style Corner Suites in the building’s pavilion corners are named for female notables and spies connected with the history of the OWO.
The food and drink
With three bars and nine restaurants (some still in the works), the OWO promises to turn the sleepy-at-night Whitehall area into a happening dining and drinking hub. And the hotel scored a coup by partnering with the Argentinian-born superchef Mauro Colagreco (of the three Michelin-starred Mirazur in the French Riviera town of Menton). Colagreco makes his London debut here with three distinctive gastronomic experiences all showcasing obsessively sourced U.K. produce and his passionate advocacy of sustainability.
At Colagreco’s understated eponymous fine dining restaurant, the brainy-zeigesty dishes are named for their vegetable “hero ingredients”—Radicchio, Squash—and come with adorable postcard illustrations of produce. Between the artful parade of amuse-gueules and petit fours, the best thing I ate here was “Lettuce”: a salad of smoked haddock and buttery red-oak lettuce leaves (grown by urban farmers nearby) in a sensuous cockle-vermouth sauce. British biodiversity is also celebrated at Mauro’s Table next door in an intimate, stylish space seating some 20 guests.
I loved my meals at Saison, Colagreco’s all-day casual restaurant in the OWO’s former military library where Ian Fleming, a Naval Intelligence officer, would come to research. The room has been transformed into a joyful homage to the French Italian Riviera, evoked with a landscape mural and white trellised walls under a restored high glass arcade. I made repeat raids on the chic breakfast buffet for gorgeous tarts, brioches, and madeleines. And I’m still daydreaming about my dinner here starring orecchiette with a vivid pistachio pesto dotted with pink cubes of raw bluefin tuna, plump roasted quail with smoked chestnuts and clementines, and a luscious plum panna cotta.
Also already open on the hotel’s restaurant roster are the Drawing Room, a clubby wood-paneled lounge looking out at Horse Guards and serving posh afternoon teas; the London outpost of Paris’s luxe Café Laperouse beloved by the Hermes bag set; and a branch of the sceny Milanese spot Paper Moon. In 2024, the panoramic rooftop restaurant opens (with a ground floor sake bar) by the Michelin-starred sushi maestro Endo Kazutoshi.
Drinks? The Guards Bar and Lounge honors the OWO’s long connection with the Household Cavalry and offers cool riffs on the iconic Raffles Singapore Sling. A different vibe reigns at the shadowy speakeasy-inspired Spy Bar, accessible only to hotel guests and located underground in the former interview and interrogation rooms of the very secret Special Operations Executive. Gleaming behind the bar counter: half of James Bond’s famous silver Aston Martin DB5 (please don’t attempt to half-test-drive it after your third 007-inspired martini, cleverly updated with rhubarb).
Staff and service
Staff are cordial and un-imperious, genuinely proud of their workplace and eager to assist a perpetually frazzled guest (me!) in the sometimes daunting geographics of the hotel’s layout. The concierge team handled a couple of off-site reservations for me and were constantly inquiring if they could be of aid; ditto the brown-bowler-hatted French doorman. At the OWO’s helm is Philippe Leboeuf, the managing director who’d previously held the GM roles at such storied addresses as Claridge’s in London, the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and the Carlyle in New York.
Three rooms and two suites are officially accessible, and the beds in all rooms can be lowered to accommodate guests with additional needs. There are multiple spacious lifts to all guest floors and event spaces, plus three outdoor wheelchair ramps and one indoors (for Paper Moon restaurant). Each floor has an assembly point for wheelchair users, with emergency buttons and intercoms.
And more history
How many hotels have a dedicated History Concierge, available to answer questions and conduct a tour? Guests will find their corridors augmented with curated wartime artworks: field drawings of World War I tanks, portraits of female workers in World War II industries. These supply a sometimes startling archival note to the corridors’ grandeurs—whose striking carpet pattern is homage to the restored cast-iron grills running over the original telephone lines under the flooring. The corridors’ prodigious width? It was to accommodate the scurrying messengers heading in both directions with highly sensitive communications. Many were Boy Scouts, I was tickled to learn, who could also help a lost colonel find his way among the myriad offices.
The OWO will be open for public visits 10 days annually. It’s part of the Ministry of Defense’s lease agreement—and a further mark of the weight of its heritage.