Hard to find a more historic setting in London than The Rubens at the Palace, overlooking the Royal Mews where horses and carriages used for royal ceremonies and processions are kept.
As with all members in the Red Carnation Hotel Collection owned by the Tollman family, this 5-star property radiates tradition, with dark wood panelling, patterned carpets, brass fittings and crystal chandeliers throughout. Even the crockery in its Palace Lounge is stamped with golden crowns and cushions have a royal-theme, appropriate for the special British afternoon teas served there.
So historic is this hotel on busy Buckingham Palace road close to Victoria station, a glass case in the lobby contains memorabilia from 1949 from the original Hotel Rubens, including photographs of Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle.
Our room, 325, designated ‘deluxe king,’ featured what I describe as ‘quirky Tollman humor,’ which I have noticed in some of their other properties, including Geneva. Here at The Rubens, framed 19th century satirical cartoon portraits of people adorned the walls.
Other furnishings included two silver inlaid sets of drawers, a small coffee table with matching chairs, a step-in shower, and, by tradition, a single carnation in a vase.
Diversity of dining is a hallmark of The Rubens. Aside from daily afternoon tea, guests can also enjoy Indian dishes in The Curry House and classic meats in the English Grill.
The Curry Room, opened two years ago, is located in a cosy basement room with dim ceiling lighting and glass book-lined shelves. Furnishings include sculptures featuring riders on horseback and a maharajah in traditional clothing, framed paintings of Indian scenes and colorful tapestries from Rajasthan.
Manager Mohan Senchuri from Nepal is friendly and courteous while Delhi-born chef Arun Kumar has prepared a menu to suit all tastes. Start off with keema samosa, poppadoms, homemade lime pickle, mango chutney and mint raita, then try several of seven different thalis ranging from lamb to chicken, vegetable to beef and fish served on elegant silver trays. Desserts include Kulfi ice cream.
The cocktail menu here is equally impressive. We opted for a chilli tamarind sour – Woodford Reserve, tamarind, egg white, Kashmiri red chilli powder and a poetically named ‘Serene Valley of Flowers’ – Tanqueray gin, ginger liquor, chartreuse, lime, mint, fresh ginger and nutmeg. Or try a popular Indian beer such as Kingfisher or Cobra.
Dinner at the English Grill is also an occasion to savor, more so if you book one of the secluded leather booths. Smoked mirrors, stucco ceiling, thick carpet, crisp white tablecloths with fresh flowers on each table, heavy velvet curtains, chandeliers and large 19th century still-life oil paintings of food around the walls, enhance the elegant ambience. As do tailcoat waiters.
From an open kitchen, decadent dishes sally forth – lobster Arnold Bennett and H. Forman’s smoked salmon, sliced at your table, tempting steaks such as a dry-aged Angus fillet and Himalayan salt-aged T-bone, different daily roasts from slow-cooked belly pork to Cornish leg of lamb, all accompanied by roast potatoes. The wine list includes a wide selection from the Tollman’s vineyard in South Africa, Bouchard Finlayson.
Breakfast is also served in the English Grill, and includes a continental version with cereal, pastries, yogurt, fruit salad, cheese and cured Hampshire ham. The à la carte menu is a diverse one with healthy options such as coconut kombucha Bircher muesli, crushed avocado with cape seed loaf and poached hen’s egg and rice milk pancakes, alongside, of course, the traditional full English of Cumberland sausage, smoked dry aged back bacon, Mangalitza black pudding, homemade hash brown, Portobello mushrooms, grilled plum tomatoes, baked beans.
Visiting England without sampling a traditional afternoon tea may be considered a cultural culinary opportunity lost. So tempting is the setting at The Rubens this opportunity is hard to avoid, taking place as it does in the Palace Lounge overlooking Buckingham Palace Road, its walls adorned with portraits of past royalty such as Anne Boleyn, Queen Mary the 2nd, King Henry 8 and King Edward 6. Plus a large print depicting the ceremonial ‘trooping of the color’ on Horse Guards Parade. Large sofas facing the Royal Mews, a silver inlaid wall mirror and hanging lamps create a most attractive atmosphere.
For greater intensity, enjoy a drink or two in the New York Bar, one of three bars at the hotel. It features a vivid red decor, smoked mirror tables, overhead lamps, leather-clad stools and a speckled gray-and-white marble fireplace. Soft velvet armchairs, some in a rainbow of colors, offer comfortable seating and strangely, five urns or apothecary jars line the mantelpiece.
The Leopard Bar, an iconic fixture of Red Carnation properties, with statement pieces of the Bronze Leopard by Donald Greig, serves over 200 whiskies and 30 Champagnes against a backdrop of live jazz and swing music. Sumptuous brown leather deep-buttoned sofas are complemented by antique pine wood panelled walls by English craftsmen, adorned with glass whisky display cabinets. Here you can enjoy a steak sandwich, or a selection of sushi and sashimi.
The third bar, bbar & Restaurant, with two sections, is just on your left as you exit the reception. Sporting vintage photographs of big game, ethnic carvings, leopard spotted lampshades and polished zebrano wood table tops. Officials describe it as “a mix of safari chic and colonial cool.”
The menu here is international, but with a strong South African accent lent by dishes like Springbok fillet, grilled Boerewors sausages and Bobotie Spring Rolls straight from founder and president Bea Tollman’s cookbook “A Life in Food”. Mixologists prepare over 60 cocktails, from the classics to the more exotic.
One section of the bar caters for around 250 people and dining for 100 guests while 43 Below, an intimate lower bar, has its own sound system and a cosy club-like atmosphere and caters for up to 70.
For a London hotel that is well-located and provides elegance in taste as well as an historic setting and diverse dining, The Rubens at the Palace is hard to beat.