Checking Out London's New Grand Hotels

London has never had a shortage of fancy hotels. Such favorites as the Savoy, Claridge's, and the Ritz have long offered top-notch service. Now, three new luxury hotels and one refurbished old-timer aim to distinguish themselves by providing modern plumbing and communications, along with Old World charm.

The priciest, at $390 for a single to $5,140 for a suite, is the Lanesborough, which opened in January. The building is a 160-year-old former hospital that has been converted into a 95-room hotel at a cost of $175 million. Caroline Hunt of the Texas Hunts and her Rosewood hotel company have tried to create the atmosphere of an English country house, circa 1820.

The Regency-style decor veers toward a theme-park view of Olde England at times. In the coldly formal Withdrawing Room, walls are hung with oil paintings that look old but were newly done for the hotel. Many books in the library bar are fakes. Still, the bar is well-stocked, and a piano tinkles away in the evening. Diners have a choice of an overpriced formal restaurant ($100 a head) or the light and pleasant Conservatory.The bedrooms are large, but not huge, given the price. Beds are adorned with crown-like canopies. Reproductions of antique cabinets hide such modern amenities as fax machines, VCRs, and stereos.

FAX EASE. The Lanesborough's big selling point: service. Each floor has butlers on call 24 hours for drawing baths, ordering theater tickets, and such. The location is great, near the best shopping and across from Hyde Park.The nearby Halkin, which opened in April, 1991, is a 41-room gem, done in contemporary Italian style. Even the uniforms were designed by Giorgio Armani. Upstairs, the corridors are curved in a gentle arc and the walls are covered with a ribbed black finish. Bedroom phones have two lines, and in-room fax machines have numbers that change with each guest for security. Bathrooms boast sumptuous marble. The $720 window-laden Conservatory Suites are a relative bargain, perfect for small meetings.

As a small hotel, the Halkin promises a personal touch. Its main problem is a lack of public rooms. There's no health club or bar, although drinks are served in the front hall. The Northern Italian restaurant offers a good but pricey menu.

A much larger hotel is the year-old Langham Hilton. Originally opened in 1865, the Langham was one of London's grand hotels until it closed in the 1940s. Completely renovated, this 400-room Victorian edifice is now Hilton's London flagship.

57 VODKAS. The Langham is more a top business hotel than a true luxury hotel, and the prices are about 20% lower than at the others. The differences are most evident in the bedrooms. Although equipped with the usual amenities, the decor is bland. You would expect more from a $360-a-night room.

The public rooms are the main attraction. Each is based on a quirky theme, such as Tsar's, a cozy Russian bar that serves caviar and 57 varieties of vodka. The eclectic food in the main dining room, Memories of the Empire, has improved under a new chef.One old London favorite worth a new look is the Dorchester, where doubles start at $440. This art-deco jewel had been looking flawed before it was closed in 1989 for a $175 million renovation. In the process, the bedroom floors were gutted and rebuilt, adding much-needed air conditioning and soundproofing. Room decor is tasteful, with floral and animal prints.

Downstairs, the elegant public rooms sparkle anew. Diners have a choice of three good restaurants, among them the superb Oriental, for Chinese food. A new health spa adds to the overall appeal. Best bets: the Dorchester for glitz, the Halkin for a touch of class.

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