Timing is everything in a truly great hotel. And in Le Meurice, I can tell you that running a full bath takes around 45 seconds. Breakfast, meanwhile, takes over an hour. That’s exactly as it should be in a Parisian ‘palace hotel’; an official designation ascribed to only 11 of the grandest haunts in the whole of France. At Le Meurice you can, should you require it, demand a terrarium, a terrapin or a Thierry Henry’s Greatest Goals DVD to be delivered to your room in the time it takes to calculate how many dubiously authenticated Salvador Dali stories there are relating to the place.
You might have heard some of them. Like when he ordered the Le Meurice staff to go out and catch flies in the Tuileries Gardens across the street. He wanted, and received, a jar of crickets for his room as he liked the sound they made when they rubbed their legs together. He hired a mariachi band to stand by his bed and play music to keep him awake. OK, I made the last one up. But what this should tell you, if you didn’t already know it, was that Salvador Dali was an appalling human being (quite the most over-rated artist of the last century) with his annual, month-long stays at Le Meurice (he booked in for 30 years on the bounce) no doubt pre-empted by a glut of staff requests for paid leave, unpaid leave, sick leave or any kind of leave they could get to avoid waiting hand-and-foot on ‘Avida Dollars’ (‘Hungry for Dollars’, as was Dali’s nickname) and his feckless wife, Gala.
The great artists of today don’t really come to Le Meurice for dinner anymore. But their work resides inside; particularly that of Phillipe Starck who, on my visit, had left a giant picture frame of ice in the lobby, which guests are encouraged to scrawl on before, school blackboard-style, the ice gets scrubbed over each day. That’s not the only slightly surreal quirk that Le Meurice boasts. But in the main, this is a place that manifests the Paris of a potentate’s fantasies or oligarch’s dry humps. A Coca-Cola from room service costs €11.
Personally, I love Le Meurice. Chiefly because the hotel continues, despite all I’ve said, to attract a decent number of actual living Parisians who pop by daily; something you can’t really say for other palace hotels such as the Four Seasons George V or Shangri-La Paris. Firstly, a visit to the 228 Bar, with its high ceiling, dark woods, enormous Lavalley fresco of Le Fontainebleau and still-intact air of indiscretion and sexiness. It’s a life-affirming confirmation of just how good everybody’s lower halves are in Paris, men and women alike. Males seem to know just how to get their denim and cotton to fit so that their derrieres look like two Christmas hams jostling for supremacy. While women of advanced ages display pins that are as shapely as they were when, no doubt, Serge Gainsbourg leered at them on a St. Tropez beach in 1971. Suddenly I feel far, far away from Britain where our legs, by comparison, look like stair bannisters covered in Choux pastry.
Alain Ducasse had been overseeing the food at Le Meurice for many a year but in 2021 his protégé Amaury Bouhours was named as the new executive head chef. You can choose from taking the uber-gourmand option in the Louis XIV-styled dining room, or the frankly less-oppressive atmosphere of Le Dali next door, which manages to make its huge space feel rather cosy thanks to sepulchral lighting, a jazz duo playing just quietly enough and a scattering of local Parisian characters who, wonderfully, still treat the place like we’d treat a branch of Upper Crust, i.e. with informality and slight disdain.
It is while dining at Le Dali that I watch a man with bramble-bush hair the colour of Ardennes mud, wearing a Great War trench coat stamp into the room, plump up his multi-coloured polka dot scarf and drain a Ricard whilst scowling at an Andre Gide paperback. The menu at Le Dali loves to tell you exactly which part of France your dish is from. Not so much a love letter to Paris as a group circular for the entire country. It’s one of those menus that looks simple but must have been agonising to create. I wanted to order the entire card but settled for oysters from Kermancy (as saline and creamy as a mermaid’s ear lobe), trout from Banca in the Pyrenees and scallops from Normandy, which came with a nipped and tucked dressing of lovage and celeriac.
The rooms, many of which were refurbished last year, are borderline preposterous in their views, which all face directly out onto the Tuileries and beyond to the Eiffel Tower. My Executive Suite was a breathy, utterly-unstuffy haven that felt like a cherished, little-exposed-side-room in the Palace of Versailles. Brass plug sockets, acres of Arabescato marble in the bathrooms, Missoni-style chairs, blackout shutters, wallpaper shades of the deftest, sunniest, duck-egg blue and, best of all, a shower that is uniquely and absolutely free of dials. A simple button is all that is displayed. Press it and instant, perfect-temperature water explodes from the ceiling. A small thing, but how many hours of our lives have been wasted fiddling with shower dials in hotels?
The only disappointment was the mini-bar. Surely some exquisite Parisian macaroons or fromages would be more appropriate than the mini-jar of Pringles I stare at in bafflement? If guests really, really, really want Pringles then you’d think they could call down and ask for them, knowing that their request will be received with faultless diplomacy by the staff, no less efficient and eager to please than if they’d ordered a taxi to take them to the house of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
It’s only as I reluctantly check out, that I notice Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s contemporary sculpture, The Kiss, in the lobby. Two twisting, cavorting, melding Roman columns, the six-foot-high piece seems to suggest that even the coldest and sternest of antiquities needs comforting or, at least, something to rub up against now and again. Perhaps that’s why the locals of the Rue de Rivoli keep coming here. Because this hotel, much as it attracts moguls and megastars, is also part of the community. You could never call Le Meurice an old friend; that would be far too familiar. But it’s a distant relative that you can’t wait to see again. Especially now that idiot Salvador isn’t around to bring flies into the place.