Hôtel le Bristol: Paris Doesn't Get More French

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Courtesy of Hotel Le Bristol

French connections Hôtel le Bristol has added modern facilities without losing its sense of place

If you retraced the footsteps of Angelina Jolie and Marilyn Monroe, George Clooney and Charlie Chaplin, their paths would cross at Paris' Hôtel le Bristol, lebristolparis.com. Situated just two blocks from the Elysée Palace on the chic Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, it has for generations attracted celebrities, diplomats and the world's most well-heeled travelers. They visit to indulge in amenities that include the city's largest bathrooms (some with personal steam rooms) and a sixth-floor pool with sweeping views of the Paris skyline. But it's the hotel's strong sense of place — 18th century tapestries of peasant life, a harpist in the courtyard — that keeps them coming back. "The Bristol is as French a hotel as there is," says general manager Didier Le Calvez. "And that's a beautiful thing."

Maintaining that beauty comes at a price. With a restaurant that dates from 1829, a grand limestone facade and a stunning glass and wrought-iron elevator designed by a Jewish architect the hotel harbored during World War II, the Bristol is a high-maintenance building, and the owners — the Oetkers, one of Europe's richest families — must spend $8.5 million a year to keep it in working order. But while travelers are drawn to delightful old landmarks, nobody is actually going to spend a night in one if it means sacrificing convenience and comfort. Thus there are the frequent refurbishments and upgrades necessary for attracting customers. Over the past six months, the hotel has invested nearly $30 million in renovations, doubling the size of its spa, adding a panoramic rooftop suite and refreshing 40 rooms with the hotel's signature decor: toile de Jouy — patterned furnishings and floral motifs everywhere. (The hotel's other 140 rooms underwent refurbishment in the 18 months before this.) It has also started staging monthly fashion shows at the Bristol bar to keep guests au courant. And to entertain the hotel's youngest customers, the hotel has adopted a Birman kitten named Fa Raon.

Speaking of entertainment, Woody Allen chose the hotel as a primary location for his film Midnight in Paris, which debuts at Cannes in May. Carla Bruni, one of its stars, is a regular, holding court with other ladies who lunch at 114 Faubourg, the Bristol's "casual" brasserie where a hamburger will set you back $40.

It is the Bristol's eponymous three-Michelin-star restaurant, led by chef Eric Frechon, that generates the real local buzz, however. "Eighty percent of our clients tonight are French, and they are very difficult to please," says Le Calvez, seated in the dining room. "It's part of our culture that we strive to please the French guest." As he says this, the maître d' arrives bearing a dish and lifts its silver cover to reveal the most celebrated item on the menu: Bresse farm hen basted in wine and presented inside an inflated cow's bladder. More impressed by the culinary spectacle than by R&B-pop god Prince, who has just entered the restaurant, Le Calvez simply smiles and says, "Bon appétit."