19 APRIL 1963, Page 20

Hilton Views and Prospects

By NIGEL BUXTON ONG before the 800-feet-a-minute lifts were

in and the carpet laid, a board erected by the British builders announced `London's Finest Hotel'. Asked if this were not a rash and provoca- tive claim for a highly controversial project, a senior Hilton man answered confidently, 'Maybe; but wait until they see the view.'

From the twenty-eighth floor of the London Hilton one can see a long way, and it's very pretty at night, but 'Hilton' is almost a pejorative and it may take more than a prospect that embraces Battersea power station and Fulham gasworks, and a decor that includes Mrs. Fleur Cowles's murals and Sir Hugh Casson's palais de danse to counter the belief that Hilton hotels are monuments to the present age of instant coffee and two-minute rice.

For Conrad Hilton (Peace through inter- national Trade and Travel') and the more percipient and sensitive of his executives such an apparent confirmation in London of the image of Hilton as vulgarian and despoiler would be a bitter failure. Bitter, because undeserved. Of the most recent Hilton creations the Royal Tehran is a triumphant blend of ancient and modern; the Amsterdam Hilton is far from unpleasing, and the Athens Hilton (guests from the London debut fly straight on to the opening in Greece) may come to be judged one of the most elegant hotels in the world.

Far from being the brash intruder, Hilton is probably more concerned than any other inter- national hotel operator to suit his projects to the local scene, and the path to Park Lane and the largest of his European undertakings has been paved with particularly honourable intent. 'The concept of the London Hilton is that of a modern, international hotel incorporating all the Hilton experience gained throughout the world yet designed specifically to give a feeling of London.' No chromium plate. No soda fountains. Trader Vic's in the basement perhaps, but St. George's Bar on the ground floor. No opening circus. No trumpet-blowing or flag-waving. No contingents of Hollywood stars and starlets that might suit Port of Spain, Trinidad, but not London, WI.

The false image that is in danger of perpetua- tion is no less distressing to Hilton's team of largely European born and trained hotel men, because it stems not from personal experience of Hilton hotel-keeping on the part of his detractors, but from nostalgia for a vanished douceur de vivre and a refusal to face facts. It is one of our most cherished illusions that somewhere on the next boulevard will always be the delightfully Edwardian hotel where the staff and the boilers have miraculously grown no older, and that around the next corner stands and will always stand the half-timbered hostelry with Michelin three-star food and a rubicund, cheerful and respectful Mine Host waiting at the door.

Mass tourism along with contemporary politics and economics makes nonsense of such day- dreams, and our grief makes us indiscriminate in our search for scapegoats and terms of abuse. 'They'll have a Hilton there before long,' we say as we sit on the terrace of a brand-new, somewhat ugly, government-built hotel on one Greek island and contemplate the ultimate spoliation of another. We forget that iced water, canned music and frozen peas were there all the way from the Cyclades to the Straits of Gibraltar long before a single Hilton flagpole threatened the Aegean sky.

Our blind and unreasonable resentment of the American tourist is part of the same condition of mind, Keeping to the beach and our water skis we sneer at Americans for rubbernecking and at Hilton for providing them with stepping-stones around the world so that—we say—they may have the sensation of travel without getting their feet wet in the waters of local life. Dubbing them Philistines we snorkel to and fro among the rocks while they tour the Louvre and the Prado and the galleries of Rome. And all the while, as if in atonement for the techniques of freezing and concentrating the taste out of life that were developed in America, and that have wrecked the pleasures of the table there, Hilton International goes to immense pains to present—often to rediscover—whatever seems best in countries that have already gone far along the same road.

Where are those simple fishermen's eating places with delicious lobsters (the French are fishing them off the coast of South America) fresh from the sea? How easy is it to find an Athenian taverna where tender young lamb is cooked to perfection over a charcoal fire? How far do we have to go to find a real bouillabaisse, a genuine gazpacho? In the wastelands of the Costas Brava, Blanca and del Sol how often do you find a paella worthy of the table or flamenco worthy of the floor?

It is a sobering thought that Hilton may one day appear not as the despoiler but the saviour of —among other things—the authentic in local hotel decor and food. While bistros in Paris and trattorie in Florence install strip lighting and plastic flowers, Hilton buys more candles and combs the bazaars for genuine Persian brass. While other hoteliers eliminate local dishes from their typewritten menus (International' cuisine) Hilton's men search the libraries for original recipes, create new ones and commission expen- sive artists to design new 'Bills of Fare.'

Hilton menus, almost poetic in their peculiarly Hilton imagery, are reflections of the whole Hilton approach. 'Wild pheasant Parandeh' (Tehran) is not left at that 'A Delicate Game Hen Aged in Snow for a Few Days, Slowly Broiled Over a Blazing Charcoal Flame and Served with Petits Pois Fins and a Croquette of Pornme Saveh.' A Steak Diane (Belvedere Roof, Nile Hilton) becomes 'Mignonettes of Beef Sauté in Copper Skillets'—my italics but not my capitals —'with a special Sauce of Shallots and Mush- rooms, Served with Oriental Rice, Fashioned and Flamed at your Table.' No opportunity of titillating the appetite is missed. Salads are always 'fresh and crisp,' steaks 'prime and juicy,' and slices and portions are 'ample' and generous.

If the chefs of the London Hilton's five different restaurants prove equal to the men who planned and wrote the menus for the five different cuisines, and if-the comfort and service in the rest of the hotel match what is generally to be found in Hiltons elsewhere, London may yet take the controversial newcomer to its heart. The danger is that the London Hilton will be judged not by its views, not by its bedrooms (honourable exceptions to the incoherency affecting the rest of the decor) nor by its food, but by those curious carpets, those ceiling lights, that ballroom and those murals in the International Bar.