The OWO: Welcome to the opening of the century

The latest life of the Old War Office already feels faintly unreal. From this Friday, the historic government palace on Whitehall officially reopens as the OWO, marking the first time the public have been allowed inside the building — more than a century after Winston Churchill rumbled around the place as secretary of state. No longer the epicentre of Britain’s defence, it’s now partly a hotel, partly flats, and partly what’s likely the most luxurious dining hub in the world.

The split is this: there are 85 residences (from £4 million for a one-bed), five independent restaurants, and then Raffles London, a 120-room hotel with seven of its own restaurants and bars, bringing the grand total of places to dine or drink to 12. Or, as the OWO’s director of food and drink Mark Hastings puts it: “It’s one restaurant per 10 rooms. There’s no ratio like it anywhere in the world.” Such imbalance between the room for residents and the space for a night out speaks to the OWO’s true intentions: it’s being spoken of as the London hotel launch of the century, but in truth it is more of an impossibly grand, glamorous and gilded food hall.

“It is,” says Hastings, “an unprecedented amount of top-line food and drink under one roof. I don’t think anyone can say they’ve done anything on this scale before.” And what scale. The Grade II* building is its own island, has four postcodes, and is constructed from 25 million bricks and 26,000 tons of stone. It is 71,000sqm in size, with more than four kilometres of corridors. “They’re particularly wide because young people used to ride bikes through them to deliver messages,” chuckles Hastings.

The original building works, begun in 1899, took seven years to build at a cost of £123 million (adjusted for inflation). These renovations, by the Hinduja group, took just as long, but came in at £1.4 billion — “but that includes the cost of the lease, which was £360 million!” the comms team trill. Bargain, then.

The grand staircase in the entrance hall (John Athimaritis)
The grand staircase in the entrance hall (John Athimaritis)

Those wishing to stay will need to fork out a grand per night — minimum. Fortunately the food and drink is a little more democratic. A little; there’s no Maccies folded in among the temples of haute cuisine. Top of the bill is chef Mauro Colagreco, best known for Mirazur. In the cliffs above Menton, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant was once named the world’s best. Friday marks Colagreco’s London debut, and it’s a big one, as he oversees three spots. The first — Mauro Colagreco at Raffles London at The OWO — makes a star of vegetables. “He calls himself a gardener in chef’s whites,” says Fiona Harris, the OWO’s director of communications. It’s a line that jars when, say, a piece of turbot is put down but declared a parsnip dish for the vegetable accompanying the fish. Still, it’s hard to deny his evident enthusiasm — and given last year he was the first chef to ever be named a Unesco goodwill ambassador for biodiversity, he clearly means what he says.

“I constantly questioned myself: how to create a menu, a dining experience that takes care of the preservation of the genetic and cultural biodiversity. This drives our creativity, cuisine and dining experiences,” he says. “Our project at Raffles London was a perfect excuse to look deeper into the process of elevating vegetables to their most noble form.”

Mauro Colagreco with his head chef Leonel Aguirre Tobia (Matteo Carassale)
Mauro Colagreco with his head chef Leonel Aguirre Tobia (Matteo Carassale)

Noble pricing, too. In the 50-cover dining room, three courses à la carte come in at £110, a five-course tasting menu is £165. Attached to the restaurant is the 23-cover Mauro’s Table, for private dining.

Is the OWO going for stars? Hastings nods firmly. So is Colagreco doing more than lending his name? “He will be over regularly, a few times each season,” says Hastings. “I think he’s got the London bug.”

Simpler, they say, is Colagreco’s third project Saison, which fulfils the more traditional role of a hotel restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and supper. This too is all seasonal and with a Mediterranean bent. Prices remain high: the cheapest starter is £17, half of the mains are more than £40. It’s certainly still grand, with a far-flung glass roof, and white-washed wood criss-crossed over glazed tiles. “This was one of the most important military libraries in the world,” says Harris, looking around. “And it’s where Ian Fleming used to do his research.”

Ah yes, Fleming. The author is said to have thought up the James Bond series here and gets a nod in the Spy Bar, which sits hidden in the bowels of the building, and is also a tribute to the countless spies who worked in the war office (both MI5 and MI6 came to life within these walls). It is a Sixties-inspired den in Bordeaux red, with a bar topped with Scotch bottles glowing like gas lamps. Not the first thing you will notice — that will be the Aston Martin DB5 shorn in half and stuck to the wall. “It’s actually the carbon fibre body from the stunt car from No Time To Die,” says Harris. The bar will stay open until 2am; all the Raffles properties in the OWO have this licence.

Not to be outdone, the Guards’ Bar has a showstopper of its own, a mathusalem (six litres) of Remy Martin’s Louis XIII cognac — yours in Harrods for a mere £98,000. Here it’s served from a custom trolley with a caviar pairing. “This is the only experience in the world like it,” says William Campbell-Rowntree, head bartender. The cognac is served using a pipette from the enormous bottle, which is lit with its own spotlights. Caviar comes in ice-lined trays; the whole thing costs about £600 for a double of the drink with a serving of caviar. “It’s actually extremely good value,” says Campbell-Rowntree. Right oh. Those with shallower pockets should try the riffs on a Singapore Sling, a Raffles signature. They come in at around £24.

The Guards’ Bar (John Athimaritis)
The Guards’ Bar (John Athimaritis)

Back with the restaurants, and Colagreco’s star wattage will not shine alone. In the courtyard is a silver-topped pavilion, Café Lapérouse. Opening October 3, it also extends inside the main building with a room that is a near facsimile of the original building, which has existed in Paris since 1766. It does old world French cooking in a room built for romance, though the tables are carved for chess and backgammon too.

What marks the OWO, though, is a sense of completeness. It is there in the looks — in say, the brass studs on the curtains that line the hallways, done as officers’ buttons — but in food too. There is Italian from Paper Moon, opening October 2. As with Lapérouse, this is a tried-and-tested place, old for a restaurant — at 46 — but a whipper-snapper compared to its Parisian counterpart (257 not out). Paper Moon has a compatriot in Langosteria, another Milanese favourite, but one not opening till early next year.

Besides that is a traditionally English Drawing Room, doing relaxed all-day dining, afternoon tea, and classic cocktails come the evening. Those on a health kick will have the Pillar Kitchen, which has been put together by fitness guru — there’s no other word — Harry Jameson. Jameson might be British but the vibe is all Dubai-meets-LA: it is chic, clean, bright, good for you. No surprise a treatment room is next door. But the biggest opening, the closest rival to Colagreco’s spot, will come from sushi master Endo Kazutoshi. Still under construction, it is expected by the end of the year: an entrance on the ground floor heads into the sake bar (“the intention is to have a drink before heading up, and maybe after too,” they say), before a custom lift heads up to a rooftop restaurant. Details remain slight but given the Michelin-starred Kazutoshi’s restaurant at The Rotunda is considered one of the capital’s finest Japanese spots, expectations are high.

Expectations, in fact, are everything, everywhere. Rarely, when one hears the expression “no expense spared,” does it ring true. It does here. “When the Edwardians built this building, the aim was always simply and solely to impress,” says Harris. It seems the Hinduja brothers had the same idea.

57 Whitehall, SW1A 2BX,