The giant W, twinkling with hundreds of colour-changing LEDs and sparkling silver trim, says it all. You are in Soho, act accordingly.
In the autumn of 2017, the W London Leicester Square upgraded its public areas with no expense spared and focusing on the creation of The Perception at W London.
A bar and lounge concept, The Perception includes multiple public and secluded seating areas, DJ booths, dining gallery, mesmerising cocktail bar and events spaces.
Overlooking the bustle of the streets of Soho from the first floor, the new bar references the brand and city’s shared love of fashion, music and design through its bold interiors, from bespoke leather sofas tattooed by Soho’s iconic Frith Street Tattoo studio to spherical mirrored ceilings and revolving curved sofas.
Its Instagram-inducing decor makes it a must-see destination venue alone, something that will help it become renowned in the ultra-competitive fluorescent world of the West End.
The brand knows its position, its clientele and how to create a USP. For example, the Mega Bar – the hotel’s super-sized mobile cocktail bar complete with luxurious in-room personal mixologist, sound system and disco ball.
During my visit I was treated to an old-school cinema-style lighting box stating “Hey Joe, mix it up!” in-room, referring to four shots of coloured liquids, a garnish and a shaker in which to make up my own bedside cocktail.
Big beats are audible in the corridors and the atmosphere is all building towards a trip to the bar. But while overnight guests have all the liquid encouragement to see The Perception in the palms of their hands, the challenge for the hotel is capturing those outside the hotel.
“You can’t quite see our bar from the street, so you have to want to come in,” says Ben Cowtan, F&B director – the huge W is surely designed to draw people in while also being a feature in W Hotel entrances around the world.
A small reception area, an entrance to Burger & Lobster and two elevators comprise the street entrance to the hotel, but that is where the experience begins.
“We have curated the entrance experience with the disco balls and lights. We pump through the music in that ground-floor entrance to be the same as you get in the lift and then the main reception and through into the bar,” says Cowtan.
“There are multiple touchpoints there to make that welcome experience less harsh. It is one of the challenges because we are not a bar with a door on to the street. But it is also definitely something we have thought about and was in the design chat before work began. Hopefully we have made that transition as smooth as possible.”
The Perception has a capacity of 350 across the whole first floor, while busy weekend nights have seen some 500 people visit across the evening since the refurb.
While collaborating with music-streaming platform Mixcloud to curate a cultural programme of DJs every night of the week will undoubtedly bring in punters, it is the cocktail menu that is the jewel in the crown.
“We wanted to change perceptions with the creation of this menu,” says Cowtan. “For example, the gin-based cocktails are perhaps not exactly what you would expect from a traditional gin-based cocktail.
“We designed a brief of what we wanted from the menu, and things that we definitely wanted to see versions of, but we spoke to Ulises Guerrero Galvez (head barman at W London) – and explained that we wanted his team to take ownership of it.”
The team of 11 bartenders proceeded to produce a dossier of cocktail concepts.
“Every bartender came with about 10 recipes and we had 150 at one point,” explains Cowtan. “We tried to be as brutal as possible with the filtration process, but we could only get it down to 22 choices.”
During the three-month refurb programme, the team would meet up to discuss the creations, have workshops and trial flavours.
“It was a great process and we had the time to really dedicate to it,” says Cowtan.
“They are bartenders, but they are all expert mixologists and incredibly creative, and that is definitely something we want to celebrate. W is a great brand for that because it does let you draw outside the lines and play around with things.
“We like our bartenders to have that freedom because then you get a product that they really believe in. The service aspect jumps up to a whole other level because they are not being told what to do – they created it and feel a part of it.
“Giving them the power and the responsibility has meant that the product has been incredible so far.”
While changes will be made to the menu to tailor it more to the spring/summer and autumn/winter seasons, the core 22 remain in place.
“That 22 can be an ambitious number,” says Cowtan. “On Friday nights it can be quite a high-volume bar to have 22 cocktails available, especially when it’s open until 3am. But the team has done brilliantly. I have been so impressed and I’m so proud because it’s definitely the most ambitious cocktail menu I have ever been a part of.”
Personal highlights include Enjoy The Show, which plays on much-loved movie snacks with popcorn-infused Woodford reserve, chocolate bitters and Coca-Cola foam, while the Rest In Peas features an out-of-this-world combination of Bison Grass-infused Beluga vodka, Luxardo Limoncello, home-made green pea purée, lemongrass and ginger cordial, Martini Bianco and lime.
But knowing 22 cocktails off the top of your head, plus seasonal variations as well as the classics – when asked for – is no easy feat.
For this, Cowtan heaps praise on the HR team and general manager at the hotel.
“We were very lucky to be allowed to take two full weeks of training on the menu,” he says. “We rented out a bar at a sister property and had three days of immersing ourselves in the new menu. Then we had more days on classical cocktails and bar techniques and then more on the systems we use behind the bar.”
And the same emphasis on training is in place when new staff join The Perception.
“The training aspect is super-important,” he continues. “When we have a new bartender in the team, we have them shadowing for five shifts, just watching the team work, and then we switch that over.
“We prefer to invest that time in the training rather than letting people go in untriained and let the standards slip while they learn.
“We are a hotel bar, so we have guests who stay with us all week, so a Clean Bar Martini they have with us on a Monday should taste the same as it does on a Wednesday or a Friday.”
The various areas of the bar allow the team to both section off for events while also change up their service style to cater for anyone, from business clients to a lively birthday celebration.
“We are an American brand, and W is a five-star hotel brand, so we have to keep some nuances of that classic hotel style, but the great thing about this brand is that if you tick those boxes, then you can play with it,” says Cowtan. “The customer is king in how we are going to define our service.
“Our guys love personalising their service to different clientele. We apply each service to the customer. You can have five different experiences with the same server. If someone wants to be playful and have banter, we can do that, or if there is a business meeting and the customer doesn’t want to be
disturbed we know we can do that, too. It’s all about personality and attitude here. You can train people, but you can’t teach attitude and we look for that in our guys. And they do it brilliantly.”
DRINKS AND BEATS TO MODERN EATS
To celebrate the reopening, W London launched its dining series, welcoming some of the capital’s most renowned culinary talents to create a dinner menu combining their gastronomic identity with the attitude of W London.
The series was kicked off by Australian-born Magnus Reid, owner of Shoreditch haunt C.R.E.A.M and Hackney favourite, Legs.
Guests were treated to twisted classics such as burrata with chilli jam and fried garlic or show-stopping larger plates like whole roast market fish.
More recently, the lounge, where the dinner is served, has hosted Ravinder Bhogal and her entirely vegan menu, once again proving that the brand is not afraid to mix things up.
The menu’s goal is to use the most natural produce to create plates that will excite self-identifying vegans and omnivores alike with dishes such as besan fritters, coconut yoghurt and curry leaf, Asian mushroom ragout with sweet potato gnocchi, and the signature caramel tofu with garlic confit rice and chilli-smacked cucumbers.
But cocktails are never too far away.
“Pairing is something we are very keen on. In each dining series the chef will sit down with Ulises and make sure there are cocktails tied into the menu and are not just an afterthought,” says Cowtan.
Meanwhile, downstairs, Burger & Lobster – a recognised brand in its own right – offers exactly what it says on the tin, offering a third-party outlet on the premises.
“It is a viable casual dining option for our hotel guests and we want them to have as many options as possible,” says Cowtan. “Soho is one of the most competitive areas in London, so the more diverse options we can offer our guests, the better.”
However, it is at breakfast where the W once again hits home its intentions.
“‘Detox, retox, repeat,’ is our hotel narrative,” says Cowtan. “We are trying to cater for that guest who is a big W fan, wants to go hard on a night out, having trailblazing cocktails, great events and music programming with us, and the next morning we are going for that ‘work hard, play hard’ feel.
“So, we have a nice relaxing atmosphere in the morning and try and get as much health on to that breakfast buffet as possible while also having the treats that everybody is used to in the morning.”
The buffet is packed with superfoods and there is a free-from festival of foods, while the hot dish menu has all but scrapped the idea of sausage, bacon and black pudding.
“There’s lots of local produce, like a honey from a company just outside of London,” says Cowtan. “We have gluten- and lactose-free options and vegan options.
“We want things that taste great but are not doing you any damage; they are setting you up for the day. There are lots of grains and an array of juices. There’s even six different types of milk so that everybody can go for their preferred option.”
There are points of difference everywhere, from the buffet stand shipped over from New York – “We wanted to be fresh and different in what we are serving, cooking and the way we present it” – to the banning of hot tins housing “sweating tomatoes” and “congealed eggs”.
“We didn’t want to be your typical greasy bacon, cheese -sweating buffet. We wanted it to bright and different.
“We were anti-Full English breakfast. Our chef is Swedish Chilean and the concept is alien for him anyway. It’s so against anything we try and do in that bar, so we decided against the hot buffet and just had a hot menu.”
The hot menu features various Benedicts with smoked salmon, honey-roast ham or sautéed spinach; hot bowls of quinoa with tender broccoli, mushrooms and sweet potato with ginger yoghurt dressing; omelettes; and sourdough toast with avocado mash making up a very healthy selection.
“The ideal goal is that for guests, their night starts here and ends here, and then there is a breakfast to match,” says Cowtan.
It’s the modern way.
SAMPLE COCKTAIL MENU
CLEAN BAR MARTINI
Bombay Sapphire Gin, Carpano Antica Formula, Martini Dry, St Germain Elderﬂower, Peach & Lemon Bitters
ENJOY THE SHOW
Popcorn-infused Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Bacardi 8 years Rum, Chocolate Bitters, Sugar Cube & Coca Cola Foam
GAME, SET & MATCHA
Matcha & Green Tea-infused Bacardi Carta Blanca Rum, Sake, Green Tea, Almond, Lime & Basil (served hot)
Jack Daniels Whiskey, Frangelico, Kahlua, Maraschino, Espresso Coffee, Vanilla Ice Cream
Casamigos Tequila, Fig Liqueur, Kiwi, Agave & topped up with Veuve Clicquot Champagne
Strawberry & Raspberry-infused Belvedere Vodka, Aperol, Watermelon & Lemon, topped up with Veuve Clicquot Champagne
Grey Goose Vodka, Peach Liquor,
Chambord, Mango & Coconut
LADY MARMALADE MOJITO
Bacardi Carta Blanca Rum, Orange Marmalade,
Mint, Vanilla, Orange & Lemon
REST IN PEAS
Bison Grass-infused Beluga Vodka, Luxardo Limoncello, Home made green pea puree, lemongrass & ginger cordial, Martini Bianco, Lime
Dewars 12-yesar Whisky, Cacao Blanc, Caramel, Raspberries, Lemon, Egg White