Review: The Shelbourne Hotel - a night at Dublin's most famous five-star
The Shelbourne is nearing the end of a €40m refurb. Pól Ó Conghaile returns to review Dublin's grand dame...
I'm sitting in the Shelbourne Hotel's basement barber shop.
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My hair has been clipped. Now, a scissors hovers above my eyes. A trim is tempting, but the barber senses my reserve.
"Ok," he says, pulling back. "Once you start, you can't really stop."
It's similar with the Shelbourne. Ever since I stepped through "Ireland's front door", as manager JP Kavanagh likes to call it, the five-star feeling has fizzled through me.
I'm standing a little straighter. The sommelier has convinced me to upgrade from a Sauvignon Blanc to a crisp Sancerre. I've had a spontaneous haircut.
Now I'm thinking we should stay over in the city more often; that every hotel should have its own florist and fresh blooms.
It can't last. It won't last. I'll soon step back through those revolving doors to a world of unanswered email, unemptied dishwashers and unread bedtime stories.
But that's then. This is now.
For one night only, I am determined to enjoy my Shelbourne self.
It's five years since I stayed over. My excuse this time is a €40m refurb that has seen London designer Guy Oliver subtly transform bedrooms and bars, lobby and Lord Mayor's Lounge. The detail is exquisite, from perfectly weighted cut crystal glasses in my room to gold-leaf paint that makes the lobby's plasterwork pop. 99,480 bricks have been re-pointed in its facade; recessed ceiling lighting brightens up the reception area and its Connemara marble.
A new bar and terrace have opened. Revamped menus include a 'Sparkles' list and Lobster Thermidor in No.27, and a stonking Beef Wellington in The Saddle Room.
Oh, and its Ireland's Favourite Hotel award is on proud display since our 2019 Reader Travel Awards.
Whether you sup, sip or sleep, you're in little doubt: here is an Irish institution. The Shelbourne is 195 years old. The Irish constitution was drafted here. It's where Peter O'Toole reputedly took a Champagne bath, Michelle Obama stayed at the €7,500-a-night Princess Grace Suite and Paul Henry paintings catch you off-guard in a hallway.
But crucially, I think, the hotel never feels completely exclusive. Its posh still parties with a pinch of Dublin mischief; regular punters still feel able to step up for a special occasion. "The door opens the same way for everybody," as concierge Denis O'Brien often puts it.
Would it surprise you to learn the business isn't Irish?
The Shelbourne is owned by US investment group, Kennedy Wilson, run by Marriott International, and over 50pc of its guests now come from the US. Like Diageo-owned Guinness or IAG's Aer Lingus, however, it still feels Irish. It feels like its ours. Dublin's grand dame must still sit back and take what the wags and wits throw at it every bit as much as the wealthy forking out €359 a night on B&B.
And not everyone I meet is happy with the refurbs.
"I preferred the old Shelbourne," one confides.
I also note some niggles: no desk or bedside USB charge points in my room, for example, and a lack of provenance in its breakfast buffet labels ("selection of cheeses"). I wish they hadn't taken the Louis LeBrocquy from the lobby, or the little museum from reception (some artefacts remain on display in cabinets, thankfully).
To me, No.27 still smacks of the Celtic Tiger on a Friday night, and, similar to the Westbury or Merrion, there's a big difference in oomph and price between parkview and regular rooms.
But that's the extent of it. That's me being my fussy, Shelbourne self. So much else is textbook five-star. The staff member who walks me to my room, say, or the barber's intuition. And some is beyond good. The maitre d' inquiring whether I would be joined by a dining companion requiring gluten-free options (my wife, who stayed with me five years ago, is coeliac). Or the soft power at play in a passing staff member's exchange.
"How's your day been?"
"Very nice, thanks."
"Only to get better, I'm sure."
Settling in, I start to appreciate the modern sensibility threaded through its Victorian heritage. In my Heritage Parkview room, cool blue tones and classic comforts like a leather-top writing desk or curving mahogany chest of drawers are underlined by useful tech touches (seamless Wi-Fi, intuitive bathroom lighting and a Nespresso machine) rather than useless ones (a gimmicky tablet control panel that will date before check-out, say). Merrion Row and Stephen's Green are humming outside the window, but I sleep like a lord in his city townhouse.
The food continues to improve. In the Saddle Room, which marries unapologetic maximalism with the muted tones and hush-hush vibe of a carpeted fine dining hub, I shuffle into a high-backed leather booth (now upholstered in blue, rather than gold) and luxuriate in its hoveringly attentive service. The waiter offers to de-bone a Dover Sole 'meunière' at the table, but I plump instead for a velvety slip of Castletownbere salmon cured in Jameson and offset with wasabi and yuzu aioli, and a tender piece of Atlantic turbot with seasonal greens, almond and wild garlic.
Foodies can skip the white linen with a new selection of sharing platters on the terrace, or take afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor's Lounge - where a new colour scheme sees verdant greens playing off a mix of mustard, buttermilk and creamy beeswax hues.
But don't worry, the hotel's storied living hasn't lost an ounce of atmosphere.
At a time when so many hotels are opening ground-floor areas up into catch-all spaces catering for food, drink, work and play, the Shelbourne has doubled down on separate spaces with distinct moods and styles. I like that.
Take the Horseshoe Bar with its backlit Hogarth sketches and blue glass screens you can swivel, depending on whether you want to talk to your neighbour or not. Or No.27, with those vibrant Victor Richardson oils of Stephen's Green. Or the 1824 Bar, tucked away up the grand staircase.
"If the Shelbourne had a snug, this would be it," they say.
Think of it as your new secret room in the city, a residents' bar for non-residents. The 1824 (named for the year the hotel opened) is a bookish, clubby space with a stratospheric selection of whiskeys, come-hither couches and whimsical wall paintings featuring characters like Michael Collins, Seamus Heaney and Bono on a winged horse.
"Mixologists nowadays try to go as far away as possible," bar manager Sean McGoldrick tells me. "This is about bringing it closer to home."
For its cocktail menu, staff were encouraged to come up with drinks evoking different counties. His was 'Cavan', mixing Grey Goose La Poire (a fancy vodka) with nettle cordial, Fino Sherry, lemon and West Coast Cooler foam... in a teasingly small glass.
Once you start, as the barber said, you can't stop. And be warned, the Shelbourne is a very spendy place. Prices like €20 for a breakfast omlette, €6.60 for pint of Guinness, €35 for valet parking or €145 for a Swedish massage will outrage many. But they will reassure others - luxury doesn't discount, as they say.
And though it feels extravagant, I don't think the hotel is over-valuing itself.
It's a bunch of bricks and dollars, sure. But it's also more than that. It's a place to stay the night before your wedding, to get date nights back on track, to catch up with old friends or get up to a bit of posh divilment. As its revolving doors spin me back into the real world, I leave thinking the Shelbourne is a feeling. To their credit, staff, owners and designers appreciate this, and their place in it.
Next time, I may even let them at my eyebrows.
How much does it cost?
B&B starts from €359, with Heritage Parkview rooms from €539 and suites from €1,400 as we publish, but call or check the website (theshelbourne.com) for best rates and promotions.
As a tip, February and November tend to be the most affordable months in Irish five-stars. Direct rather than online booking can also bring savings.
The Spa: Pamper time
"Muscles have memory too," says the spa therapist easing me into a signature Swedish massage. It costs €145, and while the tight, upstairs-downstairs feel of the spa, pool and salon area doesn't flow, my treatment hits the spot, and the therapist works with rather than on me... not always a given.
Take Three: foodie treats
Taking tea in the Lord Mayor's Lounge is a quintessential Dublin experience. It costs from €52pp (or €68pp if you add bubbles), but you can linger over it for hours.
The hotel's new terrace serves salads, crudités and 'curated' Irish sharing platters (from €40) from 12pm to 7pm daily during summer. Perfect for a classy catch-up...
The Saddle Room
The Shelbourne's fine dining restaurant oozes opulence, from blue leather booths to a new Beef Wellington for two. Try the pre-theatre menus from €32pp.
Pól was a guest of The Shelbourne.