By Sarah Thompson
Photos by Steve Herud
Des Gunewardena and David Loewi made their name crafting London’s dining renaissance. With South Place Hotel, they are forging a new revival and following a lifelong calling.
With such iconic London restaurants as Quaglino’s, Le Pont de la Tour, and Coq d’Argent in their portfolio, Des Gunewardena and David Loewi are old hands at the game-changing art of transformation, and specialise in converting run-down buildings into world-class eateries. Gunewardena and Loewi have since turned their Midas-like attentions to the hotel world, opening their first, South Place in the City of London in 2012.
Situated between Moorgate and Liverpool Street, its location a final white-collar frontier before the hipper shores of Old Street and Hoxton beyond, the hotel is in an exciting part of town. On the site of what was once an unremarkable office building, South Place reflects the City streetscape with its glass and metal columns; its glazed frontage at streetlevel – like the glimpse of a stocking – suggests the building’s true, more playful function. Eighty bedrooms, a bustling diner, and an elegant rooftop restaurant are all decked out in classic-cool furniture and contemporary art. Envision mid-century Scandinavian armchairs given a true-Brit makeover in classic tweeds, huge deconstructed mannequins dressed in bowler hats and suspenders, and model Spitfire planes hanging from the chandeliers – and you start to get the picture.
“It’s a very indulgent hotel,” says Gunewardena, “for us as much as for our guests. There is more of David and me in this hotel than anything we’ve done before. We have an in-house DJ and a ‘spy’ theme – all of the meeting rooms are named after secret agents, and our members’ club is called Le Chiffre, after the James Bond bad guy. We’ve been a bit like boys let loose in a sweet shop!”
It is unfortunate for posterity that the Des Gunewardena and David Loewi collaboration didn’t come into being during a legendary dinner, the deal sealed in the small hours of the morning on the back of a coaster. Instead, like all the best relationships, the partnership crept up on them, an obvious and practical pairing born out of years working together and a mutual respect for one another’s talents.
“David has always had great personal skills,” says Gunewardena, “and the importance of being good with people grows as a business gets larger. We needed someone who could manage other senior people, and David was always the obvious choice for that. He also has more patience than me – I love giving attention to the details, but not if it slows me down. I’m the entrepreneur, always looking for the next opportunity.”
The pair came to the hospitality industry with very different backgrounds. As a young financier striking global property deals in the 1980s, Sri Lankan–born Des Gunewardena had a flat full of Habitat furniture and a keen sense of style. Still, it wasn’t until 1989 that he met Sir Terence Conran (who founded homeware store Habitat in 1964), when he joined the then Conran Holdings as CEO and began the epic journey that would see him take a starring role in the transformation of London’s restaurant scene during the 1990s.
Hotels were an integral part of David Loewi’s world even as a child: his father was a scientist who travelled the world, and his mother was a culinary star of the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland. “It was wonderful to travel abroad back then; the food was so much better than in the UK in those days.” He recalls the joy of eating lemon cake with his father in Swiss bakeries, and the immaculate service ethic of the great Swiss ski hotels. “It seemed like a fabulous sort of life,” he says. And one he was quick to sign up for when it came to choosing a career path.
A thoroughbred training followed: his education completed in Switzerland, followed by time at Claridge’s in London and Hong Kong, the Savoy, the Wolseley, and even cruise liners. “It was a lot of fun for a year,” he says. “People were fed incredibly well in huge numbers – witnessing the organisation that that took was quite something.”
In 1995, Loewi was recruited by Sir Terence Conran to open the groundbreaking Mezzo, on Wardour Street, where he met Gunewardena and their partnership was conceived. They worked together for ten years on and off before eventually buying out Conran’s restaurant concerns and setting up D&D London.
“We come from very different places,” says Gunewardena. “David’s from the shop floor, if you like, and I’m the financier, but there is this constant, very detailed dialogue between us, to the point now that our roles have really blended and it is hard to know where one of us stops and the other starts.”
This story originally ran in Design Hotels’ Made by Originals book. www.designhotels.com