Britishness, and even more so Englishness, is suffering from a crisis of confidence today. While once we were fond of our cream teas, brollies, and stiff upper lips, now so much of what was considered quintessentially British almost seems like a dream tourists have invented for us. Nestled sweetly into a plot on 22 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, The Capital Hotel is, however, “unashamedly English”.
The man responsible for preserving this curiously traditional island of Englishness is David Levin MBE. As the owner and manager, David has incubated the hotel’s philosophy for over 40 years, maintaining the very best traditions of Britain’s hospitality industry.
His life’s ambition of opening a “grand hotel in miniature” of his own in London was released in 1971 when The Capital Hotel opened it’s doors for the very first time.
“My wife and daughter may disagree,” David tells me, “but when I was younger I was incredibly bolshy. I think if you have a dream you have to be determined and you can’t be side tracked.” Despite his father’s concerns that “hospitality wasn’t a proper profession”, David started his career as a manager for the British Transport Hotels. “I thought they would give me the best training as a manager” but after running a very successful hotel overlooking the Isle of Skye, he moved to the other end of the country to open the first ever gastropub in Yattendon in Berkshire. It was here that David really hit his stride as a “bolshy” innovative business man. He has fantastic stories about reinventing the pub food industry, and introducing fresh coffee to astonished country locals.
However, in 1969 David bought the plot which became The Capital Hotel. “At the time, everyone said ‘It’s too small for a hotel David, no one will come’ but they did” he tells me “and it’s actually rather nice to say that now that they have been proven wrong.” In almost 40 years the Capital has gone from strength to strength, not altogether surprisingly as the Queen has been one of their regular diners throughout the years.
Nevertheless, the city has changed dramatically since the early 70s. When I ask David about how Knightsbridge has changed during the hotel’s lifetime he advises that I ask his daughter who has been sat quietly beside her father, enjoying her father’s stories as much as I was.
Kate Levin steps in at this point to speak up for all that is positive about the changes taking place in Knightsbridge, saying: “I still think that is very alive, it’s never gone out of fashion.” Kate almost literally grew up in the hotel. Since the Capital really is a family some of the staff have seen her growing up; “they’ve seen all my worst fashion years”, she jokes.
Kate is David’s daughter and now also the hotel’s General Manager, securing the Capital Hotel as a family business. From the minute you begin speaking to Kate, you are bowled over by just what a charming, and elegantly collected woman she is. But, whereas her father is, in his own words: “Bolshy” and proud to speak his mind, Kate is very much the moderating presence at his side. While its is undoubtedly David’s force of personality that made the Capital Hotel possible, it is this relationship, including the professional, modern elements that Kate brings to the equation, that make the Capital Hotel so unique.
When I ask David how his professional relationship with his daughter works he takes just a small moment to think before he answers. “She just fits perfectly,” he says adding “that’s the highest compliment in my language.” David explains to me that the worst thing in many modern hotels is that they are just too big to be run as a proper hospitality business. He says: “If you have a general manager spending most of their time filling in reports and going cap in hand to the board of directors the first person to suffer is the guests.”
To illustrate just how important his guest’s happiness is to David, towards the end our interview, a couple of the hotel’s loyal customers come over to thank Kate and David. I cannot help but overhear one of the two ladies say “I want to move in here for ever.” When David sits down he turns to me and says: “I hope you heard that, it cost me £5 to get her to say that loud enough for you to hear!”