In a city defined by Belle Époque grandeur, the celebrated palace hotels of the French capital are becoming more competitive, investing in more rooms and lavishing attention on ever-smaller details. Recent high-luxe arrivals with 100-plus rooms - The Peninsula Paris, Mandarin Oriental Paris and Shangri-La Hotel Paris - have headquarters in Asia and blend their own sense of style with French character. Hôtel Plaza Athénée, meanwhile, reopened last year after a $320 million makeover of its 154 rooms and 54 suites. And within the coming year, the Crillon and the Ritz are set to emerge from long beauty sleeps.
On a scale more petite than palatial, however, are three new hotels that have redefined Parisian hotel chic: a very private mansion at the lower end of the Champs-Élysées, a former pleasure house in Pigalle, and the first hotel by the Experimental Group, best known for the coolest cocktail bars in Europe.
Swiss hotelier Michel Reybier spared no expense in the renovation of a 19th-century palace on Avenue Gabriel, just a few steps from the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence. Once owned by Napoleon III's half-brother, the Duc de Morny, and more recently the home of Pierre Cardin, the Haussmann-era house of 14 rooms and 26 suites, many with Eiffel Tower views, overlooks a garden near Élysée Palace. More than 120 artisans, including some from the Louvre, uncovered original cornices and mouldings that had been concealed by false ceilings, laid 250 tonnes of marble and draped 6000 metres of fabric during the two-year project. Interiors blending opulence and "intelligent luxury" were fashioned by the maverick architect and designer Jacques Garcia, France's most fêted stylist.
Now the herringbone oak parquet is gleaming and the foyer is rich in period detail, hung with silk damask, furnished with a Louis XV central chaise and styled with Chinoiserie and French works of art. There's a warm but discreet welcome here, then it's straight to your room for check-in. We like details such as stocked cellars in each room, glass speakers for wireless streaming from your personal device and a kettle with thermometer that ensures water for your herbal tea is just below boiling point.
Reybier describes his first Paris hotel, the latest in his growing portfolio of European properties, as a "private urban mansion" with a "family" atmosphere - albeit a particularly aristocratic and private family.
Much of the hotel, which opened in January, is for the use of guests only, reinforcing the sense of exclusivity in an extensive gallery-library overlooking the garden, a smoking lounge (people still do), the spa and a 16-metre swimming pool.
Chef Jérôme Banctel, most recently executive chef at Senderens (owned by Alain Senderens, who famously gave back the three Michelin stars he held for 28 years), is in charge of the hotel's 40-seat restaurant, Le Gabriel. His French-inspired menus are contemporary and seasonal with occasional Japanese influences, seen in tempura asparagus or salmon marinated in miso. We love his classic chocolate soufflé at dinner and the "wellness" menu at breakfast, with gluten- and lactose-free options.
A special touch is a customised red nail varnish to be sold in the hotel's spa by Christmas. It's the same rich, luxurious red painted on the entrance - a perfect memento. Rooms from $1282. La Réserve, 42 Avenue Gabriel, 75008
Designer Jacques Garcia has been at work again - this time on a former maison close, an upmarket brothel, in Pigalle. In the shadow of the Moulin Rouge, Maison Souquet's history is as colourful as the cancan and the courtesans who once entertained their clients here.
Garcia and co-owner Sylviane Sanz sourced fin de siècle Oriental panelling, chandeliers, paintings and historic books from across France and Belgium to create a red-velvet, naughty-but-nice sense of glamour in the hotel's 20 guest rooms and suites, salons and spa. The darkened pool, meanwhile, is crowned by twinkling lights set in a cobalt-blue ceiling.
"The day Jacques saw the building he fell in love with it," Sanz says. "He's an aesthete and completely saw that a refurbishment would deliver an entirely new hotel experience." Sanz and her business partner, Yoni Aidan, spent months researching the history of the property and its neighbourhood before work began.
"In Belgium, which was such a rich resource for us, I found 82 miniature carved faces in the former home of an aristocrat," she says. These faces now gaze at the central chandelier from bookshelves lining the main salon. The 19th-century central chaise was found at famed French auction house Drouot.
Opened in March, Maison Souquet is possibly the sexiest hotel in the city. It's unremarkable from the street, but the come-hither mood is set immediately in its Oriental salon at the entrance, which leads to a library and a courtyard with walls covered in ivy and jasmine. "It's splendid if you choose to imagine days past, the Belle Époque, and have a desire to immerse yourself in a decadent period of Parisian history," Sanz says.
The main salon is the perfect spot to try Secrets of the Unicorn, a house cocktail made from 12-year-old rum, chai spices and Port wine. Come morning, the room is dressed for breakfast, and by afternoon it's ready for tea.
There's no restaurant at the hotel, but the butler will order in from nearby restaurants or make a reservation - you're spoilt for dining choices in this part of town. And it's the perfect location for night owls - among the clubs nearby is David Lynch's Silencio.
Each of the guest rooms is individually decorated and named after a courtesan, including the most famous of them all, La Païva. You may well find her portrait above your bed. Rooms from $600. Maison Souquet, 10 rue de Bruxelles, 75009
GRAND PIGALLE HOTEL
This is the first hotel by the trio of French childhood friends who founded the Experimental Cocktail Club in Paris in 2007. Romée de Goriainoff, Olivier Bon and Pierre-Charles Cros followed with more clubs in London, New York and Ibiza. With each new opening they've boosted their reputation for inventive New York-inspired cocktails and live music.
They chose Pigalle for their first hotel because of its potential. "It's in an area that is today where the Marais was 10 years ago," says Bon. The partners worked with French interior designer Dorothée Meilichzon, who has styled rooms with 1950s-inspired furniture and restored original mouldings and fireplaces, keeping local appeal in mind. "This hotel has to be attractive to Parisians," says Meilichzon. Bon adds, "It's a hotel where the experience makes you feel like a local, where your horizons expand in an area that is upcoming."
There are few clues that it's a hotel; passersby are likely to be drawn to its street-front Italian-style wine bar. That unobtrusive desk at the side of the bar is the check-in. Beyond the bar, the dining room extends in an L-shape and it's buzzing daily from breakfast to late-night dinner. That includes Saturday and Sunday brunch, and a tapas menu from 6pm.
The hotel's 37 rooms are flooded with light, their well-designed bathrooms stocked with products by Buly, one of the coolest new beauty houses in Paris. While it has all the high-tech features ticked, many are concealed, including televisions. "I hate TVs," Bon confesses. Rooms from $320. Grand Pigalle Hotel, 29 rue Victor Masse, 75009