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The Most Exclusive Hotel Rating You've Never Heard Of
In France, being classified as a "Palace" is the ultimate honor for a hotel-one that's even more prized than achieving five-star distinction.
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In Paris, a city teeming with five-star hotels, how do you separate the crème de la crème from just the crème? If you're France, you devise an ultra-prestigious category above five stars called "Palace," a distinction established by the French Ministry of Tourism in 2010 that requires a lengthy application reviewed by a committee of 14 experts, from the world of literature, the arts, culture, media, and the business world, with in-person visits and interviews.

"In France, something can be five stars, but not be the height of luxury, so we asked the French government to create a category for the top of the top hotels," said Beatrice David, director of sales and marketing at Hotel Plaza Athénée, part of the first cohort of hotels to be crowned as Palaces in 2011.

So what does it take to garner this coveted distinction, which includes 23 properties throughout the country and 10 in Paris alone, among them Le Meurice, the Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Le Bristol, and, most recently, the Peninsula Paris?

Some things are to be expected, such as a fitness area, a branded spa (the Plaza Athénée's, for instance, is associated with the Dior Institute), a multilingual team, and concierge service. Other hallmarks of luxury are less expected: Emilie Pichon, the director of communications at the Mandarin Oriental (which became the first modern Palace in 2014), says they needed to prove, among other things, that the toilet is separated from the bathroom in each room. (A private commode is hardly an outlandish request if one is paying $15,000 a night to stay in one of the Mandarin Oriental's sprawling suites, some of the largest in Paris. Incidentally, the size of and the numbers of suites is one criterion on which hotels are evaluated.)

Requirements for Five Stars

  • A spacious room, with a minimum of 258 square feet
  • Staff who can speak two foreign languages (one of which is English) in addition to French
  • Room service
  • Accompaniment to the room
  • Dining options at the hotel
  • Valet parking
  • Concierge
  • In-room safe
  • Internet access
  • Air conditioning

Atout France, the tourism agency that oversees the selection process, says they look at "indispensable features "such as the beauty of the place, historical heritage, high standards of service, gastronomy, and the overall environment.

But it's not just about plush accouterments; hotels are also evaluated on less visible features such as their commitment to sustainable development, Pichon told Town & Country. The Mandarin Oriental is one of France's leaders in this category, Pichon said, with some of the best energy efficiency practices and a rooftop vegetable garden that supplies to their restaurants.

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The Mandarin Oriental in Paris has a rooftop vegetable garden that supplies its restaurants.

Naturally, this being France, superb food and wine are crucial to becoming a Palace. They have to have, according to Atout France, an exquisite restaurant and bar—and not just aesthetically. Le Bristol, which became a Palace in 2011 and is where Woody Allen shot parts of Midnight in Paris, has two Michelin-starred restaurants, for a total of four stars. There's the very pricey Epicure, with three stars, which serves dishes like macaroni stuffed with black truffle, artichoke, and duck foie gras by chef Eric Frechon, who many consider to be the best chef in the country. Then there's 114 Faubourg: a one-Michelin star establishment more modest only by comparison to Epicure.

The Mandarin has a two-Michelin star restaurant, Sur Mesure, by the celebrated chef Thierry Marx. Its chief sommelier, David Biraud, was crowned vice champion at the Best Sommelier of the World 2016 competition. At Hotel Plaza Athénée there are five restaurants, including a three-Michelin star one by Alain Ducasse. (The vegetables that are served there are grown in the park of Chateaux Versailles that is reserved only for the Hotel Plaza Athénée.)

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Epicure is one of two restaurants at Le Bristol with two Michelin stars.
But behind the scenes is equally important for the Palace properties. At the Mandarin, there are 1,000 internal standards that have to be met, part of the brand's internal protocol, but which also keep them in shape for a Palace audit, which happens every five years. (Hotel Plaza Athénée just completed its audit and will remain a Palace.)

"In France, something can be five stars, but not be the height of luxury, so we asked the French government to create a category for the top of the top hotels."

Location is also crucial. The selection committee is looking for an "exceptional location." Naturally, Palaces occupy some of the most coveted and prime real estate in Paris. For instance, The Four Seasons George V is just steps from the Champs Elysées. The Plaza Athénée, a 1927 art deco building, is located on the famous Avenue Montaigne that is known for its many haute couture shops in the very posh 8th arrondissement just steps from the Seine. The Mandarin is located in the 1st on Rue Saint-Honoré, a hip and luxurious shopping street, a stone's throw from Place Vendôme and the Tuileries.


The Four Seasons George V is one of 10 paris properties to attain Palace status.

At the Hotel Plaza Athénée, David, the director of sales of marketing, says being part of this very elite group is all about service, that catch-all phrase of the hospitality industry. When I asked her what service really what means for Palaces, she told me. "The main distinction is that we are personalized. We know who the guests are before they arrive. We research them. We ask them a lot of questions—their age, whether they'll be traveling with children. If it's a Chinese guest, we may have a special tea set for her in the room."

At Le Bristol, which has an indoor swimming pool and where rooms start at 1,100 euros per night, the concierge creates a personalized itinerary with museums and restaurants based on the needs and parameters of each guest.



 A junior suite at the Plaza Athénée, where all staff members undergo posture training
No detail is too small for a Palace, including how the staff walks. At the Plaza Athénée, all the staff, even the housekeepers and back office, receive posture lessons—head up, shoulders down, never cross your arms. "Part of being a Palace is that you have to be proud and have this sense of elegance," says David.

Pichon, who worked on the Mandarin's application five years ago, says that for her the Palace distinction is also all about the service, something properties are asked about in the context of the team's commitment to achieve excellence. For Pichon, that means being nice. "It's considered a bad thing in France, but for us it's really encouraged," she said.



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Hannah Seligson
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