Richard de Warren wants you to feel at home in his Hotel Alfred Sommier. Indeed, the owner of the place puts a lot of effort into this very special establishment that has belonged to his family since 1860 — it’s the only five star hotel in Paris that can brag about that. A personal heritage nested in the heart of the city that his owner takes pride and genuine pleasure in sharing with his hosts.
The Hotel Alfred Sommier is a place like no other. Located between Madeleine, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and some of the most popular department stores in Paris, it is almost invisible from the street. This gorgeous Hotel Particulier is indeed hidden behind a gigantic wooden door. To reach the reception, you’ll have to walk through a charming cobbled passage. Right from the start, the tone is set. A majestic stone staircase welcomes the guests. It’s almost like you’ve just stepped into a museum. On the main floor, small spaces have been rearranged: you can sit on the nice terrace, have lunch under the conservatory (which has air-conditioning during the summer) and drink coffee in one of the many little sitting rooms.
Upstairs, you’ll find the very well decorated rooms, some of which are overlooking the beautiful garden. As Richard de Warren, the owner of the place and a descendent of the well-known Sommier family, likes to say: « It feels like a little castle, but in the middle of the city». Delicate touches of gilding here and there, old-inspired furniture, thick curtains and huge fireplaces are what makes the place so special. Indeed, it is quite inspiring how everything has been restored with so much taste, and refinement.
It’s almost as if you could hear Alfred Sommier in the hallway. This gentleman was the first person to have ever lived here. And to get a better understanding of the place, it is crucial to tell his story. He comes from a family of bakers, which used to be settled in Burgundy, in the Center-East of France — usually, this region is known around the world for its divine wines, and not so much for its bread. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Sommier family decided to step into the sugar business. In fact, not so long before that, a renowned chemist had discovered the formulation of sugar, which made its industrialization way easier. It was settled: they were going to start a new company, in the hope for a better life. They moved to Paris, but quickly found out that being settled in the center of the city wasn’t the best option for them. They moved again, to La Villette this time. Back then, it wasn’t part of the 19th arrondissement, but a city of its own. It was the ideal location for their business, since it was near the Canal de l’Ourq, the Canal Saint-Martin, but also the slaughterhouses. Back then, pigs and cows’ blood were used by the refineries to whiten the sugar. « With black, you made white », said Richard de Warren, a smile on his face.
The Sommier family was a very industrial one: they weren’t afraid to dream big and have ambitious plans for the future. One day, the youngest brother decided that he didn’t want to live right next to the refinery anymore. He looked for a place in the center of Paris: an easy way to have a social life. After browsing for a couple of months, he found the Petit Hotel de Soubise. When the Sommier buy the place, they realize that it is in very poor condition. They don’t think twice about it and demolish everything. Three years later, the brand-new Hotel Particulier was born. It was divided into two sections from the start: the family moved into one part, and Alfred Sommier took up residence in the other one (which is now the Hotel Alfred Sommier, called as such as an homage). Funny enough, he was also the one to buy the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, not far from Paris — he renovated it completely as well, to make it his own. Alfred Sommier’s son was born in the Hotel Particulier that now has his name on it, and he married the daughter of a French president. Talk about a social ascension!
Richard de Warren’s great grand-mother inherited the place, but she got married to a Belgian man and left the place unoccupied. After the war, a company called Démos moved in. They stayed there for no less than 27 years. When they told Richard de Warren that they didn’t want to sign a new lease, he decided it was time to transform the beautiful building into a fine Hotel Particulier. He talked about it to his cousins, and they all agreed on the fact that it was an amazing idea. It took one year to get the building permit. The renovations took two years and three months. The Hotel Alfred Sommier finally opened its doors to the public at the end of summer 2018. A quite funny timing, since France was struck with the Gilets Jaunes movement a couple of months later, then by the national strikes. And finally, a global pandemic. Richard de Warren had to close his establishment on March 15th, 2020. He was allowed to reopen the restaurant three months later and the hotel on July 1st. But a second confinement was announced in France, and he had to close the restaurant for the second time in one year. « But as Elton John once said: “I’m still standing“ », he said.
Those unpredictable events don’t make him any less proud of what he has done with the place. « Back in 1855, when the Hôtel Particulier was bought by my family, they decided to rebuild everything. They did it with the help of a very renowned architect: Joseph-Michel Le Soufaché », he explained. If his name rings a bell, it’s because he worked on the Château de Versailles, but also the Château de Sceaux, two very famous properties in France.
When Richard de Warren decided to transform the place into a hotel, he kept the structure of the building and only made a few arrangements: he kept most of the floor plans, but had to pull down some walls to make the place more welcoming. « I really wanted to keep an historical touch, because the hotel is a family affair. My idea was to tell a story », he said. « I didn’t want our guests to feel like they were in a hotel, but in a private mansion “Hotel Particulier”. Which is very different ». Indeed, among the five star hotels in Paris, the Alfred Sommier Hotel is the only one that has been owned by the same family since the start. Which makes it very special, and quite personal.
A personal touch that you can sense all around the Hotel. When it came to decorating, Richard de Warren got help from two friends: they worked together to design comfortable furniture and find a place for every souvenir the owner wanted to put in the different rooms — such as old floor maps, politics and artists caricatures from vintage Vanity Fair magazines and contemporary pieces of art. Richard de Warren kept the original mirrors and fireplaces, but also repurposed some of the wooden floors that had to be teared down. He even kept some of the original secret passages that connect the kitchens to the front yard, where horse-drawn carriages used to park. He also decided to keep all the small private rooms, so that guests and clients could organise small diners and business meetings. But because he didn’t want the place to feel like a business convention site, he hid the televisions behind some very well-picked contemporary art pieces.
And what about the food? Richard de Warren wanted, once again, to bring a historical touch to the table. He gathered some old menus from the Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, where huge feasts used to take place. That’s where he got his inspiration from. « I didn’t want to open a gourmet restaurant. I felt like it didn’t have anything to do with a Hotel Particulier ». That’s the reason why you’ll rarely see more than three starters, three main courses and three deserts on the menu. And that is a good sign, because it simply means that everything is cooked and prepared in their basement kitchen — which used to be the old stables. At the Hotel Alfred Sommier, the ambiance is casual, and the cuisine inspired by old recipes — with, of course, a contemporary touch. « When you are invited to a friend’s house for dinner, you don’t really choose what you are going to eat. Yet, everyone is pleased », Richard de Warren explained. « I would have created a unique menu, but I know that some guests don’t eat fish for example. They needed to have some options. Add to that the fact that some of them come back often, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want to eat the same meal over and over again ». Moreover, times have changed. Nowadays, people don’t have time (nor the appetite) for a huge feast anymore. The restaurant, in that way, in the perfect reflection of the owner’s goal: make you feel at home, in a historical place that has been remodeled to fit with the contemporary way of life.
By Alexane Pelissou