Renowned for its dark, almost gothic interiors, Malmaison has undergone a transformation to bring it in line with current trends. Sarah Foster finds out more

A DRAMATIC change has occurred at Malmaison, the well-known hotel on Newcastle’s Quayside. Known for its dimness and dark, moody colour scheme, it has suddenly let in the light. It marks a complete shift in atmosphere and signals the dawn of a new era at the long-established venue.

Following a similar makeover at the London hotel, Newcastle’s Malmaison – one of 13 UK branches of the chain – has undergone an overhaul costing just short of £1.2m. Walls have been ripped out and the bar and restaurant swapped over, but the most striking change by far is the move from film noir to what seems, by comparison, like Technicolor, complete with comic strip images.

Going in through the main entrance, there are few signs of the transformation, with dark purple sofas and the same subdued lighting, and it is only as you climb the stairs to Chez Mal, the new bar and brasserie, that it becomes obvious. An arresting display comprising 14,000 giant black sequins and a fluorescent sign heralds your arrival and the bar and brasserie, divided into two distinct areas, are open and relaxed, with the choice of booths, bar stools or tables.

Having changed places with the bar, the brasserie occupies the prime window slot, looking directly out onto the Millennium Bridge. It is a light, bright space, with chandeliers giving an air of sophistication but contemporary artwork – including portraits of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte covered in spots – dispelling any notion of over-formality.

The pictures reflect the inspiration behind the hotel – Chateau de Malmaison, just outside Paris, where Napoleon and Josephine once lived. Encompassing almost 150 acres and boasting exotic beasts like kangaroos and emus, the estate was Josephine’s pride and joy, yet she was unfaithful, perhaps giving truth to the name suggesting “house of ill-repute”.

It is this sense of mischief mixed with the notion of French grandeur that the hotel strives to embody. “The element of being a bit naughty is what it’s all about – that’s why we have the nice portraits that we’ve put spots on,” says general manager Vince Garrington. “We’re 18 years old this year so this is the new generation of Mal. It was ahead of its time – it was edgy – and, I suppose, over time, things catch up. At night, we still dim the lights so we’ve still got that Mal mood but it’s the Mal mood of now, as opposed to 18 years ago. Hopefully, we will satisfy those people who were coming here in their 20s but also reach out to new customers in their 20s.”

For Vince, the three components of the bar, brasserie and accommodation make Malmaison stand out from the competition. While the rooms have had a £600,000 makeover, the non-residential side of the business is the main area of focus. New menus have been created for both the bar and brasserie, with an emphasis on good quality, unfussy food, and the bar specialises in cocktails and champagne to give an aspirational feel. Having worked in the region over the past 20 years on and off, Vince, whose previous employers include the Crowne Plaza chain, has noticed a change in customers’ demands.

“Newcastle is a very exciting marketplace,” he says. “As a market, it’s becoming more sophisticated. I’ve noticed that after being away for eight years. It’s maturing and expectations are higher. People know how a cocktail should be made and how it should taste. We’ve got to make sure that we’re delivering the best and moving that market forward.”

It’s hoped that people will see Malmaison not so much as a hotel, but as a pub or restaurant of choice. To this end, live music has been introduced on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights – aimed at creating a buzz while not being overly intrusive. In addition to normal lunchtimes and evenings, there is the option of Sunday brunch at the brasserie, and the bar dishes can serve as tapas. The idea is to provide flexibility, from a casual drink after work to formal dining.

“The way it’s been designed makes it a very flexible animal, so one weekend you can come in for drinks and to hear the DJ, and the next you might come and have a meal in the brasserie,” says Vince. “We want people to come in and feel like they’re being looked after.”

In terms of style, the hotel has gone for clean and modern, with touches like lightbulbs hanging from coloured wires and dogtooth-patterned carpets throughout. It’s a look that’s almost masculine – particularly in the rooms, where soft furnishings have given way to monochrome colours and functional desks. Sales manager Beth Gatherar says this is deliberate. “People say it’s quite manly but it’s meant to be neutral and constant throughout the group,” she explains. “We have 122 rooms, including 14 suites, so we’re too big a hotel to be exclusively boutique.”

Having recently returned from maternity leave, Beth feels like she has started again in a whole new hotel. For her, the makeover speaks for itself. “Considering we’re a hotel, at the end of the day, it’s a pretty cool bar and brasserie,” she says. “That’s what we want – for people not to think they’re in a hotel.”

  • Malmaison, 104 Quayside, Newcastle 0844 693 0658