"And over there...that's where the elephants were stored."
It's not an observation you'd expect to hear an a London casino. But then the Hippodrome isn't any old casino. It's simultaneously the largest licensed premises in Westminster, and a building with over 100 years of showbiz history.
CEO Simon Thomas is showing us round. With father Jimmy, he spent over £40 million and several years of toil converting the Grade II listed building from a run-down nightclub into a buzzing casino and entertainment complex that now welcomes some 4,000 people a day. "Not knowing at the start how much work would be involved was a good thing," he says. £600,000 went on the plaster work alone.
That investment of time and money is apparent as soon as you walk in. The main hall is a stunning set-piece of giant ball-chandeliers, wrap-around balconies and royal purple carpets. A seemingly endless series of smaller rooms are decked out in differing but complementary styles. A walkway made from pennies engirdles the first-floor bar. And up top, a sizeable smoking terrace offers al fresco relaxation beneath the building's famous charioteer statue. Look out, too, for the details, such as the purple plaques that flag up the building's history. Gentlemen should visit the first-floor toilets, whose urinals command an unexpected view of the West End crowds below.
Simon talks us through the building's past. The Hippodrome opened as a theatre and music hall at the turn of the 20th century — the first show featured a promising young lad called Charlie Chaplin. Over the decades, he was followed by the likes of Shirley Bassey, Julie Andrews, Stevie Wonder, Judy Garland, Tom Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. The building's most famous feature was a giant water tank in the basement, into which dwarves would plumet from the roof. The tank is long-gone, but its footprint can still be found in the lower gaming room, which also housed the elephants mentioned up top. And polar bears.
Who actually visits?
The Hippodrome's in an interesting, and presumably lucrative, location, right on the corner of Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road. Open 24 hours a day, it pulls in a varied crowd. Most of the customers are not here to gamble. With several bars, the Heliot Steakhouse restaurant, a cabaret theatre and numerous private event spaces, there are many other lures. "We have the busiest bar in the West End at 4am," claims Simon.
The casino gets plenty of visitors from the neighbouring Chinese community — indeed, the Chinatown entrance has been specially designed along feng shui principles, and a quarter of admissions come through this door. Yet the potential is yet to be fully tapped. Simon recently spoke out about the restrictive tourist visa system that puts off many Chinese nationals from visiting London.
The venue was surprisingly busy on our mid-afternoon visit, but there were many quiet corners. One room, decked out with comfortable sofas and soft music, would make an ideal stop-off point for freelancers, looking for a quiet place to unfold their laptops and make use of the free wifi.
Those apprehensive of casinos need not be. It's a very relaxed place. There's no official dress code. "Being in the West End, we can't really stop people wandering in in shorts and T-shirt, and we don't," says Simon. "We also have a regular contingent of Chelsea Pensioners in full uniform," he adds. "They recently gatecrashed a samba party here." The Bishop of Liverpool has also stopped by.
Truly something for everyone.