LONDON - The hot towel is a drug for the face. Under its influence, worldly troubles recede as contentment floods body and mind. Every sense is engaged but not over-stimulated, lulled in calm harmony under steaming white cotton. Lights on the barbershop's ceiling are filtered through the gossamer haze. Radio music plays vaguely in the background. It's easy to forget the towel's true purpose, but meantime your beard is relaxing under the hot enveloping moisture, softening for the coming razor.
Barber Georgios Kadi peels back the towel. He has set down a cup of tea with lemon on the counter next to the sink near your chair. You notice again the wood paneling on the walls and the brass hardware on the faucets. You're acutely aware of being someplace far away - not just from home but also from the crowded chaos of the London streets outside. The barbershop offers sanctuary even from the hotel itself, a quiet haven in the basement with no windows, reassuringly removed from the constant bustle upstairs. The treatment is equal parts grooming and relaxation.
While you were under the towel, Kadi mixed water and shaving cream in a coffee mug ("so it's not too dry," he says), stirred with a round, wood-handled brush sprouting grayish bristles made of badger hair. The hair on the brush feels fitting for a badger - soft yet strong and resilient. Kadi uses it to spread warm shaving cream across your neck and face. Here your senses entwine: the classic scent of the shaving cream rising into your nostrils; its warmth on your skin; the soft scratch of badger bristles across the stubble of your beard.
This is the way barbershops used to be, but rarely are anymore. The shop downstairs at the Dorchester is an anachronism even for London, a town with longstanding traditions of gentlemen's grooming. At a time when men are following women in for facials, exfoliations and seaweed wraps, the Dorchester barbershop allows a guy to feel pampered but still masculine. Its aromas and rituals were validated in our early memory by fathers and grandfathers who carried home olfactory evocations of the barbershop experience.
Face and neck now slathered with warm, fragrant shaving cream, you're ready for the shave. Kadi has sanitized the straight razor and now brings its glimmering steel length to your skin with surgical deftness and precision. With quick, short strokes he begins to shave clean swaths across your face and neck. He knows just the right pressure to apply to clear your whiskers without scraping or cutting the skin. In an era of double and even triple razors, the single edge of a straight razor, when wielded in the right hands, still gives the closest shave of them all.
When he's finished, Kadi applies another hot towel, which he then follows with a cooling jojoba facial cream that softens the skin and prevents rashes or bleeding. Next comes an after-shave to disinfect and impart that "just-came-from-the-barbershop" scent. Meantime, your hair is still wet from the shampoo and rinse before the shave, when you leaned your head back into the white sink behind the barber chair. Now Kadi begins the next phase of his tonsorial artistry - combing and clipping your hair like a sculptor shaping marble. The result is a classic man's haircut, perhaps a bit old fashioned and conservative, but timelessly handsome and masculine nonetheless.
"In unisex shops today, it's not the same cut," Kadi says. "They cut a man's hair more like a woman's." Another difference is that at hair salons, "they don't know how to shave or trim men's beards."
While he carries on the dying traditions of British men's grooming, Kadi and the shop's owner, Ken Modestou, are not English themselves - they're from Cyprus. "In London, sixty percent of the barbers are Cypriots," says Kadi, who emigrated to England in 1964. Mediterranean barbers of his generation "are more experienced because men there used to go to barbers every day for a shave. We got lots of practice."
Even in London, shops where men can get a traditional shave and haircut have become increasingly rare - limited to just the Dorchester and a few spots on Jermyn Street. It's an indulgence that doesn't come cheap: At the Dorchester, a shampoo, shave and haircut runs 45 British pounds - about $70 to $75 U.S. These days, most of the shop's customers are well-heeled, and often famous. Belgian movie star action-hero Jean-Claude Van Damme is a regular. Bruce Willis has stopped by for a shave, as did the late King Hussein of Jordan before his death last year. Other notable customers of the shop have included former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and members of the British Parliament. Actor John Goodman recently popped in for a manicure.
According to Kadi, satisfied customers from around the world write him letters expressing their appreciation for his skills. "They tell me I gave them the best haircut they've ever had," he says. In any case, they're members of a very exclusive - and impeccably well-groomed - club.
Barbershop at the Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London W1A 2HJ, United Kingdom; 0171-499 0759.
-- Greg Beaubien (firstname.lastname@example.org)