If any one city in the world could lay claim to the title of world capital of grand hotels then it would be difficult to dispute the choice of London. Names like The Savoy and Claridges, The Berkeley and The Dorchester epitomise luxury and grandeur. In fact, they are not even referred to as ‘grand ‘ any more, but rather ‘palace hotels ‘. One venerable establishment, though, The Ritz, stands out from the rest.
The hotel takes its name from its legendary creator, Cesar Ritz, the man known, in the words of Britain’s King Edward VII, as ‘king of hoteliers, and hotelier to kings ‘. This is an hotel immortalised by the 1930’s Irving Berlin song, ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz ‘ and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, ‘The Diamond as big as the Ritz ‘, whose name has even become part of the English language. ‘Ritzy ‘ is described in the august Oxford Dictionary as ‘high class, luxurious, ostentatiously smart’.
Anyone visiting or staying in the hotel today will confirm that it is certainly all of these things. In fact, unless you are a millionaire, movie star, pop idol or just plain royalty, then the opulence of this ultimate palace hotel and the steely gaze of the towering doorman as you walk towards the revolving doors can actually be a little overwhelming and intimidating.
Opened in 1906, The Ritz celebrated its centenary anniversary last year. Its present owners, the wealthy Barclay brothers, have recently lavished £30 million on restoring the grand old lady to her former glory, and it is quite possible that Cesar Ritz himself would find the hotel even more sumptuous and palatial than when he first founded it.
Situated on the corner of Piccadilly, looking out over the royal gardens of Green Park and Buckingham Palace, the location of the Ritz was originally one of the most famous coaching inns in London, The Old White Horse Cellar, while almost next door was the city’s most famous food store, Fortnum & Mason’s, established in 1788, and already the preferred address of the rich and famous for delicacies like decorated lobster, hung game and exotic fruits from the colonies.
The Ritz rose up quickly (it was constructed in just twelve months) and immediately dominated Piccadilly, perfectly placed within walking distance of the fashion boutiques and auction houses of Bond Street, the exclusive tailors of Saville Row, the private gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s and London’s renowned Theatreland.
The imposing building itself resembles nothing less than a Chateau on the Loire. So it is no surprise to learn that the architect chosen by Cesar Ritz was in fact French. Charles Mewes, the same man he had worked together with to such acclaim in building the Ritz in Paris.
The London Ritz, decorated in opulent Louis XVI style throughout, was in many ways a celebration of the political ‘Entente Cordiale’, signed between the British and French governments in 1905, and Cesar Ritz envisaged his new hotel as a combination of French sophistication and ‘le confort anglais’, a place not just for people to stay the night, but the ultimate rendezvous for fashionable society.
Continuing his brilliant collaboration with the father of modern French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, Ritz changed the concept of hotel cooking and the Ritz became, from the day it opened its doors, a dazzling, glamorous place to entertain and be entertained. That is as true today as a hundred years ago.
Whereas in the 1900s, King Edward VII would dine with his mistress, Mrs Keppel, in the Marie-Antoinette salon, so in 1999, Prince Charles would make his first public appearance with his now wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, coming out of a dinner party at the Ritz.
While not every person may be able to afford to check in for the night and take a suite or even a room, one of the things that makes this hotel unique is that for that extra special occasion, almost everyone can splash out at least once in their life and savour the Ritz experience. First of all, there is the matter of dress code: no jeans allowed, no sneakers, and gentlemen must be wearing a jacket and tie.
Once inside, the plush but understated lobby is dominated on one side by a grand marble staircase: Cesar Ritz always insisted on this in his hotels, so ladies could make a dramatic entrance showing off their flowing gowns as they came down for dinner.
On the other side is the busy concierge’s desk. The concierges of the Ritz, still known by the old-fashioned title of Hall Porter, look more like elegantly attired army officers, with crisp white gloves tucked into their shoulder epaulettes. The only indication that we are in the twenty-first century is that they all now have discreet ear plugs with walkie-talkies, so the doorman outside immediately warns of the impending approach of a dignitary or celebrity.
It is clear that nothing goes on in the hotel without their knowledge, and the Head Hall Porter, Michael de Cozar has been here 37 years, assisted all that time by his brother, Louis, who is the Head Luggage Porter. A pair of glass doors open out from the lobby into the hotel’s Grand Gallery, which immediately transports the visitor into the sumptuous world of Louis XVI décor: glittering chandeliers, velvet armchairs and sofas, richly brocaded curtains and wall hangings, classical marble statues and ornate gilt tables.
On the left is the Palm Court, the ultimate place for taking traditional English afternoon tea. On the right sits the splendid Art Deco Rivoli Bar, perfect for early evening cocktails or late-night cognacs, while at the end is the Ritz Restaurant, where you can feast off a hearty British breakfast, linger over a long lunch, or reserve for a gourmet dinner.
The architect of the Ritz created the grand Palm Court as an exotic winter garden, with natural sunlight coming in through the glass roof. Impeccable waiters serve Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Lapsang Suchong or Jasmine tea, accompanied by delicate smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, freshly baked scones with strawberry jam and clotted Devonshire cream. Just make sure to reserve well in advance, as the Palm Court is fully booked virtually every day.
Across at the Rivoli Bar you encounter a very different element of the Ritz’s personality. To begin with, the statuesque decor of the Palm Court is replaced with a much cooler Art Deco look, and the formal, genteel mood of afternoon tea is transformed into the casual, fun ambience of a lively cocktail bar. Gentlemen are even allowed in without a tie!
The master of ceremonies here is the bubbling head barman, Alan Cook, a South African, who effortlessly moves from serving martinis to talkative ladies taking a break from shopping, to finding a quiet corner seat for a couple of movie stars who don’t want any prying paparazzi to catch them out. Although the barmen will shake any cocktail you care to order, this the place to drink old-fashioned Champagne Cocktails. One is named after Cesar Ritz himself — Armagnac, peach liqueur, grenadine, champagne — and Cook’s latest creation is the Ritz Centenary, a lethal mix of Grand Marnier, gold vodka and champagne.
The jewel in the crown of the Ritz is undoubtedly its restaurant, a glittering mirrored dining hall that cannot fail to take the breath away. Breakfast here can be a meal in itself, especially for those brave enough to try traditional dishes like grilled smoked kippers, lambs’ kidneys, black pudding, and the wonderful colonial recipe, smoked haddock kedgeree, which can only be described as an Anglo-Indian risotto.
You may witness eccentric sights too, as when the earnest waiter, dressed in his formal long-tailed frock coat, takes an order for scrambled eggs covered with a pile of baked beans. No matter, in the Ritz, the customer always gets what he wants.
Reading the menu of the restaurant, it comes as quite a surprise to discover that, although much of the original fame and success of the the Ritz was due to French chefs and Escoffier’s cuisine, the man in charge of the kitchens today is a Briton, John Williams.
It says something for the revolution that has swept through British cuisine in the last few years, that traditional dishes like steak and kidney pudding, Lancashire hotpot and oxtail and Guiness pie have been raised to such a high gastronomic level that they can appear on the menu here. Williams does though have his own signature creative dishes too, like ballotine of rabbit and foie gras with Perigord truffle dressing, or sauté of Dublin Bay prawns with braised pork belly and confit pear puree.
But the best way to celebrate the centenary of the Ritz is to try one of the dishes that appeared on the original menu in 1906. For a limited period, the restaurant will be serving the likes of Fricassee de homard Newbourg and Soufflé Rothschild, and the only thing that will have changed since 1906 is the price.
John Brunton, a journalist and photographer, has published a number of gastronomy and photography books.