by Myra and Harvey Frommer
We will always remember it as the spring when it rained without end in New York, while in London, the sun shone brightly day after day. And we were at the Ritz.
Is there a place that compares to the London Ritz? The arcaded lane bordering Piccadilly; the mansard roof with its multiple chimneys; the Grand Gallery spanning the ground floor from the glass-domed rotunda at one end to the restaurant overlooking Green Park at the other; the succession of Roman arches and glittering chandeliers down the length of it; the stairway with its magnificent iron balustrade swirling up from the vestibule and the fountained Palm Court eternally set for tea along one side; the stunning Rivoli Bar and the Marie Antoinette room – a replica of the one in Versailles — along the other; the peaches and cream of it, the marble and gilt of it, the sparkle and dazzle of it endlessly repeated in mirrors lining diagonal-shaped walls.
“The Ritz is a grand building, but it’s really quite small, only 133 rooms,” says Deputy Chairman Giles Shepard (below). “The hotel doesn’t intimidate you because the style of decoration is and the size of the rooms are domestic. It’s all done by conjuring, it’s all done by mirrors. You think you’re looking into space, but you’re actually looking back at yourself.” He’s out of central casting – the English gentleman who looks like a lord and sounds like Rex Harrison playing Professor Henry Higgins to the very inflection of his exquisitely articulated speech.
“There are four things that make up a hotel,” he explains as we take our first walk down the Grand Gallery, “the building, the clients who use it, the staff, the decorations, and the flowers. I was sick to death about flowers the other day. So I decided to have four different florists try out their arrangements.”
The first florist’s attempt, an enormous bright bouquet in the vestibule has disappointed him. “I don’t like the tall gladioli sticking out, pointing at you. Although I quite enjoy the flashy colors,” he says.
Like its namesakes in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Boston, Montreal, and New York, the London Ritz was one of the turn-of-the-last-century luxury establishments associated with the legendary hotelier César Ritz. Its original look is retained to such specifics of architectural detail, light fixtures, statues, art work, and Louis XVI-style furnishings we were beginning to feel transported back to the Edwardian era.
And then we heard the strains of “I’ll See You Again” from a piano somewhere down the hall, and from that moment on, the Ritz for us became inexorably linked to Noel Coward and the England of the 1920s.
It was Ian Gomes (below) at the grand piano facing the Palm Court, providing background music for afternoon tea. An English classic may have been the siren call that lured us to his side, but the Calcutta-born pianist favors American songs by such as the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and Irving Berlin whose “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” we concluded, had to have been inspired by the London Ritz.
Ian, who had been Frank Sinatra’s pianist whenever the singer was in London, has a limitless repertoire. We try to stump him to no avail. There isn’t an American standard he does not know. And he plays them in lush, arpeggio-filled arrangements, flowing from “Stardust” to “Laura” to “Autumn Leaves,” stopping every now and then for a rollicking “Happy Birthday to You” as tea time at the Ritz proceeds down its leisurely path through the hours of the afternoon
A few feet away, at a small table apart from the others distinguished looking gent and lovely blonde lady are drinking champagne. “They are here every week without fail,” Ian tells us. “They always sit at that same table. The man will hand me a list of songs, and as I play them, it’s as I’m performing for those two alone.”
But up three steps, the Palm Court –a deep golden stage enhanced by mirrored walls, Grecian pillars, a pair of hanging lamps that look like birdcages entwined with gilded flowers and vines, and a roof of glazed glass — is filled to capacity with a lively crowd. Tables are set with silver tea services, Limoges china, and the inimitable three-tiered trolley with its assortment of miniature pastries, finger sandwiches on crust-less bread and the de rigueur scones to be slathered with clotted Cornish cream and strawberry jam.
“People have enormous fun here,” Giles Shepard says as Ian breaks into another “Happy Birthday to You” and a waiter in formal attire brings out a candle-lit tea cake. “They come here to enjoy celebrations, to entertain. It has been like this for nearly a hundred years.”
Through the decades, regulars at the Palm Court tea have included King Edward VII, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Winston Churchill, General de Gaulle, Noel Coward, Judy Garland, Evelyn Waugh, and the late and very much beloved Queen Mother.
“At one occasion about five years ago, the Queen Mother was here, and as I gave her my arm to help her up, she said to me, ‘Giles, these steps are very difficult.’
“I said, ‘Well Ma’am, what should we do?’
“’I would love a hand rail.’
“So we had these made. And they match, you see, with the balustrade on the spiral stairway. She was thrilled. She was born before the hotel was born and a regular here, always sitting in the right corner. She very much enjoyed walking down this corridor.”
As did we — to its end at the entrance to the restaurant (at the Ritz, the generic term suffices), a rococo fantasy of rose and gold which a well-traveled friend had told us was one of the most beautiful rooms in Europe. From a ceiling painted to look like a dreamy summer sky hang a ring of gilded chandeliers linked by an equally gilded garland of flowered vines. There are ornamented marble panels and niches with classical statues, a pair of creamy marble pillars with veins of soft pink and green and gilded garlanded capitals. Life-sized gilded (yes, again) figures of Thames and the Ocean reclining on a marble buffet are reflected in the mirror-lined wall across the room while afternoon sunlight streams through the row of windows and glass French doors spanning the western wall.
Beyond, on the terrace overlooking leafy Green Park a single gentleman in a morning coat is concluding his lunch. Soon he will cross Green Park to Buckingham Palace where he is to be invested, we’re told. Those about to be “sir’d” or “dame’d” frequently precede their investment with lunch at the Ritz.
That evening we had dinner at the Ritz. The chandeliers were lit; the hundreds of electric bulbs reflected in the mirrors like so many points of light. From our table beside one of the French doors, we took in the lovely room: its chairs upholstered in a velvet of dusty rose, its great patterned carpet of salmon, pink and pale green, the starchy linens on tables set with silver bowls of small roses and single glowing candles in silver holders.
And there was the irrepressible Ian Gomes, having moved to the restaurant for the dinner hour continuing his timeless renditions of the songs we love best. Only here he alternated with a quartet of three strings and piano that added a European feel to heart-tugging arrangements of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Yesterday” with the violin expressively carrying the melody.
There is a new and French executive chef at the Ritz. The young and ebullient Dominique Blais (below) from Brittany — home to so many master chefs — had been at the restaurant for only a month and was still in the process of planning his own menu. “This is a classic menu and I want to respect its tradition,” he said as we looked over the list of extensive offerings. “But I want to bring to it some cooking that is my own.”
Before assuming this position, Blais spent some months traveling throughout France, sampling the works of some of the world’s best chefs from Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo to Christian Willer at the Martinez in Cannes. “You always learn new things,” he said.
No fan of fusion cooking (“too many flavors get in the way; if you go more than three flavors, you are going to have a clash”), Blaise believes in the purity of French cuisine. At the same time, he assured us, he is not stuck in “timeless tradition.”
We will have to return to try Chef Dominique's menu. For the moment, however, we had to content ourselves with the restaurant’s current offerings. We solicited the advice of affable restaurant manager Simon Girling (below left), who suggested we begin with a non creamy lobster bisque made with cognac and very lightly seared scallops with braised endives and orange oil. For our main course, one of us had grilled salmon and asparagus, the other sole à l’americaine with a brandy-flavored sauce graced with a hint of vanilla and orange. The gracious and helpful sommelier Benoit Felix proposed a 1998 Bordeaux: Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Clos des Menuts, an excellent choice with lovely deep color, berry-fruit aroma, and firm finish.
Sommelier Benoit Felix (left) and restaurant manager Simon Girling
The entire experience of dining at the Ritz was exemplary. The quality of the preparations, the presentations, the attentiveness of the staff were matched only by the exquisiteness of the environs. Out of all the restaurants in London, the dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth had been held here. Small wonder.
Although its standards are impeccable and immovable – gentlemen, for example, are required to wear jackets and ties (“After all, it’s the Ritz!” we were told) the Ritz is an exceedingly friendly place. Every person we encountered be it server, bellman, housekeeper, concierge, manager evinced a warmth and good humor that was quite infectious.
Dessert sampler à la Ritz
Head concierge Michael De Cozar (below) is a good example. On the scene since 1973 and frequently photographed with a telephone receiver in each ear and a broad smile across his face, Michael gets to know your name immediately, welcomes you each time you enter and bids you farewell each time you leave.
“Yesterday one of our very good clients wanted tickets for a play at a very tiny playhouse,” he told us. “It was completely sold out. We sent a messenger down to wait. At 25 past two, he managed to get tickets for the 2:30 performance. Our client was in his seat in time for the curtain."
Gerrie Pitt, the engaging director of press and public relations
“Last week a gentleman called at 7 o’clock,” he continued. “He was running late, and he’d torn his shoelace. We always keep laces around, but they were the round kind. He required the flat kind. What could we do? I looked down at my shoes. The laces were flat. I took one off and sent it up to him. That’s what we call service.”
Ask Michael about the celebrities he’s welcomed, and you’ll get stories about Graham Greene; Rex Harrison — “very British, a real proper gentleman;” the Rolling Stones – “they had their breakfast at seven in the evening;” Margaret Thatcher; Sir William Walton, former president Bill Clinton, Andy Warhol, Billy Joel . . . “But celebrities here keep to themselves,” he says. “They are not here to be seen.”
In his three decades at the Ritz, Michael has witnessed nearly a third of the hotel’s long history including the time in the early 1990’s when it was in a neglected state, its staff demoralized. In 1995, however, a change in ownership signaled a changed direction that has since returned the property to its former glorious self.
“The Barclays are a private family,” he says of the new owners. “Very nice people. They have put so much into the hotel. The building can’t be altered as it is protected as a national heritage, but everything was re-done, refurbished, brought up to date. ”
One of the first things the new owners did was lure Giles Shepard away from the Savoy, and he, in turn, brought Ian Gomes along with him. “The previous owners were always getting ready to sell the hotel,” Giles Shepard told us. “And that breeds enormous uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds discomfort. Now there’s an ownership that loves the hotel and a staff therefore that knows its future.
“I have a lot of fun here,” he added. “I absolutely adore it. I like the staff, I like the people, I like the building. I’m not head of Four Seasons or Starwood. But I’m at the top of a small game. Still it’s clear you mustn’t become like a dodo. You mustn’t become stuck in your ways. You must stay in touch, keep up to date with what people ask for and need.”
One could not ask for more than our beautifully proportioned two-room corner suite (whose door opens with a real key) with views of Piccadilly on one side and Green Park on the other, luxuriant Louis XVI furnishings in shades of peach and pink, cream and gold, and a silver vase filled with budding roses. But the need for twenty-first century props is met as well. Fax, message service, and computer access are all readily available but so discreetly installed, the Edwardian illusion remains intact.
Still our sense of the Ritz remained locked in the 1920s and when we joined Gerrie Pitt, the engaging director of press and public relations, for a drink at the Rivoli Bar before we departed, all seemed right with the world.
Here the Belle Époque gives way to Art Deco. Five Lalique-style chandeliers hang from five gilded domes, adding to the natural light that filters from Piccadilly through voile curtains in a Klimt design. The original Lalique glass panels along the wall are from an Orient Express train; the bas reliefs at each end of the room (below) were inspired by Mestrović, the famed Yugoslav sculptor. Ocelot-covered chairs, an onyx marble bar, and bamboo polished floor all carry out the Art Deco motif.
“When you travel a lot, places can tend to blur one into another,” Gerrie said. “But there is only one Ritz.”
The Ritz Hotel
London, England • W1J 9BR
Phone: +44 (020) 7493 8181
Fax: +44 (020) 7493 268
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who are professors in the MALS program at Dartmouth College who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan and It Happened in Miami.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.
This article is copyright © 1995 – 2016 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights reserved worldwide.
photos: Harvey Frommer