What becomes a legend most?Sometimes a face-lift. In London, Claridge's, the Connaught, and the Ritz have for years defined the grand hotel. But until recently they were also beginning to look more like dowagers than grandes dames. Now, renovations have brought them into the 21st century. Do they still represent the ideal?I decided to check in and find out.
If there's one established address that epitomizes London's happening modern image, it's Claridge's, the 1812 beauty in Mayfair now reborn after a $75 million makeover. Mirrors, chandeliers, marble for days—the hotel's new flash hit me the moment I walked through the polished brass revolving door. Clearly this is not a retreat but a place in which to see and be seen. No wonder Dynasty diva Joan Collins staged her latest wedding here.
The rush continued as I rode to my room in a gilded elevator with a silk banquette at the back. And what a room: an Art Deco extravaganza straight out of a Fred Astaire—Ginger Rogers film. Indeed, everything in the new Claridge's has a movie-set feel. Even the fitness center has received the full Deco treatment, with glass columns and images of Apollo and Aphrodite.
Still, the essence of Claridge's is not its dramatic décor, but its energy. Round the clock, the place buzzes—especially in the glamorous public rooms. The hotel's hippest hangout is the bar, a favorite with the Jade Jagger—Kate Moss—Liz Hurley crowd, that's been redesigned in a low-key Deco style by London decorator David Collins. The Foyer is a more traditional lounge of silver-leaf columns and Deco chaises, re-created by decorative arts specialist Thierry Despont. Here, under artist Dale Chihuly's chandelier made from more than 800 handblown pieces of Venetian glass, I sat for hours as everyone from formally dressed private-party people to chic Arab women with designer shopping bags paraded by.
Further upping Claridge's buzz quotient is Michelin three-starred chef Gordon Ramsay's namesake restaurant, which opened in October. Although hotel guests supposedly have some leverage in getting a reservation, I had to virtually sell my soul for a 2 p.m. lunch slot. At least I didn't have to rob a bank to eat; the $37 prix fixe menu provided a well-edited sampling of Ramsay's expertise with dishes such as lamb with grilled asparagus, baby leeks, and shallots. Yet when I think back on my stay, the meal I remember most fondly is my intimate steak frites supper in the Reading Room, where fat leather-clad columns and club chairs create the feel of a first-class lounge on some long-lost Cunard liner. It was a welcome respite from all the action. Of course, the great thing about Claridge's is that you can have it both ways. Brook St.; 800/637-2869 or 44-207/629-8860, fax 44-207/499-2210; www. claridges.co.uk; doubles from $419.
With its posh location across Grosvenor Square from Claridge's, its staff in black tie and tails, and its old-money regulars (many of whom leave entire wardrobes in storage), the Connaught has always represented, for me at least, the consummate British club. In fact, I've always been intimidated by this aristocratic hostelry, so elitist that you once needed a written invitation to book a room.
That the Connaught has adopted a new attitude became clear at check-in, when a friendly young desk clerk apologized to me for the workmen discreetly restoring the mosaic floor in the reception area. It was one of the final touches in decorator Nina Campbell's redo of the lobby and formerly frumpy lounges, in an effort to make the hotel more appealing to contemporary travelers.
Certainly no apologies were necessary for my room. Also redone by Campbell, it was luxurious but not pretentious, with beige-and-ocher striped wallpaper, green damask curtains, and a marble bathroom with old-fashioned fixtures. Add to that all the modern necessities: a fax machine, modem ports, an ISDN connection. Instead of the ubiquitous mini-bar, a cabinet held an array of drinks. For ice, I simply needed to ring for the butler. Very civilized.
Campbell's hand is especially evident in the public areas. The Red Room, with its red-lacquered walls, red banquettes, and red marble fireplaces, would have had Diana Vreeland drooling. I found it irresistible. But what I liked best were the things that remain of the Connaught's past. Campbell hasn't laid a finger on the hallways, which are crammed with museum-quality paintings and antiques. I rarely took the elevator, preferring the stairs so I could ogle all the objets. Except for the occasional greeting from staff members, no one ever questioned me on my rounds, which made me feel totally at home. In such an environment, the hotel's strict rules seemed eminently reasonable. How nice to be in a place where cell phones may be used only in soundproof booths.
I'd dreamed of dining in the Grill Room, and it didn't disappoint, with no less than five waiters attending to me, wheeling up trolleys of beef Wellington and bread pudding. Despite the fuss, the service was unobtrusive and friendly. And at $40, the prix fixe lunch is one of London's best buys. The cuisine is currently in transition, prompted by the retirement of Michelin-starred chef Michel Bourdin. Rumor has it that big changes are in store. Whatever happens, you can expect that everything will be done in the best of taste. After all, this is the Connaught.
Carlos Place; 800/637-2869 or 44-207/499-7070, fax 44-207/495-3262; www.the-connaught.co.uk; doubles from $340.
This 1906 hotel is not just a landmark, but an institution, practically an extension of official Britain. When Prince Charles made his first public appearance with Camilla Parker Bowles, it was at a charity dinner at the Ritz. The Queen Mother has treated the hotel as her home away from Buckingham Palace, frequently lunching at her corner table at the hotel's restaurant. A citadel of exclusivity, the Ritz generally turns away casual gawkers, citing dress-code violations. So, armed with a reservation and a Versace blazer, I finally stormed the gates of this legendary palace.
I was instantly awed by the palatial public rooms, lavishly restored to their Louis XVI opulence by a $45 million overhaul. And although I'm a confirmed minimalist in the décor department, I was won over by the beauty of my bedroom, with its gilded moldings and silk-upholstered bed. Then the phone rang: the young woman who had just escorted me to my room was calling to ask whether I was happy with it. For a second, I thought someone had blown my cover, but the call is standard Ritz procedure, designed to make every guest feel like a VIP.
Unfortunately, the VIP treatment came to a halt downstairs. Since it was a hot day, I thought I'd have a drink in the Italian Garden, overlooking Green Park. When I finally caught a waiter's attention, I was rudely told that it was closed. Next, I was refused service in the bar tucked between reception and the Palm Court. "You have to wear a jacket and tie, and you're not wearing a tie," the waiter sniffed. Later, I saw two gentlemen—sans ties—having drinks in the same bar. Despite the grandeur of the Ritz's public rooms, I never felt entirely welcome in them.
But there were exceptions. In the new Rivoli Bar, where London decorator Tessa Kennedy has broken with tradition by eschewing Louis XVI in favor of 1920's Deco, the staff was exceptionally friendly—and ties are optional. Then there is the restaurant. Right up there with Versailles, this marble-columned hall—20-foot-high French windows, frescoed walls, gilded gods and goddesses—is nothing short of magical. Dining here would be memorable even if the food were mediocre. But it isn't: chef Giles Thompson does amazing things with British game, salmon, asparagus. And though the service could be a little snappier, you don't care, because it lets you linger amid the beauty. The Queen Mum knew a good thing when she saw it.
150 Piccadilly; 877/748-9536 or 44-207/493-8181, fax 44-207/493-2687; www.theritzlondon.com; doubles from $504.
Grand London—For Less
Despite their sky-high standard rates, most luxury hotels in London offer frequent deals, depending on the season and the travel environment, so ask about specials when you book. Otherwise, consider the following less expensive finds:
57 Pont Street Hotel 57 Pont St.; 44-207/590-1090, fax 44-207/ 590-1099; www.no57.com; singles from $178, doubles from $250. Twenty-one smart rooms in an old Victorian town house that has been given a cutting-edge makeover.
Sydney House Hotel 9—11 Sydney St.; 44-207/376-7711, fax 44-207/376-4233; www.thebathpriory.co.uk/sydney.htm; doubles from $170. A romantic hideaway with antiques-filled rooms and a sublime location on a street of white town houses in Chelsea.