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Puttin’ on the Ritz

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Just inside the front entrance of the Paris Ritz and steps away from the hotel’s Bar Vendôme, home of the $83 lobster club, is a limed-oak door you have no reason to have ever noticed, though your entire happiness as a guest hangs on the decisions made behind it. Should chambermaids be authorized to change the 2.8-ounce bars of soap in the bathrooms, even when you can still see the La Prairie logo?Will hiring a period horse-drawn carriage with attendants in livery to trot people around Place Vendôme on Valentine’s Day play into their silliest Paris fantasies, or is it a cheesy stunt best shelved?Has the red Menu Monochrome (prawns in raspberry vinaigrette, beetroot tart with red-pepper jus) at L’Espadon, the hotel’s restaurant, lost its novelty value, and if so, what should replace it?An all-blue menu would allow executive chef Michel Roth to blow through a lot of undercooked steak, but what about green?Yellow?Beige?Okay, maybe not beige.

Nail-biting issues like these are weighed seven days a week at the Ritz at 9 a.m. briefings run by Omer Acar, the hotel’s amazingly young (he’s 36) general manager, and attended by more than a dozen department heads, including lieutenants responsible for guest relations, banqueting, the cooking school, the health club, technical systems like plumbing—even personnel you wouldn’t have thought needed to be kept in the loop, like the women in charge of the switchboard and laundry. The thinking behind this MO became clear to me when I took the service elevator “by mistake,” hoping to learn something I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t hear the question a groom asked a chasseur, but when no answer was forthcoming, the groom, clearly drunk on Ritz Kool-Aid, snapped, “Écoute-moi bien, idiot. Your business is my business.”

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Two days earlier I’d pulled up to the Ritz, which for sense of arrival nothing can touch. The early 18th-century square it fringes—Place Vendôme, the most famous in Paris—is actually not a square at all, but a subtle octagon watched over by a statue of Napoleon in the drag of a Roman emperor. The architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart achieved a rare harmony by conceiving all the buildings on the place as an ensemble: the limestone façades went up first, followed by the town houses behind them. Outside the Ritz today there are almost always fans poignantly waiting to snap this or that celebrity. When the star is huge enough—Madonna, for example—a guest can earn a quick 20 euros just by leading a fan under one of the four arches, along a crimson carpet, up three broad steps, and through the revolving door.

One of the Ritz’s great triumphs is its stubborn lack of a traditional lobby. Instead you get a long, wide corridor with just a few throne-like perches and towering French windows dressed in a cataclysm of swags and rippling jabots. Typically, the scene is animated by conspicuously American Americans (nearly 40 percent of the hotel’s customers are from the United States), looking like deer caught in the headlights; Japanese wearing face masks against threats to their hygiene; grungy young couples who may or may not be in the music business; Italians in Loro Piana with poor cell-phone etiquette; and a big-spending new constituency, Ukrainians, that every high-end hotelier in Paris is trying to lure. Anything goes in the corridor lobby: when a pack of English children sat down in the middle of traffic and dumped out their coloring supplies, no one stopped them. Hardly a topic for the morning briefing, but distressing nevertheless.

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