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Puttin’ on the Ritz

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Held in English, the staccato meetings take place in a squeezed mezzanine-level War Room overlooking Place Vendôme. (If the windows are open and you stand in just the right spot, you can learn that soap replacement is discretionary, the carriage is a yes, and the red menu is being held over until September.) Space is so tight in the War Room, housekeeping might invite human resources to share a chair. Other managers stand, holding up the walls. Not that anyone minds. It’s easy to imagine this group sharing anecdotes about their kids, their kids’ schools, their lovers, their lovers’ wives and husbands.

But not here. A hotel that has no trouble getting $10.40 for an in-room Nespresso pod may sound like it owns the world. But with a salaried population of 526 and an operating budget larger than that of some French towns, the Ritz is feeling the heat of competition more acutely than at any time in its 109-year history. The Mother of All Grand Luxury Hotels is still trying to figure out if there is a place for it in a century that is already 78 months old. And yet if the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one, at least the Ritz is no longer in denial. Management finally comprehends that if you’re going to call yourself the greatest hotel in the world and charge $940 for a 270-square-foot entry-level room in the Cambon wing (a.k.a. Siberia), you’d better have something to back it up. And wouldn’t it be great if that something was relevant, original, fizzy—not just another 25 miles of Houlès passementerie?

In his eagerness to keep the Ritz current and cure its vulnerabilities, Acar can seem to be swatting flies. But the hotel’s cocktail of new services, distractions, absurdities, temptations, gadgets, indulgences, frivolities, impertinences, and enticements is a potent one. The Ritz is in contract with Chanel for two firsts that loyalists of the brand wished for for so long, they had all but given up: the first Chanel spa, and the first hotel bathrooms stocked with Chanel amenities. (Until these are in place, the La Prairie spa and amenities will have to do.)

Having hired Pierre-Yves Rochon, who decorated the Four Seasons George V, also in Paris, the Ritz obviously wouldn’t mind if a little of that hotel’s fairy dust was sprinkled its way. Rochon has made a preliminary sweep through the 162 guest rooms, which have been described in Travel+Leisure as penitentiaries as imagined by Barbara Cartland, and replaced the beds with an austerely elegant upholstered-and-gilded design, garnished with pinecone finials and fit for a dauphin. Rochon’s intervention is a first step toward banishing the faux Frenchiness and petit-four sickliness of his predecessor, Philippe Belloir, but I do question the satin sheets. They don’t seem very...would modern be the right word?

Management’s efforts to get the sheets right are nothing compared to the minutiae that preoccupied César Ritz, the hotel’s founder. This son of Swiss peasants sought to invest his enterprise with “all the refinements of living that a prince might hope to incorporate in his town house.” Ritz is said to be the first hospitality professional to notice that Americans are obsessed with ice water, which he furnished before they asked for it. Recognizing that there are people who can never make up their minds between a dozen and a half-dozen ­oysters, he had plates specially made to hold nine. The closet interiors Ritz designed even featured a dedicated drawer for ­women’s hairpieces.

Through the sixties, the hotel introduced nouveautés only after agonizing consideration. These days they come fast and furious: send it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. New chapters in the Ritz’s history are being written with an all-organic room-service menu as well as the Espadon’s vegetarian and monochrome menus (while the first is gastronomically sound, the second never rises above its gimmick). In association with Parfums Thierry Mugler, the Ritz Escoffier cooking school is offering Ateliers Vins, where students isolate the notes in a fragrance (rose and raspberry in Alien for Women, say), then reconjure them in the kitchen (gelée de rose à la framboise). This is actually less hokey than it sounds and a terrific way to spend a Friday night in Paris, particularly if you want to meet people. Colin Field evaluates and rejiggers the alcoholic crea­tions of students who sign up for his mixology classes in the snug paneled confines of the Hemingway Bar, which he runs. Field is so entertaining that no one would care if all he did was recount his romantic life as a bartender. As one learns, this has involved a certain number of Moulin Rouge showgirls.


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