Everyone has a Savoy story, a special memory of the classic London hotel built more than a century ago on the banks of the Thames. Early generations of my family gave lavish Edwardian dinner parties in private rooms or danced the night away to the Savoy Orpheans. I can only recall the humiliation of being thrown out of a party in the Lancaster Ballroom in the early eighties. My rock band was hired to play a debutante party; there was an argument with the host over the music choice, then a scuffle. Security was called, and I was shown the tradesman’s exit. My great-grandfather, Lord Ribblesdale, a Savoy regular whose portrait by John Singer Sargent hangs nearby in the National Gallery, would not have been amused.
Apart from the occasional lunch at the Savoy Grill, I had shied away since then. So when the Savoy reopened this fall after a nearly three-year closure for the most expensive refit any London hotel has ever undergone, I welcomed the chance to visit again.
It’s no secret that the reopening of the Savoy was delayed by more than a year or that the project ran wildly over budget. In addition to systemic problems with the plumbing and wiring, the discovery of structural faults in the listed building sent costs soaring. “We had some idea, going in, what we were going to find,” general manager Kiaran MacDonald tells me, “but not that we would have to rip out the guts of the hotel and start again.” The final bill for the renovations ended up being $342 million, more than double the planned amount. If there is any consolation for the Savoy’s proprietor, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who also owns a chunk of the Four Seasons, including Paris’s George V, as well as the Hermitage in Monaco, it’s that the Savoy was out of commission during the worst of the global economic downturn.
After a taxi drops me off in the landmark Savoy Court, a top-hatted doorman swiftly parts me from my luggage. I pass through the glass-domed revolving doors, which over the years debouched such celebrated regulars as Sarah Bernhardt, Noël Coward, Coco Chanel, and Marlene Dietrich, and which have survived intact. Formalities are minimal: The reception desk has been done away with, and check-in is taken care of with a couple of keystrokes on a laptop. In the lobby, designer Pierre-Yves Rochon’s take on Edwardian splendor includes chinoiserie tables, toile de Jouy wall coverings, and damask upholstery. The Beaux-Arts frieze An Idyll of a Golden Age still adorns the walls. It’s hard to fathom that only weeks before the place was a building site with hardhats working alongside staff going through training.
Before being shown to my room I am offered afternoon tea in the Thames Foyer, where I have dusty memories of being brought from school as a special treat. Now naturally lit by a stained-glass cupola and centered around a birdcage gazebo, the foyer remains the heart of the hotel. I inhale a cup of organic Darjeeling and succumb to a nostalgic tartlet or two, made in the new tea shop and patisserie. The manager tells me the waiting list to reserve a weekend table for afternoon tea has stretched to four months.
People-watching from a strategic corner of the foyer, I can’t help wishing for the ghosts of the Savoy’s more glamorous past to reappear. It was across the same checkerboard floor—its black and white marble slabs just replaced—that the legendary César Ritz, the hotel’s first manager, would advance with unruffled dignity to greet guests in the late 19th century, a white carnation in the lapel of his frock coat.
Now managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, the Savoy was built by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte from the profits of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, which he staged at the adjacent (and still running) Savoy Theatre. With Ritz managing and the great Auguste Escoffier overseeing the kitchens, the hotel opened in 1889 and soon established a reputation for the highest standards of service, comfort, and cuisine. Ritz gave London its first modern hotel—the first to be run on electricity, the first to have en suite bathrooms and speaking tubes for room service. He introduced the fashion for music in restaurants, hiring Johann Strauss as musical director, as well as the trick of placing reserved cards on the best tables to create a mystique of exclusivity.