When the Ritz Paris closed for renovations in 2012, she was showing her age. The previous year, the French tourism ministry had left her off its list of French hotel “palaces.” On the day I visited, shortly before the doors shut, the hotel was clearly ready for a refresh: the gladiolas in the lobby were wilting and the tea sandwiches were soggy.
$440 million, plenty of delays, and almost four years later, la grande dame of Paris hotels is more gorgeous than ever. Anyone who loved the old Ritz will love the face-lifted version even more. The brocades are richer, the velvets plusher, the marble floors shinier, the gilded mirrors brighter, the creamy Italian bed linens so plush that they are almost satin.
The Ritz’s four human pillars are back with their savoir-faire and collective memory: Manfred Mautsch, the guest relations manager (34 years at the Ritz); Michel Battino, the head concierge (40 years); Colin Field, the Hemingway Bar bartender (22 years); and Serge Dumont, the head valet, who knew Coco Chanel when she called the Ritz home (47 years). Hotel manager Christian Boyens has mastered the art of greeting female guests with the perfect baisemain (hand kiss): lips should never touch skin.
The hotel had to be thrust into 21st-century modernity without sacrificing its royal spirit. “It has been a balancing act,” says Ritz president Frank Klein. “The goal is perfection. Guests have to feel the ‘wow effect’ when they enter. At the same time, they have to say, ‘Ah, I am at home.’”
The windows of the long entrance gallery are wider and higher, their sheer voile curtains removed to let in masses of sunlight. The adjoining Ritz garden has been turned into two glass conservatories with retractable roofs to allow airy, year-round dining—a rare commodity in Paris. Sixteen new elevators have been installed, including one for guests who cannot manage the front stairs. An underground parking garage offers guests maximum privacy when entering and exiting.
Despite these changes, the 18th-century building facade, the 18th-century bas-reliefs in the Impériale suite, and the allegorical ceiling and 18th-century marquetry floors of the Chopin suite —all classified as national historic monuments—were only minimally touched. To further attract well-heeled locals, the hotel has added the world’s first Chanel Spa, in honor of Coco, who slept in a suite at the Ritz for more than 30 years. Coco would also have appreciated the new book-lined Salon Proust, which honors the eponymous novelist, who wrote much of his epic In Search of Lost Time here. In the Salon, afternoon “tea à la française” is served with a tower of classic French cookies, pastries (the marble cake is a must), and madeleines. Many of the books, chosen by Paris bookseller Galignani, are antiques; the ones hiding the electrical wiring are fake.
The Hemingway Bar is almost exactly as it was before, with lush new green carpeting, the same hunting trophies and photos of Papa on the walls, and classic cocktails like the Serendipity (made with Ritz champagne, Calvados, apple juice, and fresh mint). All the surfaces and finishes seem shinier, but the cozy feel is the same as always; veteran clients would have revolted otherwise. The new Ritz Bar across the hall offers contemporary music, bistro fare, and offbeat cocktails by 26-year-old Aurelie Pezet, the hotel’s first female chief bartender—quite revolutionary for an aristocratic bastion like the Ritz.
The old Ritz had 100 window displays of luxury goods that could be bought elsewhere; the new Ritz has installed boutiques, including one from Miami-based retailer the Webster, along a corridor under a curved skylight, resembling a 19th-century covered passage.
As for the cuisine, the Ritz is counting on French chef Nicolas Sale to make his mark. Sale left his perch at two Michelin-two-starred restaurants in Courchevel to take over the Ritz’s restaurants, including the gastronomic French restaurant La Table de l’Espadon. He is aided by 35-year-old Estelle Touzet, the hotel’s first female chief sommelier. Only the 10th chef in Ritz history, Sale will need to prove he is worthy of the position created by the legendary first chef of the hotel, Auguste Escoffier.
Rooms, starting at 1,100 euros a night (slightly higher than many of the other Paris luxury hotels), are now equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi, quiet heating and air-conditioning, new plumbing, and flat-screen televisions embedded into the mirrors. They have also been enlarged and reduced in number—about half are now suites. All bathrooms have separate walk-in showers, two sinks, and heated flooring. The gilded faucets shaped like swans remain, shinier than ever.
The Ritz still has a bit more to do before it reaches Mr. Klein’s state of “perfection.” One of the hotel's wings caught fire in January and won’t open until next year. There are small glitches that come with a staff that consists of more than 50 percent new hires. The sound of hammering echoed through the lobby for 10 minutes on the day I visited. During my overnight stay, the newspapers I ordered were not delivered to my room. It wasn’t obvious that there were two restaurant spaces in the Bar Vendôme available for breakfast—one offering continental breakfast fare, the other a wider selection, including a full Japanese breakfast and the Ritz’s famous French toast.
The newly configured circular elevator is lovely—its translucent glass is painted with gold figures; the doors, however, refused to open on my floor. (Mautsch, who was with me, escorted me to the floor below and walked me up to my room.) When I tried to straighten a crooked wall sconce on the right side of the fireplace in my room, it fell off the wall.
Maybe the biggest challenge facing the Ritz is that the Paris hotel scene as a whole is suffering—the result of a series of terrorist attacks in France since the beginning of 2015 and an ongoing national state of emergency that has driven tourists away. Hotel officials say the hotel has benefited from the curiosity factor that comes with reopening and that the occupancy rate ranges from 60 to 80 percent. But three of the ultra-luxury suites: the three-bedroom Impériale, with its bulletproof windows (28,000 euros a night); the Chopin, with its landmarked ceiling and floor (8,200 euros); and the Vendôme (16,500 euros) were unoccupied during my stay. (The 18,7000-euro Windsor Suite was taken.) Bien sûr, there are people who still want ultra-luxury at the Ritz, but not when Paris is on high alert.
And for an hour one recent morning, I had the famous Ritz mosaic swimming pool all to myself. This was likely a once-in-a-lifetime event, as the pool used to be pretty busy in its day, and will eventually be crowded again. Perhaps not ideal for the Ritz, but it was an unforgettable experience for me.
Elaine Sciolino is based in Paris and the author of The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.