When it opened in 1889, the Savoy set the standard for luxury. After a three-year, multi-million dollar renovation, T+L asks whether it still does.

By Charles Maclean
February 11, 2011
Savoy, hotel, lounge, London, Englang, lobby
Credit: James Merell

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.

The Savoy also contained London’s first electric elevator, and I take the Red Lift, an exact replica of the original red-and-gold lacquered “ascending room,” to suite No. 726. Going straight over to the windows—it was from Savoy balconies that Monet painted his incandescent riverscapes—I am entranced by the views of the Thames bridges, Big Ben, red double-deckers, strollers on the embankment: all the familiar sights of London laid out under sweeping gray skies.

Rochon has transformed the two-thirds of the rooms on the river side with an Edwardian theme, as well as those closer to the Strand, now done up in the Art Deco style introduced to the hotel in the 1920’s. In my suite, the attention to detail is impressive: personalized writing paper; a shelf of books by Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh (all former residents); an exquisite Liberty sewing kit; and a framed 1956 photo of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe from the hotel archives.

That evening I meet my half sister and her husband for cocktails in the hotel’s American Bar, where a crooner is belting out old standards. All that’s missing is Humphrey Bogart in his favorite corner seat and Lena Horne leaning against the piano. Before going through to dinner, we look in on the new Beaufort Bar, a glitzier affair with subdued lighting and the lure of champagne punch and late-night cabaret on the same velvet-draped stage where Gershwin gave his first British performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

At the River Restaurant we drink an excellent Pouilly Fumé with our high-end French food. The restaurant is sophisticated, decked out with sprays of calla lilies and banks of white orchids, with an Art Deco palette of beige and black granite and leopard-print carpet. The more relaxed Savoy Grill pays homage to Escoffier by offering his signature peach Melba, lobster thermidor, and omelette Arnold Bennett, as well as such surefire Brit dishes as dressed Cornish crab and Dover sole. Winston Churchill’s favorite table is still in the same corner overlooking the Savoy Court.

Before checking out of the hotel, I take a quick tour of the Royal Suite, a 3,350-square-foot space that takes up almost the entire riverside fifth floor, with two bedrooms, a drawing room, a study, a dining room, and a full kitchen. As you might expect for $15,500 a night, it’s a bit more ornate than the commoner suites, with acres of marble, lashings of gilt, fluted columns, Murano chandeliers at every turn, even a ventilated closet for your shoes. But I can’t help noticing that the view is not quite as good as the one I had in 726.

The Savoy; The Strand; doubles from $544.

Charles Maclean is a T+L contributing editor.

The city is seeing a slew of big openings (and reopenings) this year. The highlights:

After a 28-month renovation, the Four Seasons Hotel London Park Lane returned in January with 1930’s-inspired interiors by Pierre-Yves Rochon and a glass-enclosed rooftop spa. Hamilton Place; 800/332-3442; fourseasons.com; doubles from $769.

Unveiled in February, the 192-room W London, Leicester Square has a frosted-glass façade that changes color throughout the day. 10 Wardour St.; 877/946-8357; whotels.com; doubles from $420.

This month sees the arrival of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, part of the landmark train station, with a restaurant designed by David Collins and helmed by Marcus Wareing of the Berkeley Hotel. Euston Rd.; 888/236-2427; stpancrasrenaissance.com; doubles from $291.

In April the Corinthia Hotel London will open in a Victorian building steps from Trafalgar Square. Collins also did the stylish bar here; the restaurant is courtesy of Rome’s Massimo Riccioli. Whitehall Place; 44-20/7930-8181; corinthia.com; doubles from $480.

The Thierry Despont–designed 45 Park Lane, located across the street from its older sibling the Dorchester, makes its debut this summer as a more intimate and modern version of its glitzier neighbor. 45 Park Lane; 44-20/7629-4848; 45parklane.com; doubles from $1,080. —Farhad Heydari

Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane

In 2011, the Four Seasons reopened its 11-story tower near Hyde Park Corner after a 2-year, head-to-toe renovation by Pierre Yves Rochon. Rooms were redesigned (and expanded) with sycamore panels and tartan draperies; dressing room closets and bathrooms redone with walnut and brushed steel cabinetry, and vanity mirrors with integrated televisions. The Amaranto restaurant was introduced to grand applause--a trio of connecting spaces (an atrium, club lounge, and conservatory) featuring Italian-inspired creations, including London's first Italian tea. The hotel's crowning achievement: the rooftop spa, an oak and stone sanctuary with glass-walled treatment rooms, water sculptures, and birds-eye views of the leafy treetops of Hyde Park.

St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Opened in March 2011, the hotel is house in part of the landmark train station, with a restaurant designed by David Collins and helmed by Marcus Wareing of the Berkeley Hotel.

Corinthia Hotel, London

A staggering $488 million went into the purchase and restoration of this former Ministry of Defense headquarters south of Trafalgar Square. The 294-room hotel is an ode to grand living: it’s filled with extravagant gestures, such as seven two-story penthouse suites (the Royal Penthouse has a walk-in wine cellar, roof terrace, internal elevator, and separate dining area), and megawatt designer David Collins is behind the gilded accents at Bassoon bar and the vast seafood-focused Massimo Restaurant and Oyster Bar. We were impressed by the subtler touches: The Northall, the smaller English restaurant, for its all-local, organic ingredients, and the über-private sleep “pods” in the four-story spa.