How does Paris’s most venerated hotel keep the show going in an age of ‘PDA concierges,’ celebrity entourages, and stiff new competition?Christopher Petkanas reports from behind closed doors.
Andrea Fazzari Puttin' on the Ritz
| Credit: 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.

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.

Abstemious and feeling left out?Darjeeling is poured at the Ritz 10 days after harvesting. If your kids are not already brats, lacquered baskets filled with certified-green goodies—a stuffed animal, Bomford baby balm, cotton PJ’s—are not going to get them in line. Last year the hotel had the good idea of holding a competition for a new floral designer, though unfortunately I don’t think they got the right guy. Djordje Varda, self-taught and from Serbia, is very talented, and I believe he believes in what he is doing. But his spidery, vertical, nose-thumbing compositions are frankly a little scary, and they declare war on a house style that—if you plow through the pastiche and reproductions of reproductions—champions the decorative idioms to which a succession of Louis lent their names. Clumps of catnip, with their turf, posed directly on the odd antique, a marble-topped commode?You could be dreaming. Except you’re not.

While pretending that their own innovations and wonderful occupancy rates keep them too busy to notice, the Ritz’s rivals in the so-called palace hotel category spend a lot of time tracking such developments, reading them as if they were tea leaves. (Sometimes a crumb of turf is a crumb of turf.) For years the number of Paris palace hotels—an unofficial designation, which the French fetishize but which means little to me and you—was stalled at five, not counting the Ritz: the George V, the Crillon, the Plaza-Athénée, the Meurice, and the Bristol. The Ritz had it easy. If it worried at all, it was about these institutions.

The stakes were raised in 1999 when the George V was reborn and rebranded as a brilliantly polished Four Seasons. It continues to take a big bite out of the Ritz’s business—specifically, its American business (Ritz customers are faithful, up to a point). Three years later, the Park Hyatt opened up the block. Humbled by the reaction to all those disturbing Christ-like bronzes commissioned by designer Ed Tuttle, the Hyatt is less insistent on referring to itself as Paris’s first modern palace hotel than it was when it launched. In late 2006, Fouquet’s Barrière bowed noisily on the Champs-Élysées, calling itself the best this and the best that, though I honestly don’t think the Ritz has anything to worry about here. Just for the hotel, Jacques Garcia, a decorator I normally like, coined a new style, High Tape-à-L’Oeil. One day I'm going to write a book: When Bad Hotels Happen to Good Designers. The Ritz will not get off so easy when Shangri-La and Mandarin

Oriental open branches, in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Located off Place du Trocadéro and with 118 rooms—many facing the Seine, a huge selling point—the Shangri-La Palais d’Iena has pedigree: it was built by Napoleon’s great-nephew, Prince Roland Bonaparte, in 1897. Didier Le Calvez has been poached from the George V to manage the Palais d’Iena, and Rochon, surprise, is the decorator. The designs of the 150-room Mandarin on the Ritz client are implicit in its location: around the corner from Place Vendôme, in an Art Deco town house at 247 Rue St.-Honoré.

Every time the Ritz looks down, someone else is biting its heels. The Bristol bought the bank next door to create 27 new rooms, which will come on line later this year and increase its inventory by a full 16 percent. The Plaza Athénée is sending guests out into Paris empowered with a “private concierge”: a GPS-equipped PDA loaded with an address book, cultural itineraries, and dictionaries. (A no-brainer, but then why didn’t the Ritz think of it?) Others of the Plaza’s attempts to distinguish itself are meaningless, unless you sleep with your security detail (the 5,382-square-foot Royal Suite is billed as the largest in the capital), or just plain silly ($35 “alco-mist” mojitos, served in spray bottles in the bar).

In the end the most serious threat to the Ritz may be the Crillon, which was purchased in late 2005 by Starwood Capital, the private real estate investment firm headed by Barry Sternlicht, the founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts. The Crillon is poised to become a chain (a posh chain, anyway), with Paris as the flagship and projected outposts in London, Rome, and New York. To ensure that all the aesthetic cues it gives are the right ones, the Place de la Concorde landmark will undergo a redesign in 2008.

The one old opponent the Ritz needs no longer bother about is the Meurice, which is a little late to the party in tapping Philippe Starck to remake its lobby and jardin d’hiver. Touchingly, executives say the point in bringing in Starck is to help the hotel stay up-to-date. It’s a desperate move.

News of Starck’s rendezvous with the Meurice (a lobby and jardin d’hiver cannot be called a marriage) broke the week I was at the Ritz, but did not even merit a mention in the War Room. I would be hopeless as a Ritz department head because to reach the room you have to pass before the office of the hotel’s president, Frank Klein, something I could never do without a shiver. Klein is sentenced to be remembered as the senior Ritz official on whose watch Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed died following dinner at the hotel, in 1997. Given the wolfish mood of the paparazzi that night, many—including a lot of ­Diana freaks—think the couple should never have been allowed to leave the Ritz. Klein was on vacation, but that fact hasn’t let him entirely off the hook. His position is especially ticklish because the hotel happens to be owned by Dodi’s uncles and his father, Mohamed Al Fayed. The brothers also own Harrods, and when you phone the store there’s a menu option that tells you what to dial “if your call has anything to do with Dodi or Diana.” Al Fayed is still pursuing his theory, voiced in court, that the Duke of Edinburgh engineered to have the Princess of Wales and his son murdered. Whatever the truth, two things seem sure: Al Fayed will continue to be denied British citizenship. And the Queen and Philip will never sleep at the Ritz.

Whether or not Klein’s presence would have prevented the tragedy, Al Fayed has stood by him. When his family acquired the Ritz in 1979, business was poor, the hotel in an advanced state of decay. It still had one of those old-fashioned plug-type switchboards, and people were staying away in droves. Al Fayed and Klein made a formidable team, giving the place buzz and bulldozing it into modern times. Al Fayed seems to understand that after himself (he is, after all, the check-writer), it is Klein who makes the hotel go.

“Are we still recording in room 256?” Acar asked recently, by way of opening the morning briefing.

Yes, construction noise from a neighboring building was being documented to support a legal case. Every time a certain level was reached, the Ritz’s lawyer received an e-mail.

“Good,” Acar said. “Call the bailiff today, and make sure guests checking out sign something saying they were disturbed by the noise. What about Sharon Stone?”

At the mention of the once-hot actress—who has taken to shilling beauty products for women of a certain age and who travels under the pretentious pseudonym Docteur Katrine Davis—everyone tried to pretend that her latest film, Basic Instinct 2, hadn’t gone south.

“She’s coming in today,” Acar announced. “Are we doing anything special for her?Does she have anything to do with the new Eastwood movie and the press conference he’s giving here?”

“No, Stone is in Paris for Dior,” someone volunteered. “We’ve got her in the Chanel Suite. She’s arriving with her sister and friends, like always.”

“Is Eastwood married?” Acar wondered.

“I know he was once, but he got div...”

“Give him a hard pillow. No, seriously. Today is Valentine’s Day. We’ve got to do something that says Valentine’s Day in Paris. Pink macaroons. But no candles. No open flames. Has anything been organized for the staff?Let’s get a heart-shaped cake in the cafeteria.”

Acar scanned a printout of the day’s arrivals. “Bündchen—I don’t see her here.”

“No, that’s next week, Fashion Week,” offered the reservations manager. “Six nights.”

“Okay, but the hotel is still too hot. Can we get the temperature turned down to twenty-two [72 degrees]?I'm dying.”

Acar fielded a report from the food and beverage manager (a spoiled batch of Ritz-label champagne would have to be withdrawn) before tossing a hand grenade: he had just learned that twin beds were being pushed together to create kings, and sold as such.

“I'm warning you guys, that’s not the way we do business. You sell a king, you deliver a king. If there are none and it means losing three rooms, we lose three rooms. Nobody should pay eight hundred euros and get less than what they were sold. We're a brand. Aston Martin doesn’t promise one thing and give another. Rate integrity comes with value. Have a nice day.”

Acar is right to insist on real kings, an uncommon if not unique policy, but there is some sense that his energies could at times be more profitably spent—say, getting the concierges off autopilot. A request for an out-of-print book came back with a note saying it does not exist in French. In fact, the book only exists in French. Staying at the Park Hyatt, I gave out the same task, and a simple Google search landed a copy in seconds. Another day, I asked a Ritz concierge what Métro to take to the American Hospital. “I don’t advise a Métro,” the man said. “A taxi will be easier.” Easier?Really?He wasn’t joking.

As a hotel whose identity is embedded in details so fine, niceties so “minor,” that many are felt rather than noticed, the Ritz deserves better. History does not record César Ritz’s thoughts on tooth glasses, but the current practice of stowing them out of sight in medicine cabinets is pure him. Charles Ritz, César’s son, held that the hotel’s past was important only for maintaining “the indisputable traditions.” An incomplete list would have to include the key-shaped light switches in bronze filigree, the bedside command boxes for summoning a waiter, the kitschy but irresistible gold swan fixtures from which water flows in the bathrooms, the pink bath towels, and the possibility of having your sheets laundered with savon de Marseilles. Also indelibly Ritz (but never, as Charles asserted, ritzy) are the balloon awnings over the entrance, the 361-foot-long gallery of 89 retail vitrines, the Espadon’s faux-branch armchairs and ceiling cloudscape, and the lobby that is not a lobby. (Ritz père thought that big conven­tional ones attracted loiterers.) And what could be more Ritz than the delivery of your dinner check, as the service handbook requires, 60 seconds after it is asked for...unless it’s the quaint wooden carousel on which reception hangs your key?

There’s a lot to love at the Ritz. But it’s a mistake to try to monetize the experience, as natural and tempting as that is. It’s impossible in any case to assign a value to the bewitchingly nostalgic act of turning a key-shaped light switch. A night at the Ritz is a priceless education. No voluptuary can afford to die dumb.

Christopher Petkanas is a Travel + Leisure special correspondent.