The Kent House’s Grand Hall is built around a gilded, wrought iron staircase which features a sweeping new mural by Chinese artist Mao Wen Biao
As you approach the Ritz London, the hotel’s green copper lions that flank the corners of its Belle Époque mansard roof signal tradition. In short order, the tailed doormen and porters greet you in respectful tones just before you enter the lobby and spot the head concierge Michael De Cozar who recently celebrated forty-two years at the helm. As it approaches its 110th year, the grand hotel remains as rock solid as the Portland stone it’s made of.
The holiday season is perhaps the best time to see the iconic property at its most traditional. On November 20th, a Nordic pine Christmas tree, grown in Scotland expressly for the hotel, will be set up in the lobby just off the Arlington Street entrance. Its twinkling lights and glass decorations will rise up through the rotunda to the hotel’s second floor. Smaller Christmas trees and garlands will fill the hotel’s Long Gallery all the way down to the Ritz Restaurant, out of whose wreathed windows your eye will take in more Christmas trees on the Terrace.
A member of Leading Hotels of the World whose collection showcases properties with distinctive pedigrees, the iconic Ritz is one of the most grand, and ingeniously designed works of hotel architecture ever. The ground floor with its double-height ceilings, sweeping staircases, and perhaps more mirrors than any house has ever seen, hasn’t changed much since architects Charles Mewés (he also of the Ritz Paris) and Arthur Davis (who went on to design cruise liners) drafted it.
Even the four signature colors in the 136 rooms–salmon pink, rose pink, yellow and blue live on. Under recent renovations, chandeliers, antique furniture, gold-leaf moldings, oriental carpets, and curtains draped with both Jacquard and damask silks manner were restored. It all looks much like it did in the vintage photos on the mantelpiece just like the time Tallulah Bankhead drank Champagne from her heeled slipper shoe.
In its most dramatic change, a decade ago on its 100th anniversary, the Ritz realized César Ritz’s long-ago dream of purchasing the stunning 18th-century Wimbourne House next door. Built for the mid-eighteenth century Prime Minister Lord Pelham who promptly passed away upon its completion, it’s now called the William Kent House in honor of its architect. The Royal Suite occupies Lord Pelham’s private chambers and is a favorite of today’s dignitaries. To meander through the house’s formal rooms, now given over to private dining and events, is to discover one more opulent than the next; from the stunning Music Room, to the Queen Elizabeth Room with a coffered ceiling, and the Wiliam Kent room whose red silk wallpaper and long mahogany dining table whisper power.
Once you’ve checked in and soaked in the Ritz’s Christmas spirit, it’s time to sit down in the legendary Palm Court for tea that has been personally sourced all over Asia by Giandomenico Scanu, one of only sixteen Tea Masters in Europe. You’ll be sitting right where aristocracy, and the likes of Lord Mountbatten and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII), as well as Chaplin, Fairbanks, Coward, and Hayworth sat, and who represented just a fraction of the luminaries who frequented.
In the formal and opulent Ritz Restaurant overlooking the royal Green Park, a floor-to-ceiling panelled mirror and circular arrangement of the chandeliers date from Mewés and Davis’s time. At breakfast, it’s a veritable lightshow as the sun enters the enormous room.
Executive Chef John Williams (MBE) enjoys his new thoroughly modern invection oven and oversees 65 cooks who use it. Dishes on a recent of his seasonal tasting menus ranged from turbot with a mushroom puree and morels, to a fillet of veal Bordelaise, with broccoli royale, and glazed carrot.
Holiday season is time to take advantage of special events. “Live at The Ritz” is a four course dinner menu with live entertainment and dancing. “Dinner with Opera” features the soprano, and resident artist, Miranda Heldt who performs weekly in the Palm Court and Ritz Restaurant.
The Ritz Club, home to super high rollers today, was once the ballroom in which the fine mural and small bandstand are worth a peek even if you don’t play the tables. The Rivoli Bar was redone in the early 2000s by star designer Tessa Kennedy (trivia: she’s the mother of actor Carey Elwes), and it glows with Art Deco touches and bas-relief panels.
The Ritz may be a mini-city, but it’s worth venturing outside and just across Arlington Street to The Wolseley restaurant. Named for an early-century motor car, the original showroom space with bank-sized vaulted-ceilings is a grand people watching establishment. Just down Piccadilly, the venerable Fortnum & Mason is still there; back in the day Ritz guests no doubt ordered the finest of holiday foods and gifts and the store’s famous bespoke picnic hampers.
We’re just three years away from the 100th anniversary of the death of César Ritz, the seminal Swiss hotelier. And what a story his was: from humble beginnings as a failed waiter, to maître d’hôtel, and ultimately in partnerhsip with Auguste Escoffier. How many people get a whole adjective devoted to their life’s work, and have inspired everything from crackers to jazz songs to movies (“Notting Hill”).
As archival photos attest, it’s all still there from Mr. Ritz’s time, right down to original light fixtures and sconces. The Kent House’s Grand Hall is built around a gilded, wrought iron staircase which features a sweeping new mural by Chinese artist Mao Wen Biao. Mao’s clever work depicts a garden scene with Lord Pelham and a full entourage in all their 18th-century finery. Look closely, and tucked in among the large party is one young gentleman on his Smartphone. Some things do change after all.