Puttin’ on the Ritz – at London’s Most Glamorous Hotel

Ask any Brit where the best place in London to have afternoon tea is and chances are they’ll advise you to go to The Ritz London. Tea at the Ritz is as English as a pint of ale in a spit and sawdust pub or an ice cream cone at the seaside, though considerably more genteel than either.  There’s plenty of competition, of course, but afternoon tea at the Ritz is old school, eschewing gimmicks, tie-ins and the latest trends. Daintily cut sandwiches and clotted cream scones accompany a choice of teas, served piping hot from the pot, milk first of course. Amidst the opulence and soft light of the Palm Court, designed by César Ritz himself, you could be in Edwardian London. Set down your bone china cup and you can almost feel the ghosts of those who’ve been here before you. With such longevity comes a few rules, but decorum should not be dismissed as outdated. Gentlemen will need a jacket and tie, T-shirts and jeans are banned, and don’t even think about rocking up in trainers – sportswear shoes, as the hotel describes them, are assuredly on the blacklist.

Unsurprisingly, that kind of flair and panache has won the hotel – and latterly its food – more than its fair share of plaudits. The late great Aretha Franklin said simply:

“I love the Ritz.”

Others, on the face of it, were less impressed. In the early 1950s, adverts promoting baseball feature Humphrey Bogart saying:

“A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.”

Herbert Hoover’s 1927, in which he reminisced about growing up in late 19th century Iowa, elaborates:

“The Ritz Hotel has never yet provided game of such wondrous flavor as the bird plucked and half-cooked over the small boys’ camp fire.”

But here’s the thing. Rather than proof of negativity, in fact, these statements illustrate the exact opposite. The Ritz was, and is, at the top of its game. If you’re looking for something to provide a standard to compare to, this is that standard. Everyone knows the Ritz epitomises quality. And for everyone to know, well, that’s some reputation.

But then, César Ritz knew a thing or two about the hotel business. He’d learnt it the hard way. Born in 1850 in the village of Niederwald in Switzerland, the youngest of thirteen children, he’d been sent away as a teenager to improve his French but his heart wasn’t in it. His frustrated father pulled him out of school and sent him to the Hôtel Couronne et Poste hotel in Brig where he would work as an apprentice. That too was a disaster – for a man who would lend his name to one of the world’s most exclusive hotel chains, it wasn’t the best start to a career in the hospitality industry. His boss, Joseph Escher, dismissed him with the damning words:

“You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and it’s only right that I tell you the truth—you haven’t got it.”

Thankfully, such words had the effect of galvanising the hapless Ritz into action and he set off to Paris. He found work as a waiter, but initially he couldn’t settle, switching jobs with alarming frequency. Nicknamed César le Rapide, he was sacked for breaking too many plates in his haste to clear tables. A job at the ironically named Hôtel de la Fidélité came to an abrupt halt when he was found to have been conducting an affair with a Russian aristocrat – infidelity was something that was frowned upon. But something must have sunk in from all that exposure to the who’s who of the Parisien elite. Gradually, he worked his way up to maître d’hôtel at the swanky Hôtel Splendide. Ritz practised his sales patter on the many rich Americans whose habit it was to frequent the place. Amongst other talents, he was able to persuade them to drink copious amounts of expensive wine and chatted to them about the differences between European and American society. Those interactions were to have a profound effect on the impressionable and still young Ritz.

The next city to feature on his curriculum vitae was the Austrian capital, Vienna. Ambition now drove him; moving establishments became an effective way of making contacts rather than a means to escape past mistakes. In Vienna, he would the British Prince of Wales, an encounter that would prove significant down the track. After a stint in Nice, Ritz found himself back in Switzerland, where he stepped up to fill his first manager role at the Grand Hotel National for the summer season. When he took up his position, the hotel was anything but grand. Ritz set about refurbishing the place, altering the menus and retraining moribund staff. Noticing that some of his guests seemed bored, he set about organising ways for them to fill their empty hours: parties, picnics and the like. The owner was impressed at the transformation and when the season drew to a close and the hotel closed its doors for the winter, Ritz was hired at the Grand Hôtel Monte Carlo, its sister property. It was during his time at the Grands that he figured out what would become his mantra: the customer is never wrong. 

A few years later, Ritz and his colleague, the talented chef Auguste Escoffier, were headhunted by Richard D’Oyly Carte to head up the team at the newly opened Savoy. They’d work there for eight years; under the leadership of Ritz, the hotel grew from strength to strength. Behind the public façade, however, things weren’t all they appeared. Ritz and his maître d’ Louis Echenard were implicated in a scandal involving the disappearance of a sizeable quantity of wines and spirits; Escoffier was also in on it. But Ritz was also the custodian of some very juicy secrets, including illicit liaisons between the Prince of Wales and American socialite Lillie Langtry. If Ritz were to be publicly humiliated, who knew what he would reveal? A deal was quietly struck to remove those involved with as little fuss as possible and Ritz left town. The following year, in 1898, he opened the luxury hotel in Paris which bore his name.

On 24th May 1906, he opened The Ritz Hotel on London’s classy Piccadilly. It was the latest in a portfolio that spanned Rome, Frankfurt, Salsomaggiore, Palermo, Biarritz, Wiesbaden, Monte Carlo, Lucerne, Menton, Madrid, Cairo and Johannesburg. It was an existence few would envy, and fewer still would cope with, living out of suitcases as he shuttled between his workplaces. Nevertheless, there was palpable excitement as the London hotel came to fruition. Far from being sullied by the Savoy scandal, Ritz was Teflon-coated. Over the years, he’d carefully nurtured a clientele that proved fiercely loyal – not least the Prince of Wales, whose reputation he’d protected by keeping shtum. The prince, who’d soon become King Edward VII, reputedly declared:

“Where Ritz goes, I go.”

He wasn’t the only one. Many of his customers said – and did – just that. You see, at that level, the choice of hotel isn’t solely about the fixtures and fittings, though of course Ritz ensured that his new property had all mod-cons and more touches of opulence than you could ever hope for. Instead, it’s about feeling looked after and extraordinarily special, something that Ritz was exceptionally good at and a characteristic that his hotel retains to this day.

For the new London hotel, French architect Charles Mewès designed a structure that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Paris. Ritz oversaw the fitting out so that it would be palatial without being ostentatious. It had French style, with an abundance of glittering chandeliers, gilded mouldings and sumptuous fabrics, and bore all the hallmarks of a man known for being fastidious about hygiene. There were en-suite bathrooms as standard, something that wasn’t the norm in those days, wallpaper was replaced by wipeable paint and lightweight fabrics that could be more manageably laundered replaced heavy curtains. Each room also had its own telephone, the height of modernity at the time.

The Ritz London might look French, but the hotel’s soul and sense of humour has always been unmistakably British. In the 1980s, The Ritz hosted the then French president, François Mitterrand for a private dinner. As the Gallic leader made his way to the Trafalgar Suite, he commented on the painting that hung on the wall, which depicted the Battle of Trafalgar, a crushing naval defeat for France and their allies Spain at the hands of Admiral Nelson. Squirming, his aide asked a hotel manager if the painting could be swapped.

“Yes,” came the reply. “I’ve got two others, Agincourt and Waterloo.”

Nevertheless, the hotel struggled to establish itself during the early years. After the grand opening, the hotel at first lost money. Despite its Royal seal of approval, many of the London set considered it to be vulgar and took their business elsewhere. Not surprisingly, it took a toll on his health and Ritz was forced to retire in 1907. After a few short years of increasingly failing health, he died in Switzerland in 1918. But for the Ritz London, a swift change of management made all the difference and the hotel began to shape up to be the revered institution that it still is today. Noted for its discretion, the elegant hotel felt more like a gentlemen’s club, a home away from home for those who checked in. It permitted unchaperoned, unmarried women while they were still unwelcome at other establishments and lobbied hard for a relaxation of licensing laws so that its privileged guests could enjoy a drink until the small hours.

It attracted a wealthy clientele, many of whom stayed for long periods. Russian prima ballerina Pavlova danced there in 1912. The Aga Khan kept a suite, as did Paul Getty; the delightfully named King Zog of Albania showed up in 1940 with suitcases bursting with gold bullion. It was at the Ritz that Edward VIII met Mrs Wallis Simpson and many years later, where the present Queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth II, danced the conga to celebrate VE Day. Her eldest son, Prince Charles, is supposed to have danced on the top of a piano while Elton John tinkled the ivories. Jackie Onassis summed it up thus:

“It’s like paradise.”

Most guests behaved with the expected restraint, so when Charlie Chaplin arrived in September 1921, mobbed by excited fans, the hotel employees were a little shell shocked. A bevy of policeman ushered the American star inside, and safely to his room. Chaplin stepped out onto his balcony, which overlooked the street, and began throwing carnations down to the waiting crowd. So the story goes, a somewhat irate mother wrote Chaplin a note, which read:

“My boy tried to get one of your carnations and his hat was smashed. I enclose you a bill of 7s. 6d for a new one.”

Decades later, Hollywood starlet Tallulah Bankhead assured herself of a place in the Ritz history books too. During a 1950s press conference, she called for a champagne cocktail. Upending the glass into her tiny black suede shoe, she raved about how much she adored England and took a gulp of her drink. Over half a century later, the Ritz commemorated her publicity stunt with one of their own, launching the Tallulah, calling it “a cocktail you quaff from a glass slipper.”

Artistic types were welcomed to the Ritz with open arms. Novelist Evelyn Waugh was a regular at the Ritz, yet he’d been banned from the Cavendish after the publication of the daring Vile Bodies, which exposed the decadent lifestyle of the rich and put more than a few high society noses out of joint as a consequence. He used the hotel and its guests as inspiration for some of his novels, most obviously as the location for several scenes in Decline and Fall. Among his regular dinner companions were Nancy Mitford and Lady Diana Cooper, who shared his extravagant tastes in oysters, caviar and lobster. Noël Coward often joined them too, and himself immortalised the hotel in his song “Children of The Ritz” – less famous than “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” perhaps, but channelling the same vibe.

The most famous song of all, of course, comes courtesy of Irving Berlin. “Putting on The Ritz” highlights that not only was the hotel the very embodiment of glamour, it coined the adjective ritzy, meaning expensively stylish, which had been in the vernacular since about 1911. The song was written in 1927, but initially remained unpublished, despite its fashionable title. It was picked up in 1930 for the musical film “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Hum the first few bars today and most will be able to sing those memorable lyrics.

Somehow, despite the passing of the decades, putting on the Ritz still holds true. The Ritz might be old school, but it’s a timeless classic.  

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