There is a bar in one of Fife’s earthier enclaves where in years gone by, drinks were never served with ice. The first-time visitor to this Methil landmark would then make the mistake of asking for the ice bucket, only to be left reeling by the proprietor’s retort: “What do you think this is, the Ritz?” I paraphrase here; some of the colour may have been removed from this account.
It’s a reminiscence that came to mind many years later on a recent visit to the Ritz Hotel itself, where rooms have their own silver ice dish, topped up by the staff at regular intervals or on request. I couldn’t see this catching on back in Fife, but sitting next to the ice was a selection of confectionery made by William Curley, a London-based pâtissier and chocolatier, who once-upon-a-time I knew when he was a scrawny kid – then called Billy – kicking a football around Savoy Park, Methil. I couldn’t decide if the regulars at the Tower Bar would be bursting with pride or rage at William’s success, although I have my suspicions.
The Ritz experience was a trip down memory lane in more ways than one. I was making a return visit after a 20-year absence, to see how much had changed in this famously traditional hotel, as it marked its 110th anniversary. There is much to suggest that no laurels are being rested on, with the restaurant recently awarded a Michelin star, and a new private apartment opened last summer, the Green Park suite. In addition, the hotel expanded ten years ago with the purchase of the adjoining William Kent House, providing more function room and private dining space. Meanwhile the Ritz’s signature afternoon tea is more popular than ever, with 400 guests per day accommodated in the glass-ceilinged Palm Court over five sittings, from 11:30am to 7:30pm.
But does ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ still have the same meaning today as it did when Irving Berlin first put those words to music in 1929? I had heard jeans were allowed at breakfast in the restaurant; unthinkable 20 years ago.
Early impressions were promising. After twice rebuffing attempts by doormen to take our bags, I caved in at the third request. “You are at the Ritz, after all,” I was reminded.
The entrance is a grand affair, and just a glance down the gilded long gallery takes the guest a step back in time to an opulent age in palatial surroundings. It is little wonder the Queen chose the Ritz for an 80th birthday celebration. Tellingly, a Royal Warrant sits above the concierge desk, headed up by the quite brilliant Michael de Cozar, a Ritz veteran who starred briefly in the film Notting Hill alongside Hugh Grant. With white gloves neatly held under the epaulettes of his pristine uniform, he’s ready for every possible guest, and request. Michael can work magic; it must be the white gloves.
Our room, a junior suite, was a work of art in Louis XIV style – the hotel décor is so ornate that the Ritz employs a full-time gold leaf artist – and was so comfortable there was no desire to leave the premises. We did have a stroll through Green Park, Hyde Park and Belgravia, but simply to walk off a sumptuous breakfast.
It was tempting to stroll two minutes round the corner to fashionable Jermyn Street, or Piccadilly and Leicester Square, but these were attractions for another day. I should add that leisure facilities are virtually non-existent – no pool, and only a tiny gym – but you don’t go to the Ritz to spend your time on a rowing machine.
House staff attended to our every need, and the ratio of two members to every guest room seemed like more. As well as morning room service, there is also evening turndown. And don’t think of looking for a kettle in your room: tea, coffee or whatever refreshment you desire is only a phone call away, and arrives on a silver tray. Or if that seems too much of an intrusion, try one of the chocolates from a box in the style of a mini top hat, washed down with the bottle of Krug from the minibar (warning: chocolates complimentary, Krug not).
With such luxury comes a wealth of history in these buildings, involving heads of state and world leaders from the 18th century to the present day. William Kent House was originally built for 18th century Prime Minister Henry Pelham, and his private room is now a suite. Legend has it the ante room where his advisers would gather before the PM rose each morning established a foundation of modern British government. “Let the boys out of the cabinet,” Pelham would announce, when he was ready.
There are other eras to explore, such as art deco at the Rivoli Bar, in the style of the Orient Express. We tried the gold-infused Ritz 110 cocktail, a couple of which don’t leave much change from £50. But the olives were fabulous.
Which brings us back to cuisine. If a stay in the Ritz is memorable, then dining in the restaurant is unforgettable. Executive chef John Williams has earned that Michelin star offering a taste extravaganza and a theatrical performance, in particular the crêpe suzette which is flambéed next to the table. If you are looking for a meal to mark the most special of occasions in the grandest of style, this is the place. You are sure to raise a glass to your decision when you arrive – with ice, of course.
• A two-night stay at The Ritz (150 Piccadilly, London) in a Superior King Room starts from £860, www.theritzlondon.com