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Love Letter To Grand Hotels

Our travel editor shares her passion for the exquisite service, spectacular restaurants and miles of marble at Europe's newly renovated grand hotels.

Never mind the malling of America; it's the boutique hotelling of America that bothers me. I love a good old-fashioned grand hotel. I love a blanket sandwiched in crisp linen sheets and clouds of goose-down pillows. I love turndown, and big robes, and being profligate with fresh towels. I love Directoire dressers, Louis XV love seats, Regency stripes and silk brocades. I love to steal soap. I believe room service breakfast is among the highest achievements of civilization.

These pleasures have evolved over the century or so since César Ritz invented the grand hotel, and, like his hotels, they were born and bred in Europe. Here in America, they were faithfully replicated, tweaked and eventually devalued through mass production. Then, during the last decade of the past century, our taste swung from classicism to minimalism--in service, design and, yes, food. The fusty grand, with its pre-20th-century decor, deferential staff and stiff-necked haute-cuisine restaurant, fell out of favor. But it did not lie down and die.

Now, all of a sudden, the evidence is clear: Grand is back. In a single year, in London, Paris and Rome, six legendary hotels, complete with their legendary restaurants, have been reborn after multimillion-dollar renovations. Classicism is literally looking new again, and tasting new, as chefs bring the haute down to earth.

The nouveau Europeans retain the grand-hotel signifiers of their ancestors--or of their own former selves. They are big, but not too big. They have suites Presidential and Royal; a salon, a parlor or a ballroom fit for a queen's soiree; an important, pricey restaurant; a world-class bar. They also fulfill the new requirements: individual (silent) climate control, ISDN lines and multiline phones with voice mail. And they have fabulous spas.

In London, The Ritz and the Hyde Park Hotel had fallen off the list of fancy grands. The latter, last time I stayed, sinned against taste with that chintzy, country-estate style that plagued 1980s England, and with service verging on obsequiousness. My oh my, how it's changed. Renamed the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (guess who owns it now), and reopened in May, the red-brick-and-Portland-stone Victorian Gothic pile finally deserves to dominate Knightsbridge.

I stayed in the back, where there's nothing to see but trees and the 6 a.m. Horseguards' practice along Rotten Row. But when I entered the lobby, with its marble stairways and basalt-and-porphyry columns, I was awed. Then I hit the bar and restaurant, designed by that trendy American Adam Tihany. When it was Marco Pierre White, the Restaurant, it epitomized the worst of old-style classicism: ghastly oils on carmine walls and overpriced French food. Now it's the airy Foliage, plus a gorgeously louche bar, with a stunning centerpiece of multihued bottles backlit behind sandblasted glass.

London is also buzzing about The Ritz, one of César Ritz's personal creations. Opened in 1906, it was supposed to resemble a château (Versailles, presumably) with its Italianate garden, swathes of silk drapery and acres of mirror. Now, after a supersensitive renovation, the comparison doesn't seem like such a stretch. It was an old tourist trap before a pair of reclusive financiers, the Barclay brothers, saw it, liked it, bought it and lavished $45 million on it. My room, with its restored original furniture and freshly gilded moldings, had such perfect proportions it felt feng shui-ed. All the bedrooms did, whether salmon, rose, lemon or powder blue. (Regulars request a color.)

The Ritz Restaurant has been called the prettiest dining room in London, but "pretty" is a misnomer. It is pink, admittedly, with frolicking putti and much gilt, but insanely rococo is what it really is. Or, to be precise, Louis XVI, as is the entire hotel. (For those who, like me, can't keep their Louis straight, XIV is the Sun King, XV is the Seven Years' War and XVI is Marie Antoinette. They had similar taste in decorating.) You can't help feeling decadent here--assisted by Giles Thompson's Anglo-French menus, which feature game, truffles and lobster but no pretension. Weirdly, there's a power-breakfast scene, and that former cliché The Palm Court is back on the map for tea or Champagne dates.

If London has many grands, Paris now has an embarrassment of them. The new Hôtel Meurice is perfection. I could gaze at the lavish brocades, restored murals and mosaic floors for hours--in fact, I did, when I wasn't in my boudoir transfixed by the Paris skyline's greatest hits (so worth the $75-per-day surcharge for that view) or in the restaurant sampling Michelin-starred Marc Marchand's roast pigeon with lime. The Meurice wins the award for Best Use of Marble: The 500 artisans who restored the little palace (160 rooms) turned up one kind, red Pyrénées, that nobody since the Sun King had used. It also wins for Best Terrace, for the Royal Suite, a 9,000-square-foot rooftop wraparound.

The George V, the storied Art Deco grand off the Champs-Elysées (it was Eisenhower's HQ during the Liberation of Paris), was rechristened the Four Seasons Hotel George V at its March gala reopening. The Toronto-based hotel group spent $125 million on the redo, chopping off 55 rooms to boost the size of others, restoring 17th-century tapestries from Flanders, marbling the bathrooms. The public rooms are trèsParis, especially the restaurant and the wood-paneled bar. But my room, for all its brocades, could have been back in Manhattan--maybe it was the fitted closets, the new furniture. It's interesting that Four Seasons, a company that doesn't flinch from the modern, chose to take this 1928 building not forward but backward in period. A bet on the return of classicism? Or just a desire to respect the vernacular with the first French Four Seasons? They did, mind you, appoint a floral designer from Ogden, Utah; he has a weekly theme, five full-time assistants and a 40,000-bloom-per-month habit. Now that'sgrand.

On to Rome, where the hotel Goliath, Starwood, has transmogrified Le Grand Hotel, which César Ritz opened in 1894. This new St. Regis Grand has the most grandiose foyer of all--a soaring stone chamber that opens into a stadium-sized salon that leads to a bona fide ballroom. It also has the most unrestrained decor, which I found cacophanous; I traced the visual problem to the carpet, with its fussy scarlet whorls, and the gigantic, madly glittering Swarovski crystal chandelier. Then I realized that, actually, most details here are superb: a brilliant trompe l'oeil on the staircase; some excellent antique furniture juxtaposed with the brass-edged, dark-wood international-hotel stuff; and, in every bedroom, a Murano glass chandelier and a rather good hand-painted fresco--it's just that there are so-o-o many of them. Frequent visits to the bar were necessary for resting my eyes, and for just one more fresh-white-peach Bellini, the best I've ever had. Sadly, Vivendo, the restaurant, wasn't open yet when I visited. It might well terrify Romans: Chef Umberto Vezzoli cooks Italian with a Japanese influence (think shabu-shabu carpaccio with soy sprouts).

The Hotel de Russie--like all the European outposts of that British newcomer RF Hotels--is something of a hybrid of grand and minimalist-boutique hotel. Beautifully situated next to the Piazza del Popolo, not far from the Spanish Steps, the 1816 building has a boring facade that conceals a Chinese box of enchanting courtyards and terraced gardens, surrounded by ocher stucco and shuttered windows--a dream Rome. Off the lower courtyard, the Bar Stravinskij serves the divine Tintoretto (Prosecco with pomegranate juice); up a level is Le Jardin du Russie restaurant. There is no sign of a Louis. The bedooms lack brocades and curlicues, a deficiency that, strictly speaking, disqualifies the Russie from grand-dom, but I say the place gets in under the wire. It has history: Imperial Russians lodged here, hence the name; Napoleon's nephew died here. The waiters have gravitas, the doormen have hats. Oh, and one more feature shared by all grand hotels, new and old: There's a piano, by the bar, on which someone is playing the grand-hotel theme song, "As Time Goes By."

Although these grands are as European as espresso, most are also as American as, well, espresso, since they are operated by companies with a major U.S. presence. Both Mandarin Oriental and St. Regis (Starwood's superpremium brand) have just opened new-style old-fashioned grands here, in Miami and Los Angeles respectively, and The Dorchester Group (the Meurice) already tends the exquisite Beverly Hills Hotel. We're going to see more of this cross-pollination. The new grands won't stop the boutique hotelling, and I am glad. As with food, interiors and fashion, I don't want one style. I want the freedom to choose.
Published November 2000
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