On a sunny afternoon in February, Boston Common is awash in New England Patriots' fans straining to see their Super Bowl XXXVI heroes pass by in a victory parade, so my taxi has to back down Avery Street to drop me off at the front door of The Ritz-Carlton. Because of the circuitous route, I almost don't notice that this brand-new hotel with a grand but not gilt lobby, 19-plex movie theater, neon café bar and hipster health club is in the heart of Boston's notorious Combat Zone. So what's The Ritz-Carlton--a name associated with spare-no-expense luxury--doing opening in what is left of the town's red-light district?
As it turns out, The Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, is just one example of the company's aggressive plan of expansion and renewal. In the past year, the hotel group has not only opened eight hotels but also updated the restaurants, service and design in many of its 47 existing properties. Gone are the crystal chandeliers, the Baroque-patterned wallpaper and the staff's cloying, pod people-like reply to any guest request, "At your pleasure."
In 1998, Gerard van Grinsven, a Ritz-Carlton vice president, was given the mandate to shake things up, starting with the food. He declared that restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, formerly bastions of uniformity, would no longer all be called The Dining Room. In defiance of a tradition loyal to such classics as lobster Newburg and steak Diane, he empowered a group of young chefs to create signature restaurants with inventive and sometimes dazzling menus.