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Ritzy Business

The Ritz-Carlton is synonymous with crystal chandeliers, hushed service and baked Alaskas. Or is it? A writer checks out the modern new Ritz.

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.

Changing a brand like The Ritz-Carlton is no small task, though. To understand how the company is evolving, I visited four of the recently built or renovated properties--The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, in Pasadena, California; The Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common; The Ritz-Carlton, New York, Battery Park; and The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco--to see just how The Ritz has changed.

Restaurant Stars
As I walk through the grand loggia off the main lobby toward The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, I realize quickly that the hotel is still in mid-transformation. The spit-shined walnut double doors leading to the restaurant make me feel underdressed in my sports jacket. But that may be because I've just seen the impastoed portrait of the Pasadena property's former owner, Henry Huntington. His heavy-lidded eyes seem to follow me as I round the corner, asking flatly, "Is that what you're wearing to dinner?"

That said, Craig Strong, the 30-year-old new chef at The Grill, is an extraordinarily successful example of The Ritz-Carlton's new approach. He worked under two of the company's most celebrated chefs, Guenter Seeger and Joel Antunes, at the flagship Buckhead property just outside Atlanta. After a stint as sous-chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Barcelona, he took over The Grill a year and a half ago.

Strong calls his menu modern American cuisine, but if ever there was a reason to leave labels to marketing experts, this is one, because that handle just doesn't do justice to the food. Strong's English pea soup with mint sorbet is a deceptively simple reinterpretation of a classic. The creamy, pureed peas are so sweet that I have a flashback to my grandmother shelling tender tiny peas at the kitchen sink. There's no chance, though, that Nana would have thought to concoct such a bright, minty ice to accompany those peas. And as a tribute to his apprenticeship in Barcelona, Strong takes a brandade with artichokes and white bean puree and adds a brilliant romesco sauce that is more roasted hazelnut and Priorato than the traditional garlic and paprika.

Although 15 Ritz-Carltons have received top-to-bottom renovations and the restaurants at 11 others have been completely remodeled, The Grill has not been so lucky. Strong has been gently advocating an overhaul of the dining room, from reupholstering the circus-tent chintz armchairs to banishing the framed three-dimensional models of clipper ships. But his battle with the owners to purchase square and oval white plates, in which he finally prevailed, hints at the challenges he and The Ritz-Carlton still face.

Service Standouts
On arriving at The Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, I discover that my room is in The Ritz-Carlton Club (first introduced in 1984). Club-level guests have their own concierge and a private lounge that provides food and beverages from morning through evening: croissants for breakfast, cucumber sandwiches at tea, mountains of shrimp for cocktail hour and cookies almost around the clock. This is the first time I have ever stayed in what is, in effect, the first-class section of a Ritz-Carlton. Here, I personally experience the attentive-but-not-obsequious service The Ritz-Carlton is known for.

Winter has finally arrived on the East Coast, and it's just 19 degrees outside. While being served tea in the lounge, I ask Stephen Smith, the concierge, where I can buy golf shoes. Smith's unblinking response suggests that had I wanted him to procure a troupe of dancing girls, he'd have been just as happy to track them down. So I ask if he can also locate a store that sells a hard-to-find remote for my digital camera.

Half an hour later, Smith has good news and bad news. The good news is that the golf shoes are easily had. The bad news is that, though he has called every camera store in town, the remote won't be available for three weeks. Smith has, however, spoken with Olympus customer service and arranged for the item to be shipped to me when it comes in, should I want it. Impressed though I am, I demur.

Design Triumphs
A tower of curvaceous masonry and black glass, the facade of the Battery Park Ritz in Manhattan's financial district mirrors the high-rises surrounding it. Months before its January 2002 opening, it was trumpeted as The Ritz-Carlton's most significant bid for modern credentials. Since September 11, however, it has become a symbol of New York's downtown renewal. The guest rooms facing south have striking views of the Statue of Liberty. The views north, though always second best, are now grim, with ground zero just a few blocks away.

Like the new Ritz-Carlton hotels in Cancún, Seoul, New Orleans and Boston, the Battery Park property is the first luxury hotel in an unlikely neighborhood. This one provides a hip alternative to another Ritz outpost that reopened on Central Park South in April. At Rise, Battery Park's 14th-floor bar, capacity crowds order the house cocktail, a bright green Libertini, which contains citrus-infused vodka, and melon and pear liqueurs. Luckily, in warm weather, the patio expands the bar to twice its size.

Unlike the dining rooms in the old Ritz properties, Battery Park's restaurant, 2 West, is far more casual--blond wood walls, a waitstaff attired in full-length aprons, contemporary art on the walls, including an enormous black-and-white photograph depicting a series of broad arches. Upon closer scrutiny, those arches turn out to be the vaults of an antiquated sewer. A sewer in the dining room. How The Ritz-Carlton has changed.

The Ideal
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, a six-story shingled mansion at land's end near the tiny town of Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, has been open for a little longer than a year. It might be the best representation of the modernized Ritz image.

Rather than entering the building and immediately confronting the check-in desk, guests find themselves looking into a cozy library and tearoom. This invitation to linger immediately reminds me of a story chef Jeremiah Tower told me about staying in old-world hotels as a child. Tower recalled the time when a woman, clearly afflicted by a terrible head cold, approached the check-in desk but was whisked away by a hotel staffer and escorted to the lounge where a blanket and a pot of tea were hurriedly secured for her. Only after she felt fit was she allowed to proceed to the business of checking in.

"It wasn't about getting the money then," muses Tower. "It was about attending to the needs of guests as soon as they set foot in the building until the moment they left, and often beyond." I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone, one day, tells that story of old-world service about Half Moon Bay.

Just as at the other Ritz properties I visited, the restaurant is a real draw for the hotel. Navio (Portuguese for ship, the name alludes to the shipbuilders who settled in the area in the 1800s) has polished cherrywood ceilings that evoke a ship's hull. It is a distinctive setting for a distinctive chef. Unlike many of the other young Ritz chefs, Brian Bistrong didn't come up through the Ritz system. Instead, he worked in Manhattan for Gray Kunz at Lespinasse and then for David Bouley for seven years at both Bouley and Bouley Bakery.

Clearly, Bistrong learned from Bouley an appreciation for the best ingredients. Bistrong has pared this discipline further, using only local ingredients, as a rule. One of his first California discoveries was sand dabs, a richly flavored fish similar to sole, which he found while poking around on the docks of nearby Princeton Bay: "I'd never seen them before, and I asked the fishermen what the dabs were like." Bistrong sautées sand dabs, complementing the rich flesh with the mineral ping of tender Swiss chard. His four-star sensibility also leads him to pairings like seared Sonoma foie gras with braised quince and pomegranate juice that he reduces and finishes with lemon juice.

As delightful as my dinner is, it's the service throughout the hotel that makes my stay truly memorable. The spa facilities at Half Moon Bay, solidly grounded in the tradition of water-based curatives, are among the best I have encountered. And because I take advantage of the facilities often, I am constantly returning to my room at odd hours. So I give the housekeeper ample opportunity to play the Name Game.

Whenever I enter my room at Half Moon Bay, she greets me with, "Good afternoon, Mr. Howard. Do you require anything special as I arrange your room?" It may be a vestige of The Ritz-Carlton's traditional approach to service, but I must admit I enjoy the personalized attention. Indeed, everyone--from the doorman to the concierge--seems to know my name.

On the day of my departure, just before six in the morning, I dial a code into the phone to indicate that I am checking out. Downstairs, a bellman waits for me in the empty lobby. "You're leaving us, Mr. Howard." I nod yes. We walk out together toward the waiting car. The bellman asks if I would like coffee for the half-hour trip to the airport. I nod yes. When he delivers the coffee just moments later, he adds, "Come back soon, Mr. Howard." I nod yes.

Manny Howard writes often about food science, restaurants, and travel. For the November 2001 issue of F&W, Howard drove around the Dijon region of France looking for something to eat.
Published May 2002
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