Legends are not easy to create. And serving as the inspiration for the word meaning "luxurious, fashionable, elegant," isn't any easier. Yet the Hotel Ritz in Paris continues to set uncommon standards in the world of hospitality. The hotel still defines and embodies the word "ritzy."
Cesar Ritz, the hotel's founder, certainly envisioned such lofty status when he created the establishment nearly a century ago. Even the hotel's address, Place Vendôme, is part of one of Paris's earliest and most luxurious real-estate developments, laid out in the early 1700s by famed architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, after which the mansard roof is named. The refined hexagonal square is rimmed by a ring of classic four-story hotel partculiers (private mansions), topped off with none other than Mansart's now familiar 45-degree-angled, slate-covered roof. The present hotel occupies the site of an early eighteenth-century private hotel pardcutier, belonging to the Duc de Vendôme--hence the name of the Place.
During the course of the nineteenth century, the Place became home to France's luxury trade and remains so today, with jewelers like Boucheron and Chaumet, international fashion boutiques like Armani, as well as private international banks like J.P. Morgan. The famous Paris haberdasher, Charvet, was once located on Place Vendôme and is now just down the street from the Place on Rue de la Paix. With its monumental obelisk celebrating Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805 in the center, the Place is also home to the French Ministry of justice.
By the time he acquired the Due de Vendôme's mansion, Ritz was already something of a legend himself, having managed every major hotel on the Continent. He had waited for decades until the property came up for sale. With substantial financial support from most of the royal houses in Europe--it was the Prince of Wales (later he would become King Edward VII) who once said: "Wherever Ritz goes, I will follow."--the Swiss-born hotelier seized the opportunity and bought the mansion in 1896.
On June 1, 1898, following a winter and spring of furious rebuilding inside the old mansion, Ritz invited his loyal (and royal) clientele, including the aforementioned Prince of Wales, to help him celebrate the opening of his dream-come-true--the absolute finest hotel in the world. No one has ever doubted Ritz's success at creating the world's best hotel. Ernest Hemingway, a client of the Ritz bar (eventually named the Hemingway Bar) between the world wars once said: "When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz."
If further proof were needed of his determination to offer only the best, Ritz also secured the services of the reigning European chef, Auguste Escoffier--known as the "king of chefs and the chef of kings"--to supervise the elegant public restaurant, called L'Espadon. Ritz, in fact, had been popularizing public dining, a relatively new custom that up to that time was looked down upon in favor of private dining rooms or dining in one's hotel room.
Cesar Ritz's insistence on faultless service is evident in the countless small details that form the sublime experience of staying at a hotel with perhaps the best-trained staff in the world. The staff will go to any length to serve guests. There's a famous story in which a frequent guest called the concierge and asked him to deliver a pressed suit to his office later that day--in Geneva. (The chief concierge handled the task personally and without arching a brow, it is said.) Today, the Ritz's services include all the modern amenities from in-room fax machines, round-the-clock valet and dining service, and a discreet team of security guards.
The Ritz's long-standing tradition of luxury has been maintained by its current owner, Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al Fayed. Shortly after purchasing the hotel in 1979, Al Fayed poured in a reported $100 million-plus to totally refurbish the Ritz. As part of the overhaul, Al Fayed spent $10 million to create a new Ritz Escoffier cooking school-Ecole de Gastronimie Ritz-Escoffier--whose French haute-cuisine classes are to the public.
Just as Ritz's spirit lives on within the hotel, Escoffier's disciplined but imaginative approach to cooking thrives in the hotel's vast two-story, underground kitchens, which are headed by Michelin two-starred chef, Guy Legay. Legay's cuisine is served in the Espadon, recently moved from the Rue Cambon side of the hotel back to its original site just inside from the Place.
Legay's cooking technique is what the French call impeccable. Be sure to savor either his homard traité en matignon de légumes au Baumes de Venise (warm lobster with root vegetables and lime served in sweet wine sauce), agneau des causses Lozériens (tender lamb from the Auvergne highlands in central France) or his angolotti de ricotta au jus d'herbes fraiches (scampi flavored with a delicate herb sauce with small pasta filled with ricotta cheese). One of Escoffier's abiding passions was dessert, and Legay doesn't disappoint with contemporary interpretations of many Escoffier classics.
Not surprisingly, the Ritz has an unparalleled wine cellar--it's a Wine Spectator Grand Award recipient--whose 120,000 bottles are presided over by one of the world's best-known sommeliers, Georges Lepré, the hotel's international wine manager. Assembled over the years, the collection includes a vast assortment of classified-growth Bordeaux, an awesome selection of Sauternes, including such rarities as the '27 and '29 Chateau d'Yquem and a number of virtually unobtainable Cognacs--one dates from 1812. There are also modestly priced but delicious wines from Provence, the Loire Valley and Alsace.
To wind up dinner, be sure to seek out Jean-Paul Fries, the Espadon's deuxieme maitre d'Hotel, or second captain. Fries knows cigars. The Ritz's "portable" humidor is immense and holds a tempting collection of smokes. Fries still has a good number of Cuban Montecristos, no longer sold in France, as well as Cohibas of all sizes, and the entire line of Davidoffs from the Dominican Republic. Fries says the new Davidoffs are selling particularly well. Prices range from $15 to $40 per cigar.
If the mood strikes after dinner, ask Fries to direct you downstairs to the Ritz Club, an intimate disco-cum-bar, where a glass of Champagne at 2 A.M. is the perfect way to end a long day of, in the words of Irving Berlin, "puttin' on the Ritz."
-- David L. Ross
15 Place Vendôme
Phone: (33) 42-60-38-30
Room Rates: $490 to $715
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