Claridge's, London

The top London hotels attract different clientele. The Dorchester is an outpost for sheiks and emirs, Blake's for movie stars, and the Hilton for corporate executives. And Claridge's has always been the haunt of royalty and heads of state.

So it's not surprising that guests, upon entering the marble-floored lobby, are impressed by the hotel's grandeur and opulence. While eager porters whisk away luggage, tail-coated managers introduce you to the mystique of Claridge's. If you're tired after your journey, you can rest on the sofa in the elevator as it glides up to your floor.

The hotel prides itself on service and expects you to take advantage of it; service stations on each floor ensure a swift response. If, like so many of Claridge's guests, you become a frequent visitor, the staff will soon recognize you and will be expected to recall your biases and tastes.

Although Claridge's decor is primarily Art Deco, the atmosphere evokes the nineteenth century. There is no bar. Residents can obtain drinks in the elegant foyer without difficulty, but Claridge's discourages incursions from those who wish to use the hotel merely as a rendezvous. You can come here instead for leisurely afternoon tea ($18) in the Reading Room, where plates of sandwiches are followed by warm scones and delicious pastries.

In the spacious, salmon-beige restaurant the waiters sometimes treat you with a certain fawning solicitude as though you were royalty--which you just might be.

The cooking is excellent, but not outstanding. You lunch or dine here because Claridge's is reliably luxurious.The set meals (about $45 for three courses) feature simply prepared English food--fish or chicken or brisket--that is robust, but not very exciting. The chef, Marjan Lesnik, is Slovenian and has a penchant for Mediterranean flavorings, which are especially evident in his à la carte fish and lamb dishes. Desserts from the trolley are resolutely English: bread-and-butter pudding, lemon meringue pie and fruit compotes. Business deals of great consequence can be negotiated here without anybody else knowing about it. Elderly relatives invited here for lunch can be charmed off their feet by the ambience and service. And on Friday and Saturday evenings, the restaurant fills with old-fashioned Londoners who come here for dinner and dancing ($53).

You can eat more informally in the intimate Causerie, which offers a smorgasbord--perfect for dining before or after the theater. Both restaurants have comprehensive wine lists that have become more international over the years, though they are strongest in Bordeaux wines. There are many older vintages at sensible prices, some of which you can even order by the glass, such as the 1975 Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse, $15. After your meal you can select vintage Port or fine old Cognac from an extensive list. The markup on cigars is modest: Montecristo No. 2, $16; a Cohiba Coronas Especiales, $17.25; or you can choose from a selection of H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta. (You can also supplement your personal stock from Sautter's, one of London's best cigar stores, nearby at 106 Mount Street).

Claridge's successfully combines privacy and accessibility. The Asian prime minister in the suite next to yours (there are 53 suites among Claridge's 190 rooms) may be hosting a state banquet in the ballroom, yet the other hotel residents will be unaware of the security and ceremony surrounding such an event. All the rooms are large, and the bathrooms are magnificent. The temptation to hole up and rely on room service is considerable.

Claridge's remains old-fashioned in the best sense: immensely comfortable, perfectly located near the boutiques of Bond Street and the department stores of Oxford Street and complete with long-term staff who really are eager to make you feel at home.

-- Stephen Brook is a travel and wine writer based in London.

Brook Street
Phone: (71) 629-8860 or (800) 223-6800
Room Rates: single $270 to $325; suite $735