Hotel Bristol, Paris

Except for an occasional traffic jam caused by the limousines clustered in front of the entrance, the Hotel Bristol might go altogether unnoticed behind its discreet white facade on the rué du Faubourg St. Honoré. The Bristol does not shout; nothing is ostentatious about it. Everything is understated and quite luxurious: polished white Carrara marble floors, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Savonnerie rugs in muted green and royal blue, eighteenth-century Gobelin tapestries on the walls, Louis XVI sofas and armchairs upholstered in velvet and silk brocade.

After a four-year renovation completed last year, the Bristol's 195 rooms provide the additional luxury of space, rare even in the most palatial of Paris hotels; a deluxe double here is more like a junior suite elsewhere--and so on up the scale to the apartment suites, each with an immense, California-style terrace (1,100 and 1,600 square feet, respectively) overlooking the garden. The rooms are done in quiet colors and lush fabrics, with just a few carefully chosen antique furnishings and much attention to detail: good reading lamps, plenty of wooden hangers in well-lighted closets. The truly large bathrooms are floor-to-ceiling pale marble, each with king-sized tub and separate stall shower, double-band basins, bathrobes, slippers, hair dryers and Hermés toiletries. Each also has a magnifying makeup/shaving mirror with interior light, said to have been invented by the hotel's founder, Hippolyte Jammet.

Built over an eighteenth-century mansion, the Bristol opened in 1924. The original building, just behind the presidential Elysée Palace, was once the residence of Madame de Pompadour; her private theater, an exquisite oval room with carved oak paneling and a milky-white domed skylight, is now the hotel's winter restaurant. In summer, the restaurant moves to the glass-walled conservatory overlooking the hotel's remarkable 13,000 sq.-ft. garden, complete with colonnade, manicured hedges, giant magnolia trees and an old stone fountain.

Summer or winter, the Michelin one-star restaurant has a 330 franc (approximately $65) fixed priced menu (at lunch and dinner) as well as the seasonal--and suitably pricey--á la carte cuisine of Chef Emile Tabourdiau: sea bass carpaccio with herbs, langoustine salad with avocado mousse and crab dressing, open lobster ravioli with sweet peppers and caramelized tomatoes, truffle omelet, roast Barbary duck with ginger, spicy poached peaches with a Champagne and saffron sabayon, dark-chocolate and pistachio ice cream with coconut-rum sauce. There are perhaps a few too many dishes of innards for American taste (veal kidneys, sweetbreads, tête de veau) but there are enough other choices to compensate. The wine cellar, with 31,000 bottles, is reputedly one of the best in the country. Cigars are permitted in both dining rooms, and the hotel's own humidor offers Montecristo, Cohiba, Punch and Davidoff (Dominican) No. 2.

The rooftop indoor swimming pool, teak-decked like an ocean liner, was designed by the naval architect who produced yachts for Niarchos and Onassis. At one end a trompe-l'oeil wall mural expands the "view," with straw-hatted figures promenading on the prow of a ship plowing through the blue sea toward Cap d'Antibes; bay windows on both sides have a more terrestrial outlook over the city skyline, as does the new fitness center--small, but outfitted with computerized exercise equipment, sauna and personal trainer or massage on demand.

With a staff-guest ratio of two to one, the Bristol has long been celebrated for its service--fast, attentive, unobtrusive and, of course, discreet. About the only complaint ever made is that the hotel is almost too perfect and thus a little cold and impersonal, but it seems precisely that impeccability that attracts the high-powered business executives, statesmen and celebrities who have always been its regular clientele, from Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle to Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe.

-- Judy Fayard is a writer who makes her home in Paris.

Hotel Bristol
112 r. Faubourg St. Honoré
Phone: 33(1)42669145
Room Rates: about $500 to $720; suite: $1,620