The Good Life

Hotel Savoy, London

| By Nick Lander | From Groucho Marx, Spring 93

The Savoy has a way of making any visitor to the United Kingdom feel at home. Turn off the Strand onto the short forecourt of the hotel (known to London cabbies as the banjo, because of its shape) and you are on the only street in London where cars drive on the right side of the road.

This custom dates back to the days when horse-drawn hansom cabs swept into the entrance to drop their dukes and duchesses and ensured that they did not step into any puddles. Today, this aberration of Britain's highway code is available to anyone staying at the Savoy or going there for a drink, dinner and a good cigar.

History features large in any description of the Savoy. The hotel recently celebrated its centenary and is making one of its rare concessions to the modern era with the construction of a swimming pool and fitness center to open this spring. But the Savoy's location and architecture are also compelling and the way to justify the expense of lodging there is to take full advantage of everything the hotel has to offer.

If you plan to stay at the Savoy, book a room with a river view. They cost an extra $100 a night, but the Savoy stands by a major bend in the Thames not obvious at ground level. The views, therefore, are magnificent: to the east, St. Paul's Cathedral, Canary Wharf and the city; to the west, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, behind which the sun will obligingly set, if you are very lucky with the London weather.

The bedrooms are huge with the type of fittings that would have suited a British gentleman of a bygone era. The most modern appointments are a clock face etched on a large mirror from the 1930s and a highly polished three-button alarm by the bedside, should you need your valet, maid or butler. But of course, there is no modern stereo system. Instead, each room has a British-made Roberts radio in it, without (not surprisingly) a preselection for London's pop music channel.

The Savoy's location provides two types of excursion. Expensive, if you cross the Strand and go shopping in Covent Garden. Free, if you walk along the River Thames in Victoria Embankment Gardens, visit two of London's ecclesiastical gems nearby, the Savoy Chapel and St. Mary-le-Strand, and walk briskly into Trafalgar Square to one of the world's finest museums, The National Gallery.

I would advise the latter to leave you more scope for indulgence in the Savoy itself. Have breakfast or lunch in the River Room, one of London's main centers for power breakfasts, where the British executive is still conspicuous front his American counterpart by his continued devotion to beginning the day with bacon and eggs. You can take tea there too, but far more exclusive for this most English of meals is the Drawing Room, reserved for hotel guests. My ideal evening at the Savoy would begin, however, in the American Bar with a dry Martini and a severely rationed number of their potato chips, possibly the best in the world.

Then to dinner in the Grill Room. This magnificently paneled, highly polished and extraordinarily comfortable room, just to the left of the hotel's main entrance, has disadvantages aplenty. Because of its proximity to London it is very heavily male-oriented (no waitresses and only three female diners when I last ate there), has no view and occasionally exhibits some sloppy service--badly served soup and pheasant rather amateurishly carved at the table.

But the overall effect of our Thanksgiving lunch was unforgettable. We began by choosing our celebratory wines well--a half bottle of Pol Roger nonvintage, £l9 (about $30), and a delicious Pomerol, Château de L'Eglise 1987, £28 (about $44). A pheasant with all the trimmings (game chips, bread sauce and gravy) was perfectly cooked and followed, from a gleaming silver cheese trolley, by some of the very best of the new wave of English farmhouse cheeses.

The cigars helped. A Punch Punch selected from a humidor that boasted Davidoff, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann and Cohiba, seemed to make everything (except the bill) go up in smoke.

-- Nick Lander is a writer for The Financial Times of London.



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