London's hotels rank among the world's finest. Palaces and grand dames such as the Lanesborough, the Connaught, Claridge and the Dorchester have long been accorded five-star ratings. One, The Ritz, has rejoined the ranks of the city's finest establishments after extensive renovations over the last eight years at a cost of £40 million. The effort prepares this landmark for its 100th anniversary in 2006 and achieves that elusive marriage of Old World elegance with modern amenities.
Sitting in the arcade-like Long Gallery between the main entrance and The Ritz Restaurant, the hotel's fine dining room, you can't help but imagine Cornelius Vanderbilt or John D. Rockefeller striding by in a top hat. In a rotunda just two steps up from the gallery is the Palm Court with its glass ceiling. Here, the hotel serves its famous high tea, a nostalgic daily ritual of grace that is a must. Those not staying in the hotel should reserve far in advance; guests who are flexible about the timing can usually get a table.
The concierge desk, run by Michael de Cozar for the past 30 years, gives substance to that old phrase "your wish is my command." My family and I grew partial to one of his colleagues, Paul Short, who acquired same-day theater tickets, reserved a spot for the London Eye (the big Ferris wheel on the Thames) and two different high teas, and counseled me on replacing reading glasses. When I called several months before arrival, Short arranged tickets to Shakespeare at The Globe—after I'd been told it was booked.
Do not ignore The Ritz Restaurant, run by Executive Chef John Williams. His traditional but updated approach reflects an admiration for French culinary legend Escoffier. The 2004 summer menu included lobster bisque with fine Champagne, a warm salad of Barbary duck with broad beans, and peas and herbs. Main courses straddle the traditional—Tournedos Rossini—and the modern— lamb noisettes with fennel-scented juices. The wine list is extensive, especially in Bordeaux. A 1998 E. Guigal Côte Rotie drank perfectly.
Don't forget the Rivoli Bar, where you can choose a smoke from the well-stocked humidor or enjoy cigars from Edward Sahakian's Davidoff shop or J.J. Fox just blocks away.
This level of luxury doesn't come cheap, but if it weren't for the current unfavorable exchange rate (about $1.85 to the pound), the room rates would be commensurate with any large city in the world. Expect to pay at least $500 a night for regular rooms, with suites starting at more than $1,000.