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The Ritz Hotel Dining Room, Piccadilly

Terence Tofield introduces one of London's most famous dining rooms

In 1906, the world's greatest hotelier, Cesar Ritz, built a hotel under his own name, in Piccadilly, not very far from St James's Palace. He engaged the great chef August Escoffier and, in his wondrous dining room, the belle of the belle époque dined on meals that could cost £500 a head in today's money. Now, the hotel is turning back to the heydays of its origins and away from the miserable, intervening, times of tour parties and teas. Distressingly, there is still a mass entry for afternoon tea, but, for the rest, the grand manner is restored.

I lunched, recently, on the Terrace, overlooked by a cherry tree in full blossom. My companion and I ate Asparagus and Morels Risotto (creamy without being stodgy and with the freshness of the asparagus preserved) and i>Pea Soup Crème Fraiche (agreeable, but not inspired) then Mignon de Veau and Pan fried Foie Gras with sweet and sour sauce and potato dauphine, and Spiced duck breast, roasted and glazed in honey with spring greens and sweet potatoes, both of which were splendidly conceived and competently executed. We accompanied this with a bottle of Chateau St. Bonnet 1998. Had we wanted white wine, we might have chosen the Chablis Drouhin 2001. Both fulfil the ideal requirements of house wine by being a positive pleasure to drink and modestly priced.

We went on to Rhubarb iced parfait with strawberry sorbet, and Caramelised bananas with caraibe delice, each pleasing to the eye and rich in flavour and weight, with which we drank Baronne Mathilde 1994, another ideal house wine.

The head chef, Gerhard Reisenpatt, was the former personal chef of the proprietors of the hotel, the Barclay brothers. It would be unfair to compare his work with that of the greatest London chefs of the present age, but, if one excludes the most exceptional restaurants, one would say the cuisine was of high quality. The wines, as house wines, were all outstanding. As we chose from the luncheon menu, the cost of this splendid event was no more than one might pay in a dozen lesser establishments.

Had we lunched inside, we would have been able more to enjoy the most beautiful dining room in London, with pastel coloured marble blending with bronze chandeliers and garlands in an atmosphere in which it is a delight to spend time. At dinner (for I have dined, here, often, of recent years) the glory of the room is at its best. The high cloud and blue sky painted ceiling spans a room which manages spaciousness without loss of intimacy. The tables are large and set well apart and the room is partly candlelit, which, with the rose colours of the walls and carpet, gives a sense of warmth. Even the immense gilded sculpture at one end of the room gives a comfortable feeling. If one is lucky, as one will be on most evenings, the wonderful pianist, Mr Ian Gomez - for ten years Frank Sinatra's personal pianist - will be playing.

The staff are magnificently turned out in silver-buttoned livery with manners to match, although a more effective and demanding Head Waiter could, without doubt, achieve a more efficient service. There are times when no one seems aware that one needs service. The agreeable Mr Simon Gurling, who has just taken over the role, must become a martinet, which his predecessor was not.

The Ritz feels like a great ocean liner that has sailed on intact, long after the world which made it and which it served, passed away. Noel Coward wrote a song about it, Cole Porter put "on the Ritz", Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks stayed in it, as did Evelyn Waugh and Antony Powell. The Gulbenkians were residents; I, personally, saw Paul Getty and Aristotle Onassis pass one another on the steps to the Winter Garden with wry little acknowledgements of one another.

Cesar Ritz - "hotelier to kings and king of hoteliers" as King Edward VII called him - had designed and built for high quality and employed the new technique of building around a steel frame, using a concrete floor and granite stone facing. During both World wars, the Ritz become a centre for officers on leave. In 1940, a nightspot was opened, in the basement, and the walls were buttressed with sandbags Despite being hit by three substantial bombs, the hotel remained open and has survived.

The Ritz survived, also, the threats of bad taste. Before the Second World War, the famous decorator, Sybil Colefax, was asked in to redecorate the Hotel. Not only did she tell the management that she would refuse the commission, but that she would, if anyone else accepted it, have questions raised in the House of Commons and promote letters to the Press. In 1965, happily, the Ritz, with most of its interior, became a listed building.

Interestingly, although the Ritz is an early 20th Century phenomenon, it stands on the site of an ancient coaching Inn, The Old White Horse Cellar. Cesar Ritz had hoped to build it a little larger and wrote to Lord Wimborne, whose house and garden adjoined the site on the south side, asking if, as he desired to extend his hotel, he could acquire some of Lord Wimborne's garden, receiving the famous reply that, as Lord Wimborne would like to extend his garden, he would be interested to learn if Mr Ritz would sell part of his hotel.

The Ritz of today almost inevitably falls short of its inspired origins, but it is making a fine attempt to live up to its name. It now provides not only a marvellous environment, magnificent and delicate at the same time, with agreeable, although imperfect service, excellent food and house wines, at prices which are justified. Speaking for myself, I must say that a luncheon on the Terrace, or a dinner for two, are, once again, events that will long stay in the memory. I cannot think of a place in London to match it in style and atmosphere, on a summery day, or a romantic evening.

Terence Tofield  May 2003

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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