A realm of peace and natural pleasures
The sounds of the city entering through the swinging door of the celebrated Ritz London late at night are strangely subdued, muffled under moisture-laden clouds hovering over a slumbering Piccadilly. This elaborate palace with its imposing pink-hued marble pillars standing tall, crystal chandeliers sparkling overhead, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors holding secrets of clandestine love affairs long forgotten, is the perfect finale to a dream-filled London evening. The ageless mirrors once reflecting the Ritz’s opening day more than a hundred years ago in May of 1906 when horses and buggies lurched through the streets amidst the electrifying clatter of London life.
The peaceful silence of this London night provides the perfect opportunity to experience the potent elegance and creativity expressed in the slumbering hotel through the art of interior creativity. Special design touches catch the eye, flashing like diamonds, catching guests’ imagination and bringing to mind the radiance of the people who created this historic setting. Guests here are rarely surprised to learn that the Long Gallery on the ground floor has been described as one of the all-time masterpieces of hotel architecture. The brainchild of Cesar Ritz, a skillful and gifted Swiss gentleman with forward-thinking ideas, the hotel was brought to life by two talented architects, one British and one French, who were influenced by the Louis Seize-style architectural traditions of Paris. The pure classical forms common in the architectural design and furniture of the reign of Louis XVI of France are carried throughout the hotel’s decor.
On this contemplative night, the hotel seems to be taking a deep breath to settle itself while guests in 136 elaborate rooms and suites are resting. The city is subdued as the clouds decide to open and let fall a gentle but steady rain. The Ritz has hosted the elite of the world — kings and queens, writers, actors, wounded soldiers, celebrities from prima ballerina Anna Pavlova to Charlie Chaplin, and bartenders who knew them all.
During World War II, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and Charles de Gaulle met in the Marie Antoinette Suite to discuss tactics, hopefully over champagne. Damaged nine times during German bombing raids, like fervent London sentinels, the Ritz’s original 1906 Portland stone and gray Norwegian granite held firm.
The hotel, caught in a historic British time bubble and still showcasing the modern edge of the 20th century, was recently listed among the world’s top five hotels; not a big surprise to hotel aficionados. Inside, the gorgeous Palm Court feels almost spiritually imbued with good thoughts, an impression heightened by the absolutely brilliant use of light and space. Its splendor was intended as the ideal fashion-forward setting for some of the world’s most stunning women, all adhering to the classic Ritz dress code as they took pleasure in afternoon tea and carefully prepared cuisine with live background music.
Palm Court Afternoon Tea
For more than a hundred years, the Palm Court has been a gracious host and the only hotel in the UK to have a certified Tea Sommelier who offers 18 different types of loose-leaf tea, including a unique house tea developed specially for the Palm Court. With a bit of imagination it’s easy to imagine Princess Diana, Sophia Loren, Jackie Onassis, and Audrey Hepburn, sipping champagne or tea and wondering who may have been enjoying the Palm Court earlier today.
At 2:30 a.m. while the rain continues in a misty haze, the Ritz kitchen is filled with the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread, croissants, and rolls fashioned by the baker who works throughout the night to gratify Executive Chef, John Williams. The Chef, personable, articulate, and honored with a Michelin Star, is distinguished among the top chefs in both Great Britain and Europe. With a team of 65 cooks and sous-chefs, Chef Williams oversees the Ritz dining scene. Enthusiastic, passionate, and vigorous, he creates the menus for The Palm Court, Ritz Restaurant, Secret Garden, Rivoli Bar, Room Service, banqueting and private dining rooms — an astonishing and artful task.
Admired by the Royal family, Chef Williams has cooked and catered for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, celebrating two of her birthdays at private dinners for the Royal family, both at The Ritz and at Buckingham Palace.
Williams was born and raised in South Shields in northern England, the son of a Tyneside fisherman, one of six children, from humble beginnings and a hard-working family. His mother set the pace for her young son. He explained that she was a simple, practical cook, who fed the family well with lots of different fish and allowed him to help in the kitchen. Williams attended college and cookery classes working his way through the kitchens of England, tutored by French chefs, before finally landing at the Ritz as an Executive Chef in 2004.
Following in the footsteps of Auguste Escoffiere, the father of modern cooking who was chef at the Ritz during the first years of its opening, Williams says that he prefers modern cuisine and loves to stretch the boundaries, but regardless everything must fit under the roof of the Ritz. “We strive to make it relevant, aim for the stars, and create flavor that gives people joy.”
It’s 3:45 a.m. and the Ritz’s wine cellar of some 500 bins of goodness is locked tight. There is nothing to do now but count the hours till lunch when it will be time to enjoy Chef Williams’ creations. The list embraces Langoustine a la nage, Cherry Bomb Chicken, Drunken Mussels or Eggplant Parmesan Casserole, and a sip of Bordeaux wine.
Before heading for the lift and a bedroom on the second floor, a man, hatless, dripping wet in a brown suit, strides in carrying a thin brief case with a cell phone attached to his ear. He pauses by the grand piano which is played to accompany the Afternoon Tea sitting. He bends over and plays a few bluesy chords, and then continues up the famed staircase, a design urged by Cesar Ritz who believed that a curved staircase allowed ladies to make a dramatic entrance and showcase their fashion. Halfway up, he stops, removes the cell phone from his ear, turns to view the Long Gallery and the Louis XVI setting for a long moment, and with an immense smile nods goodnight. It’s that kind of place.