- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

LONDON — Santa’s helpers on a weekend break in the city toiled between midnight and dawn to transform the Ritz London into a scene of Christmas splendor.

Guests went to bed — I don’t know that the Ritz tucked them in, but it surely has done so in its 98 years on Piccadilly — after a dinner in the hotel’s elegant Ritz Restaurant, an evening at one of this city’s many theaters or a night on the town. And what to their wondering eyes should appear on the way to breakfast but a lovely tree in lobby center and more trees in the Long Hall and Palm Court. Festive and tastefully decorated with no blinking lights.

Breakfast is as about as casual as the Ritz gets. Guests may wear jeans — often called simply “denim” — and “trainers,” the athletic shoes we call sneakers, but at lunch, tea and dinner, such attire is taboo: coat and tie for gentlemen and no jeans or shorts for man or woman.

At the concierge desk one afternoon, I overheard a twentysomething lady trying to talk the man behind the desk into letting her into tea although she was wearing jeans. “These are really quite nice. They look very smart,” she said. He was not moved.

On our own shores, we occasionally hear a muted, “Whatever happened to standards?” The Ritz preserves them, and it is not the only London hotel to do so. That’s the way it has been and is.

Last year, I saw an American couple enter the Ritz in trainers, their abundantly filled T-shirts tumbling over the belt lines of their shorts. They were intercepted on their way to the Long Hall to see where tea is served. They nodded understandingly when the dress rules were explained, and they returned to the street.

On that visit, Dolly Parton was dining at a nearby table in the restaurant, not subjected to stares from the other guests at dinner or autograph requests. They know how to treat royalty here, I thought, even American royalty.

The Ritz’s Palm Court tea, named the best London hotel tea this year by the London Tea Board, has become so popular that it is served four times daily: noon, 1:30, 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., and, more expensive, a champagne tea at 7:30 p.m. That means about 350 people come to the Ritz for tea each day, and they have reserved their places in advance. The Palm Court tea costs 34 pounds per person — double that to account for the value of today’s dollar, and it is $68 per person. A champagne tea is also available.

The dollar-pound exchange rate is depressing for the millions of Americans who travel to the United Kingdom, as is the dollar-euro rate elsewhere in Europe. London has been known as an expensive city and is even more so now.

A taxi from the Ritz to the Tower of London cost $29, although the return trip, on a different route, cost about $25. In better weather, I would have walked. A refill of shaving soap at the Penhaligon shop in the Burlington Arcade near the Ritz cost $30, which made me wonder about today’s price for a glass mug of Old Spice shaving soap — if it is still made.

In the Ritz Restaurant, a four-course prix fixe dinner costs 75 pounds, which made me wonder where in Washington I could find four similar courses costing $150 per person. The Ritz Restaurant was fully booked for dinner during my weekend stay.

The restaurant, though, is one of the handsomest in the world and, in the style of the Ritz, is not flashy but elegantly refined. The Ritz hosted a private party for Queen Elizabeth II in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her coronation, and the restaurant has been the locale of Prince Charles’ annual party for the staff of his estate, Highgrove.

Prince Charles attended a recent luncheon at the Ritz as part of a campaign he is supporting: Get mutton back on the national menu. He also toured the Ritz kitchen, something he said he had been wanting to do.

Executive chef John Williams has kept the Ritz Restaurant menu traditional in British and Continental cuisine but has lightened the cooking, as is the trend these days. He offers poached leg of mutton with caper sauce on the Ritz Classics menu for the Thursday lunch.

It is Lancashire hot pot on Monday, steak and kidney pudding on Tuesday, braised stuffed oxtail with Hermitage sauce on Wednesday, fisherman’s pie on Friday, and roast loin of suckling pig with sage and onion on Saturday. On Sunday, the classic is “traditional roast Highgrove organic rib of beef.”

The prix fixe dinner menu offers two or three choices for each of the four courses. One could order the likes of cream of watercress soup with poached oyster, medley of seafood with saffron and tomato, breast of pheasant champenoise, and Cointreau creme brulee with fresh berries and Brittany shortbread. Then coffee and friandise — one-bite sweets.

The food is as fine as the setting, and the service completes the dining experience. William Christanelli, our waiter at dinner, looked too young to be so accomplished, but, I discovered, he received the Waiter’s Award of Excellence this year from the Academy of Culinary Arts in London.

Three years ago, the Ritz became the only London hotel to receive a royal warrant, from the prince of Wales “for banqueting and catering services.” The prince of Wales badge of three silver or white feathers rising through a gold coronet above the motto “Ich Dien” (I serve) can be seen above the clock on the mirror behind the concierge desk.

The Ritz, a British-owned hotel, unlike many of its competitors, will celebrate its centenary in 2006. In the meantime, the large staff — two to each guest — will keep the hotel up to standards.

The staff includes upholsterers who replace the damask and jaquard silks, as well as gold leafers, the artisans who keep the gold-leaf trim fresh and bright in the hotel’s elegant bedrooms and public spaces.

The fall of the dollar and post-September 11 terrorism concerns have meant fewer Americans traveling to the United Kingdom, normally a preferred foreign destination. I read, though, that the United Kingdom has replaced Japan as the source of the most visitors to America. The rest of Europe, using the euro as currency, also has become much more expensive to American visitors.

Americans are fewer, but they still come to London and to the Ritz, although I heard more languages there this latest visit than on previous visits.

Some Americans must go to London on business, and others go because they require a London fix. For them, what Samuel Johnson had to say to James Boswell on what London was offering in 1777 in still true:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

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