Short break - The Savoy Hotel, London
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 June 2014
This iconic hotel with links to Lancashire had a £220m refit. Have they made the best even better? Roger Borrell found out
From the sixth floor window of my suite, I took in the broad sweep of the Thames watching it flow down past the Houses of Parliament towards Waterloo Bridge. This was pretty much the scene that confronted Claude Monet back in 1899 when he spent several weeks roughing it at The Savoy for his striking series of London paintings.
The balcony where he perched has gone along with the smog and the gaslight that probably gave his work those eerie tinges of blue and orange. The old boy would recognise some of the landmarks such as Cleopatra’s Needle, but much of the skyline, more reminiscent of modern Shanghai, would have baffled him.
Would he have recognised The Savoy of today? Certainly – some things remain constant in an uncertain world. Its Canadian operators, Fairmont, have recently re-opened after a three-year renovation project costing something in the region of £220m. They’ve polished this temple to opulence until it sparkles. Basically, they’ve taken the best and made it even better.
But they’ve kept all the Savoy’s greatest hits – the glorious Art Deco and Edwardian features, the famous Grill, the American Bar, the meeting rooms where Churchill lunched with his wartime Cabinet colleagues and the cheeky-chappy liveried doormen who greet you so cheerily as you bowl in from The Strand.
And its marbled halls still echo with history, a history that has links with the north west. The Savoy Palace was built by a nobleman in the 13th century. It later became home to John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, but it didn’t survive the Peasant’s Revolt. However, the estate remains part of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Centuries later impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte began a 20-year association with Gilbert and Sullivan that was so successful he built his own venue, The Savoy Theatre, just to stage their wildly popular operas.
The next step was to build a hotel next door and 125 years ago The Savoy Hotel opened, marking the start of an undiminished love affair with the rich and famous, especially rich and famous Americans. They loved the luxurious surroundings – so much better than the spartan inns they had been used to in London. Why, they even had baths. Not one each, mind you, but at least one on every floor!
Over the years the guest list has been like a Who’s Who – crowned heads have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Fred Astaire. The great divas of the early 20th century, Luisa Tetrazzini and Dame Nelly Melba were regulars. The problem was they hated each other with an operatic passion.
Hotel staff were constantly on duty to ensure their paths never crossed but one day the Italian singer walked past a room where Dame Nelly was rehearsing. Luisa turned to the hotel manager and asked: ‘Do you have a lot of trouble here with cats?’
The food in those early days wasn’t bad, either. The restaurant was run by Cesar Ritz and he brought his old pal August Escoffier – ‘king of chefs and chef of kings’ – to run the kitchens.
How could it fail? It didn’t and evidence of that historic success is found in The Savoy’s own museum, looked after by archivist Susan Scott. In time, the hotel developed and grew across the site, becoming one of the early devotees of the Art Deco movement. It has been one of the most enduring success stories in the global hotel market.
But what’s it like to stay there? Glorious. The public rooms are palatial and the bedrooms, either Edwardian or Art Deco, are beautifully furnished with great taste and style. Mine had a bedside photograph of Shirley Bassey which quirkily described her passion for The Savoy’s black pudding. A girl after my own heart.
Is it intimidating and terribly formal? Not a bit – the staff are relaxed and welcoming but incredibly polished. No one calls you ‘guys’ at The Savoy.
Is it expensive? Oh yes! But there are deals and you can get a room for under £300. A junior suite can cost you more than £900.
What’s the food like? Gordon Ramsay is now in charge of the Grill but there is a new 1920s-style seafood and grill restaurant called Kaspar’s. I ate my dinner while not far away a ragtime band played and couples cut a rug like Stanley Baldwin was still in Number 10. It’s a fun place and it made me realise why there was a time when very rich people chose to live in hotels.
Do you need to wear tails and spats to dinner? Only if you really must. Otherwise smart casual is fine although I must confess, with a grin on my face, there are times when you feel as if you are living in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
That struck me as our butler brought a pot of the old Earl Grey to our eyrie. Did I not mention Russell, our butler? Well, if you stay in a suite there is a butler to help you with the irritating things in life - packing, dinner reservations, secretarial services, personal shopping, theatre tickets and the like.
If I’d asked him nicely, Russell would probably have got me out of that jam with Gussie Fink-Nottle’s sister, Gladys. After all, it was dark at the time and I had been in Drones for a tincture or two…
Our suite had its own small library of around 60 pristine hardbacks. One of them, Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse, contains this conversation between Psmith and his pal Mike Jackson:
‘Rumours have reached me that a very decent little supper may be obtained at a quaint, old-world eating house called The Savoy. Will you accompany me thither on a tissue-restoring expedition?’
If you need tissue restoring, you can find out more about this very grand hotel at