Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th August 2006.
es, as long as money is no objectWhat's going on? When I recently heard that this dowager duchess of London hotels had streaked ahead of its rivals with a staggering 95 per cent occupancy at an average room rate of over £500 per night, I was amazed. Okay, it's always been a major player, and Gordon Ramsay has a restaurant there, but what makes it the top choice in the luxury league? Isn't it a staid bolthole for kings, queens, grandmothers and the likes of the late Barbara Cartland?
Not, apparently, since the advent of the spa and Claridge's Bar, which have lent the hotel a new cool cachet - though with hot prices: gin and tonic £10, Champagne, £13. Personally the bar left me lukewarm: on a Friday night it felt like any old West End joint with a louche crowd and little sense of occasion. I wasn't surprised to learn that only 20 per cent of the customers are hotel guests.
Forget the bar. Tea in the Grand Foyer, to the strains of violins, is the real highlight. Perfect for grand-aunts and gaunt supermodels alike, it's served in the glittering centre of the hotel, overlooking the marble-floored Front Hall where there was once a turning circle for horse-drawn carriages. A fabulous spread, and just the combination of gravitas and glamour that Claridge's now prides itself on - you can linger as long as you want (but book first).
I asked my friend Charles Kidd, genealogist and editor of Debrett's Peerage, to join me for dinner; an appropriate choice, I thought, given Claridge's aristocratic, indeed regal, associations. We ate, not in Gordon Ramsay's, but informally in the calm Reading Room, adjoining the foyer, where Charles failed to sniff so much as a life peerage; in fact there were more trainers about than tiaras. Still, we dined in comfort and found the light dishes delicious. Only the Foyer's overbearing new chandelier, which reminded me of writhing maggots, disturbed.
And so to my room, a world away from that whiff of bling on the ground floor. It felt frozen in time, an Art-Deco period piece that must never change - except for the dated curtains and rather workaday bed - with a splendid light-filled 1930s bathroom (all the bathrooms have outside windows) graced by an ocean-deep bathtub and antediluvian plumbing that sounded like the gastric rumblings of a jolly giant.
There were other reminders of a more dignified age, such as the lift with its comfortable seat and uniformed attendant. Old times were also recalled by the head concierge ("I've a split second to remember a returning guest's name, or all is lost") who, when he began at Claridge's as a young page, was told "never look a guest in the eye" and recalls that until only 10 years ago no female staff were employed.
But times have changed, and so have the clients of top hotels, and Claridge's has had the sense to attract, rather than ignore, them. The old girl has picked up her skirts and put on her lippy, but traditional values still underpin - the key, I suspect, to Claridge's success. If you want to stay, join the queue.