Review by Fiona Duncan, published 11th May 2011.
The Savoy, which opened on the Strand in 1889, always held a special place in the hearts of Londoners and visitors to the capital. It perfectly embodied the dual aspects of the British psyche: buttoned up and party-loving. The Savoy Grill catered for the former; the celebrity-packed American Bar and the Thames Foyer, where the hotel held a regular tea dance, catered for the latter.
My parents began their honeymoon at The Savoy; their waiter turned out to be my father's wartime batman. Occasionally Dad would take me to lunch in the intimidating Grill, pointing out the equally intimidating Great and Good, some seated at their special tables.
I sipped my first thrilling Martini in the louche, low-lit American Bar, while the restaurant of choice for special family celebrations was the capacious, ladylike River Room, with its riveting views of the Thames.
I remember being deeply impressed that the hotel had its own bed company, Savoir (independent now, but which have made some of the new beds, including one in the Royal Suite with a £25,000 horsehair mattress). And later, when I began to write about hotels, I met managers from all over the world who had started their careers under The Savoy training academy.
When it shut for renovation in late 2007, the hotel was completely clapped out. Since it reopened last autumn, much has been written about Pierre-Yves Rochon's interiors, but like them or loathe them, no one can deny that Richard D'Oyly Carte's creation has been saved. The Front Hall, its frieze painted celadon green, is magnificent; the Grill retains its original layout but is no longer intimidating; the American Bar is the American Bar.
Saved, yes, but has its charm been erased? The Savoy is owned by an Arab sheikh and run by Canadians (Fairmont), neither of whom, I suspect, have a particular affinity with the British psyche.
As you move towards the river, echoes of the Jazz Age disappear and Cheryl Cole sashays to the fore: the pointless cage, sorry gazebo, encasing musicians in the Thames Foyer; the shiny black-and-gold nouveau-Neoclassical Beaufort Bar; the reproductions of famous paintings (why? In the right hands, the Savoy could have been a showcase for modern art); the diminished River Room that has gained a leopard-print carpet and lost a sense of occasion.
And the bedrooms? Phew. No gimmicks: just right. The guest is the star, not the room. One third are in faithful Art Deco style; the rest Edwardian. Bathrooms are uncomplicated, bedrooms restful.
And the service? It's the staff, far more than the £200 million plus refit, that hold the key to restoring the Savoy to its former status. As a television documentary informed us, each new employee is immersed in an intensive "I Am Savoy" training programme, but facts, figures and glib phrases can't make up for experience and continuity (only 60 or so staff were kept on, mostly management).
Lobby staff may spring about with earpieces, but there's a hollow feel: trained, you might say, but not yet ingrained. Send them to The Ritz for a week – that should help.
- Strand, London WC2 (020 7836 4343; www.fairmont.com/savoy). Doubles from £350, per night excluding breakfast. Specially adapted rooms for guests with disabilities
SHOPPING WITHOUT TEARS
The Savoy's tailor-made shopping service is a first for a London hotel and ends the days of two-star shopping for five-star guests. For anything from £100 you can have a personal shopper to design you a shopping trip; £250 gets you half day's tailor-made shopping trip in a new XJ Jaguar, all available to savvy Londoners as well as Savoy guests. Test drive a car? Have a suit fitted in four hours? It's yours.www.shopatthesavoy.com.
There's also a quarterly magazine called Shop on what's hot for guests, and an eclectic mix of products, from lizard skin sunglasses to a poodle-shaped lamp. Also new to the Savoy is a tea emporium, and a chocolate one, where you can watch the chocolates being made.
IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
The Strand isn't a particularly brilliant street to be based in, but it does have the advantage of being only paces from The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Covent Garden. The Royal Opera House and the Colosseum are both a stroll away.
Restaurants of note in the area include The Ivy, where you'll still rarely come away without spotting a famous face and, for something quite different, the Café in the Crypt at beautiful St Martin's in the Fields, which does much good work with the homeless and in the community.
House specialities include bread and butter pudding and apple crumble both served with lashings of custard; one of the best afternoon teas in Central London and only £5.75; fish and chips served every Friday at £8.50; and on Sundays traditional roast lunch and dinner at £7.95 and Jazz Nights on Wednesdays at 8pm. A good antidote to the lavish luxury of the Savoy.