Savoy restored in all its glory
PUBLISHED: 18:52 19 March 2011
Paul Thomas renews his acquaintance with The Savoy and finds this grand hotel even grander after its restoration.
Remarkable hostelries don’t come often and the Savoy, for me once London’s loveliest hotel, was such a case. I’d visited it frequently, years ago when my business justified it. Nearly always to breakfast with clients or colleagues in the delightful River Restaurant with a view of the Thames.
Occasionally for an evening which could include a few minutes on the tiny dance floor if the company was right. And twice for matrimonial overnights in luxury, longingly hoping for the next time when we could afford it.
Last time’s ‘next time’ was probably a decade ago – but it finally came just now, in February, 2011! Times had changed. A new owner, an Arabian prince, had swept in to buy it from the one-time British owners, including Lord Forte who I’d met there. And the prince had closed it, set out to spend £100m over a year or more, then reopen it, all the grander.
Depending on who you believe, the £100m had mushroomed to £200m odd and certainly the completion date slipped, and slipped, finally reopening last November quietly but with mounting crescendo and appreciation over the last few months.
I’d met Savoy general manager Kiaran MacDonald who had explained and emphasised to me the “restoration”.
In many ways little has changed, thanks to the people. The Savoy was always about its team and some are still there, up to four decades later. But even the new young people, recruited from around the world, have magically inherited secret attitudes of the Savoy.
These include a welcome, friendliness and courtesy without pretension, a plus not evident in all of London’s greatest hotels.
Back in 1246, a stretch of land between the Strand and the Thames was presented by King Henry III to Peter, Count of Savoy, uncle and consort to the king’s wife. Peter built his Savoy Palace on the river, and the name has been associated with the place ever since.
More than 600 years later, Richard D’Oyly Carte chose the location for a new theatre for famous operettas written by his friends Gilbert and Sullivan. He called it the Savoy Theatre, and the productions, Savoy Operas. D’Oyly Carte also produced shows in America and was so impressed with new hotels there, that he decided to build the new Savoy on London’s river. It opened on August 6, 1889 and caused a sensation. The theatre is still there, legendary neighbour.
When you arrive at the hotel, doorman Tony may be your first ‘welcome’ – he’s been doing it for decades. Genuine and reassuring whether you are celebrity, political leader – or mere ‘guest’.
You have either a bedroom, often with a magnificent view of the Thames – or perhaps a suite with living room and bedroom, plus luxury bathroom of course. If it’s a suite, there’s another surprise – your ‘butler’.
Francis immediately makes a helpful and cheery new friend designed to solve any needs you may have during your hours or days at the Savoy. He was born in Barbados and has lived in London from the age of five.
The hotel is full of pleasant, helpful characters as you roam around. Once they hosted Laurence Olivier, Al Jolson, Errol Flynn and Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. Then Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda. The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Winston Churchill frequently lunched with his cabinet at the hotel during the second world war. The legendary Savoy Grill still hosts the world’s famous.
We dine in the once spacious River Restaurant. It’s the only mild disappointment of our stay. It has been reduced in size, black marble walls and a mirror-clad pillar impose on the tables overlooking the river. And the dance floor has gone, making way for the restaurant’s new kitchen.
Dinner is delightfully served by bright, young Bernadette from Vienna. Manager Emma, three weeks in the role, passes by for our opinion and agrees the restaurant’s future has to restore its highest culinary standards.
In the American bar charming Harpreet, half Persian and half Spanish, serves us wine. There’s pianist David and a man who suggests he’s nearly as old as the building itself – head barman Salim reckons he recognised me after “all those years”.
A beautiful dawn precedes a breakfast, which is indeed brilliant, again in the River Restaurant, berries, eggs Benedict with salmon royale, just as I like them. And just like it used to be, I say.
We spend a couple of hours luxury around the new gazebo which dominates the lavish restored Thames Foyer, as its predecessor always did. An inimitable Savoyness prevails.
Whoever I talk to has “restoration” on their lips, Kiaran would be proud. TV programmes and the world’s media have commented on the achievement, the odd unflattering quips but generally praising.
I have enjoyed a unique DBB – of which the bed, breakfast and ambience have excelled. In the words of the Savoy’s newly-appointed Norfolk tweeter Stephen Fry, scribed in the guest comments book: “A happy, proud Savoyard – with thanks, a hangover and an imperishable memory.” n
Paul Thomas was a guest of The Savoy. Rooms start from £295 per night, based on double occupancy. There is a wide selection of cultural and accommodation packages. Visit www.fairmont.com/Savoy
The Savoy Hotel, Strand, London, WC2R 0EU, telephone 020 7836 4343.