Magazine article The Spectator

High Church Hotel Eating

Magazine article The Spectator

High Church Hotel Eating

Article excerpt

The Ritz is both a place and a state of grace. To know that one is going to be eating crab cakes in London's prettiest dining room is to feel a Chanel suit and hairdressing appointment coming on. Even my husband, the sort of Englishman who regards restaurants as a vulgar and expensive conspiracy to prevent him from having perfectly good food at home, considers the Ritz to be a treat. There is the inestimable advantage of knowing where it is, so reassuring since the fashionable chefs set up on the wilder shores of Notting Hill and Islington, and the comforting prospect of there being eight different sorts of potato on the menu (soufflee, new, creamed, dauphinoise, rosti, fried, Pont Neuf and roast).

The Ritz has always had a good cast. During the war Emerald Cunard lived there, attended by her faithful maid, Gordon; when King Zog of Albania arrived, most of his luggage consisted of trunks of gold bars; the present Marquess of Tavistock was born at the Ritz in 1940, and Chips Channon noted excitedly that the outbreak of hostilities had made the hotel fantastically fashionable, `as we are all cookless'. Lunching with his wife, her sister Lady Brigid Guinness and Harold Balfour, he experienced that feeling of relief known to those of us who mind passionately with whom we eat: `All the great, gay, the government; we know 95 per cent of everyone there.' The table-hopping must have been bliss.

Well, nothing has changed, or rather the Ritz has seen its way back to the future. After the Andy Warhol-Jacqueline Onassis-Mick Jagger years, the hotel went into a coma; the curtains in the Marie Antoinette suite drooped like Germolene-pink camisole knickers and the Palm Court pulsated with obese American tourists gorging on cucumber sandwiches because they had been told it was the thing to do. Now owned by the Barclay brothers and managed by the professionally suave Giles Shepard, the Ritz has perked up no end. There are still enough Japanese to whistle `Colonel Bogey' at, but they don't make it into the dining-room. The combination of cherubs and, on Wednesdays, steak and kidney pudding with Guinness, oysters, buttered carrots, broccoli and mash might be too much for Oriental sensibilities.

I'm mad about the fat, pink cherubs and the stout, brown food; in these days of grilled pancetta, baked pithiviers and wilted spinach, there is a great deal to be said for a restaurant that addresses itself wholeheartedly to the Yorkshire pudding. You may not want to eat it, but it is immensely comforting to know that it is there - a good deed in a naughty world currently dedicated to roast fillet of cod encrusted with black olives.

And then there's the fun of seeing the gargoyles: Lady Thatcher by the window, light refracting from her hair; the Queen Mother in her pet corner; Lord Hanson, and the Sir David English memorial table. Sir David was such a stalwart regular that a black-edged tablecloth would not be amiss.

The Ritz has a joie de vivre that eludes the Connaught, London's other great hotel dining-room. It was here that Robert Maxwell once importuned Keith Waterhouse, `Give me your pension, dear boy, and I will enhance it,' an idea Waterhouse found strangely resistible. Today, there are no evident ogres melding with the dark, conspiratorial panelling, no titans tucking into the Scotch woodcock. And, my dears, one is down to a mere six sorts of potato (Carlos, nouvelle, frite, puree, soufflee, croquette). …

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