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Forever Claridge's
Historic London hotel favored by royals and exiled statesmen
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

We had returned from our week of traveling the rails of Wales in our Orient Express day coaches, and were met at Victoria Station in London by a chauffeured car from Claridge's Hotel, a driver who asked if we had had a good journey, nodded when we told him we had and kept his counsel until we reached the hotel, all orange brick Victorian, a brief drive away.

Our friend of many years, Claridge's managing director, Ronald Jones, O.B.E., an elegant, elfin man, greeted us warmly, as always, produced, as always, an envelope "with a small poem from Eve," his wife, for our enjoyment. Eve Jones always wrote us welcoming doggerel. This time it was it was an excerpt from Ogden Nash on ordering a somewhat unorthodox dinner.

"Bring me clams in a chilly soup,
A large tureen of vegetable soup,
Steak as tender as a maiden's dream,
With lots of potatoes hashed in cream,
And a lettuce and tomato salad, please
And crackers and a bit of Roquefort cheese.
But waiter, the gist of my appeal,
Is coffee with, coffee with, coffee with the meal."

We were shown, as we had been on our previous visit, to our favorite rooms at Claridge's, Suite 529-530. To be in these rooms, furnished perfectly and authentically in the height of the Art Deco style of last century's mid-thirties was to be immersed in, to be part of, a work of decorative art. Nothing less.

Rounded cabinets and tables and dressers of satinwood and burrwood; tiered, squared wood-framed mirrors, edged in black; carpets of cubist design; walls and draperies of grey and peach, of pale lime-green and yellow; polished steel lamps and bronzed statuary; Celadon and Imari, brass and bronze; even brass doorstops, molded like rope tassels, a hallmark of that Art Deco pioneer designer, Basil Ionides, whose influence and skill changed Claridge's interiors in the twenties and thirties. Paths of frosted, etched glass, reflecting swaths of white, beige and grey striated marble, and tiles of black and green. Glistening nickeled appointments and huge flat showerheads.

Exquisite, all.

And the art with which we were surrounded was of a piece with Claridge's service. Each floor, then and now, boasts a room service waiter, a valet and a maid, the night shift of the latter often referred to as "dress maids," for they were, and occasionally are, asked to help guests in and out of their clothing. Service was, and is, a buzz away. The Hall Porter who has perhaps, inexplicably, forgotten that you wished both the lnternational Herald Tribune and the Telegraph, will have the Trib at your door in an instant. The feeling we had, always, at Claridge's was that the entire hotel and its staff were there, just outside the door, waiting for us to beckon, prepared not only to administer to our wants, but to anticipate them.

Which brings us to dinner . . . .

That evening, we were scheduled for supper at the Savoy Grill. But after unpacking and a long, hot, soaking bath in a tub so deep it might in another day pass for a plunge pool, neither my husband nor myself felt up to dressing. We decided to stay in. My husband buzzed for a menu from the Restaurant and read. "Let's have," he said, looking up, "Canard du Norfolk Roti a l'Anglais."

Which was?

"Roast Norfolk duck, with some applesauce on the side, which is what Escoffier says he means by 'a l'Anglaise.' Suit you?"

Oh, yes.

"And a nice bottle of Burgundy, a Nuits-Saint-Georges?"

Yes, indeed. Which we ordered. There came a knock on the door. I opened and in came our waiter, in frocked-coat, silver-tie livery, wheeling a table cloaked in starched white linen on which was a most beautifully glistening brown roasted duck, a silver bowl of applesauce and our Burgundy. "Shall I slice the duck for you?" our waiter asked. Please. He nodded, slipped on white gloves and turned his attention to the duck.

"This, madam, is a Norfolk duck," he said. "Perhaps not so great a fowl as a canard from Rouen, where as you are surely aware, ducks are smothered rather than bled to preserve their color and tenderness. However, we English are equally as proud of our Norfolks." He sliced off its legs with precision, then the duck through along its backbone. Then, with each breast in turn he drew toward himself thin slices of roasted breast meat, spreading them fanlike on the serving platter around the legs. Once finished, he sliced off the wings, placed them on the platter and presented the carved duck with a flourish.

"Shall I pour the wine?"


It was just fine. Our waiter-carver bowed slightly and departed, with the duck bones, leaving us to our feast. And a marvelous feast it was, a meal and an evening I remember often, one we concluded by sipping the last of our wine in front of our fireplace. So warm and comforting it was, that next night we repeated it, even to a bottle of the same Nuits.

This is what Claridge's is — so proper with its staff in frock coats, its Deco lobby and adornments, its warmth and soft service, not at all lessened by its precision and propriety. It remains — despite its recent American ownership — very much the very English hotel it has been for almost 200 years, first as the Mivart, a private lodging house, later a "fashionable rendezvous for the high Corps Diplomatique" according to London's Morning Post in 1827.

It was in 1854 that it became Claridge's, its owners William and Marianne Claridge, and its reputation continued to grow, and glow, to such an extent that Queen Victoria in 1860, made a public point of visiting Empress Eugenie of France who was in residence there. To this day it has catered to the Royal Family for teas, state visits and receptions. It became part of the Savoy Group of Hotels in 1893 and has remained so since. Always urbane, sleek, the hotel has changed its look from time to time, most notably from French Salon to the edgy elegance of Art Deco.

A recent visit has proven that at Claridge's change comes slowly, in increments. It is, I should say, always "Claridge's," never the Claridge Hotel. Its public rooms still look very much like they looked when they were brought into the Jazz Age in the twenties by lonides, though there have been complaints about the lack of sofas, replaced by nests of chairs. The white and black marble blocks of its Front Hall remain, gleaming with polish. Its Foyer, its Reading Room, less formal than in its Victorian days, are filled with the look of Deco redux, sofas of crisper look, chairs upholstered in classic Cubist fabrics that might have been designed by Georges Braque. Mirrors, framed entries and borders have been layered with dulled silver, and in the Foyer is a huge modern chandelier by the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly that is a brilliant nest of writhing crystal serpents. Tea is taken with new green and white striped china cups from Bernardaud.

All of its face lift, under the hand of designer Thierry Despont, has been supervised by English Heritage, a quasi-governmental agency that sees particularly to the classic hotels in England.

Early on, Claridge's consisted of many smaller rooms, 209 to be precise, as well as 57 suites. These days, walls have been torn down and rooms combined, so that its present complement is but 197 bedrooms and suites. Occasionally a room will be found to be unacceptable, though this is rare. Most of its Art Deco furniture has been allotted to various rooms but its suites of that period remain, along with rooms carefully composed in Victorian fashion — if plush is one's preference.

John Williams, who was sous chef, in charge of the Restaurant, during our first visits, is another of Claridge's constants. He is now the hotel's Maitre Chef des Cuisines, and his carte, though not printed in French, is an eclectic mix of classic French cookery and English countryhouse. On that recent visit, iced Colchester oysters with a shallot vinegar were fine indeed, as was a roasted rack of lamb "Sarladaise" in the style of Perigord, with black truffles. Nice.

There was also a charity dinner at which Chef Williams produced a "Faberge Egg," by shaping a lobster mousseline egg-like around a soft-cooked quail egg, then studding it with bigs of truffle and egg white, quite like a mosaic. Lovely. But, alas, there was no canard roti to be had. Perhaps next time.


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