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The Windsor Suite of the Ritz Paris, Paris, France
Vincent Leroux

Toujours Paris

By Andrew Harper

The Hideaway Report | March 15, 2017

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“Paris is always a good idea,” Audrey Hepburn famously quipped in the movie Sabrina, and that’s still true today. But a year after the appalling tragedy at the Bataclan theater, the motto of the French capital, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” or “Tossed but not sunk” still has a sobering resonance.

Ritz Paris

“Paris is always a good idea,” Audrey Hepburn famously quipped in the movie Sabrina, and that’s still true today. But a year after the appalling tragedy at the Bataclan theater, the motto of the French capital, “Fluctuat nec mergitur” or “Tossed but not sunk” still has a sobering resonance.

Ritz Paris

For American travelers, the biggest news is the reopening of the Ritz Paris, on the Place Vendôme, after a four-year renovation that’s said to have cost an eye-popping $450 million. That’s a lot of money, but the property urgently required a bone-deep reinvention to retain its laurels as one of the city’s “palace” hotels. With the arrival of the Asian luxury brands — Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La — the Ritz was starting to seem in need of serious work.

Grand Jardin at the Ritz Paris Vincent Leroux

No sooner than it had closed, however, its fans began to fret about what the makeover would do to the Ritz’s inimitable charm. Could the hotel be modernized without destroying its unique ambiance, a sort of “La Vie en Rose” atmosphere created by an alert, good-humored staff and the graciously privileged patrons? Ultimately, a great hotel is a mosaic of hundreds of small details. The fear of the hotel’s habitués was that the heavy-handed implementation of the quality-measuring metrics practiced by international hotel chains would result in the standardization of a place that has nurtured a unique identity for well over a century.

For many, the first cause for alarm was the announcement that New York-based French celebrity interior architect Thierry W. Despont would oversee the project. Like many people, I’ve never much admired his makeover of The Dorchester in London. So I feared he might be similarly insensitive at the Ritz.

On the other hand, the world has changed a lot since Swiss-born innkeeper César Ritz and his partner, French chef Auguste Escoffier, decided to open a hotel in the heart of Paris that would offer European aristocrats all the comforts of home with state-of-the-art plumbing, heating and, eventually, air-conditioning, plus a fine restaurant and lively bars. When it opened, in 1898, a few notables sniffed that the new hotel seemed a little nouveau riche, but the swells quickly piled in. Marcel Proust soon became a regular, and he was followed by King Edward VII and a flock of American bons vivants, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (for whom one of the hotel’s bars is named) and Cole Porter. Fashion designer Coco Chanel lived at the hotel for more than 30 years.

So as my cab headed into Paris, I found myself wondering if the central assumption of the Ritz experience — that everyone wants a taste of French aristocratic opulence — is still relevant in a new century when so many other types of hospitality are available. After all, most of the new Asian properties in Paris have pointedly eschewed French formality.

Arriving at the Ritz brought back a host of memories and provoked an anticipation of pleasure. The subtle signature scent of the hotel, a musky perfume called Ambre, was immediately evident just as before. However, the entry area had been opened up to create a larger, lighter vestibule, and the reception area now is set back in a discrete alcove just past the concierge desk. The young woman at check-in was efficient and charming. We were then ushered upstairs to our 590-square-foot Grand Deluxe Room by a chatty porter in a well-cut black suit.

The long rectangular room came with two Juliet balconies and overlooked the spectacular new conservatory-style dining room that had been added to Bar Vendôme. Farther afield, I could make out the Ministry of Justice and the Eiffel Tower. The décor featured a color scheme of goldenrod with powder-blue and cream accents. Furniture included shrunk-to-scale Louis XVI armchairs and a damask-upholstered sofa in front of a marble fireplace. My first experience of the stealthy modernity at the hotel was when the porter showed me that the mirror over the mantelpiece contained a flat-screen television, which was invisible until turned on. Another television near the bed was disguised as a painting on an artist’s easel and was similarly hidden.

The Grande Suite at the Ritz Paris - Vincent Leroux

View from the Mansart Suite terrace - Vincent Leroux
Gilded bathroom at the Ritz Paris - Vincent Leroux

Although I found the room exceptionally attractive and comfortable, the dimmer switches, masked as gilded 19th-century turnkeys, weren’t intuitive and required a demonstration. I also noticed that French-made Porthault linens, another long-running signature of the hotel’s, had been replaced by an Italian brand. Although they were the same pale apricot color of all Ritz towels and robes, they lacked the impressive heft of the classic French product. Given the French genius for perfumes and toiletries, the Ritz-branded amenities in the bath were underwhelming. (Possibly the new marketing agreement with Chanel precludes products from competing brands such as Guerlain and Hermès.) The well-lit bath itself provided two sinks (with gilded swan faucets), a soaking tub, an “experience” shower and a third concealed television built into the mirror.

Possibly reflecting a desire to make the hotel more appealing to a younger clientele, the Ritz has hired 40-something chef Nicolas Sale to take over its storied L’Espadon restaurant. Sale’s menu is intended to shake up the classicism of the previous era. Nowadays Paris is brimming with youthful gastronomic talent, and presumably the Ritz did not want to be thought staid in comparison. Many of his dishes are excellent. I especially enjoyed an elaborate three-part langoustine starter that included langoustine jelly, sturgeon caviar, pepper roasted with citrus, and enoki mushrooms with pistachio. Adding to the luster of a meal at L’Espadon are the ministrations of the hotel’s first female wine director, sommelier Estelle Touzet, who oversees a list of some 50,000 bottles with charm, originality and deep knowledge.

Interior of L’Espadon - Vincent Leroux
Conservatory dining room at Bar Vendôme - Vincent Leroux

The meal we enjoyed most during our stay, however, was in the new conservatory dining room of Bar Vendôme, where the steel-and-glass roof slides open when the weather is good. Appetizers of foie gras and dressed crab with salad leaves were impeccable, as was pan-roasted chicken with artichokes and pasta stuffed with duxelles (chopped mushrooms sautéed with onions, shallots, garlic and parsley), and sea bass with grilled baby leeks and a perfect Grenobloise sauce (butter, white wine, lemon and capers). Desserts by François Perret, the hotel’s talented pastry chef, were superb, especially the chocolate mille-feuille with candied pecans.

After dinner we headed to Bar Hemingway for a nightcap. On the way we dropped into Salon Proust, with its ornate wooden moldings, sumptuous Aubusson carpet and Napoleon III-style armchairs covered in poppy-colored velvet. Although an attractive space for afternoon tea, we found it a bit theatrical in the evening, when the bookshelves are lit from within. A certain theatricality is a signature of Despont’s, but overall he appears to have been kept on a rather short leash, since the Ritz still looks like the Ritz, albeit with a color palette that is subtly richer than the pastels that once prevailed. We also stepped outside to see the magnificent new 21,500-square-foot garden that Despont designed with landscape architect Jean Mus. Inspired by the garden of the nearby Palais Royal, their creation is a long rectangle with box-cut linden trees, white rosebushes and trellised half-moon seating alcoves that would be a delightful place to linger on a mild spring evening.

Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris Vincent Theroux

In Bar Hemingway, it was a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with bartender, Englishman Colin Field. It was clear that the most-storied place for a cocktail in Paris had immediately regained its regular clientele. The affable Mr. Field regaled us with tales of his travels around the world, undertaken while the hotel was closed. And in honor of a recent visit to Honolulu, he concocted a cocktail called a Waikiki, containing white and brown rum, curaçao, lime, pineapple juice and strawberry juice. Field, who describes himself as a “storyteller” as much as a barman, is famous for inventing new drinks, and he loves to explain the provenance of the various cocktails on Bar Hemingway’s menu.

A major addition to the Ritz is the first Chanel-branded spa. (Chanel is headquartered a stone’s throw away on the Rue Cambon.) The renovated indoor pool is surely now one of the loveliest in the world, and the spa’s “Le Massage de Chanel” combines Western and Eastern techniques to great effect in the eradication of stress. The shopping arcade that links the Place Vendôme side of the hotel to the Rue Cambon wing has been completely rebuilt, with handsome wooden cabinetry and lanterns that recall the famous “passages” or covered passageways of Paris.

Interior pool at the newly renovated Coco Chanel spa at the Ritz Paris Vincent Leroux

Back in our room, enjoying a fine view of the Parisian skyline, I reflected on all that we had seen and experienced. Fundamentally, the Ritz seems unchanged. The experience is still peerless, and the many millions have been well-spent. Although contemporary tastes tend toward informality, I am sure that there is still demand for this kind of sumptuous Parisian style.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Ritz Paris 98Andrew Harper Bird

Like

Supremely elegant rooms, superb service, the best bar in Paris and the magnificent swimming pool.

Dislike

The Ritz’s house-brand amenities lack the luxuriousness of those from, say, Hermès or Guerlain, and the French-made Porthault linens are no longer to be seen.

Good to Know

If you want to duck out for a good, simple meal, head for Au Coin des Gourmets (38 Rue du Mont Thabor), which serves excellent Vietnamese food in a pleasant setting with friendly English-speaking service.


Rates: Deluxe Room, $1,450; Deluxe Junior Suite, $2,100
Address: 15 Place Vendôme, 1e
Telephone: (33) 1-43-16-30-30


View Ritz Paris Listing

Le Saint- Hôtel à Paris

The question I’m asked most frequently about Paris is "Which are your favorite small hotels in Saint-Germain-des-Prés?"— the Left Bank neighborhood that retains its perennial popularity among North Americans. I have long recommended the Hôtel d’Aubusson, L’Hotel, Hôtel de l’Abbaye and the Relais Christine (which will soon be reopening after major renovations). But high demand at many times of the year means these properties are often booked up and are also able to charge stiff rates. So, recently, when I was walking down the Rue de l’Université to meet a friend for lunch, I was very interested to notice that the hotel Lenox, a good-value traditional hotel where I’d often stayed in the 1980s, had morphed into a new establishment called Le Saint- Hôtel à Paris.

Entrance of the Le Saint Hotel, Paris, France Courtesy Le Saint Hotel

On investigation, I discovered that the property (which opened in January 2016) was the creation of owner and decorator Bertrand Plasmans, who combined three former hotels on the site: the Lenox, the Saint Thomas d’Aquin and the Saint Vincent. So we booked in for a short visit. Our stay was delightful from the moment we arrived. Our room wasn’t ready, but we were invited to enjoy the woodburning fire in the lounge, with the promise that housekeeping would expedite its work, or to have breakfast. The latter turned out to be very good — Paris hotel breakfasts are often ridiculously overpriced and of middling quality — with locally baked bread and pastries, homemade jams and organic eggs cooked to order.

Upstairs our quiet and attractive Junior Suite was exactly what we’d hoped for, with a writing desk, oak parquet floors, two small balconies overlooking the Rue de l’Université and the Rue du Pré-aux-Clercs (the second with a table and two chairs), excellent lighting, a pair of armchairs, a large armoire, olive-green toile de Jouy-inspired wallpaper, a very comfortable king-size bed and framed black-and-white photographs of Paris by well-known local photographer Pierre-Elie de Pibrac. The white-marble bath came with a window — hence natural light — a large soaking tub, a separate shower and a double vanity.

The Junior Suite of Le Saint Hotel, Paris, France
Window view from Le Saint Hotel, Paris, France
The Bathroom in the Junior Suite, Le Saint Hotel, Paris, France
Bikes available for guests at Le Saint Hotel, Paris, France

The hotel has a wellness room for massages, a steam room and a small fitness center. Kult, the property’s restaurant, is under the supervision of Guillaume Monnet, who oversees the very popular modern French bistro L’Affable nearby. The menu runs to dishes like scallop carpaccio and butternut squash soup to start, with mains such as lobster risotto and herb-crusted rack of lamb with creamed chickpeas spiked with cumin, glazed vegetables and potatoes dauphinoise. Just a five-minute walk from the Café de Flore, Le Saint- Hôtel à Paris offers superior comfort in an ideal location at a relatively modest price.

Fall 2017 will see me return to the City of Light to stay at the renovated Hôtel Lutetia, on the Boulevard Raspail, and the Hôtel de Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde, which is billed for an autumn opening under the auspices of Rosewood hotels.

- Hotel at a Glance -

Le Saint- Hôtel à Paris 93Andrew Harper Bird

Like

Beautifully decorated rooms and fine location.

Dislike

The bar closes too early.

Good to Know

The hotel has bicycles for the use of its guests.


Rates: Junior Suite, $600
Address: 3 Rue du Pré-aux-Clercs, 7e
Telephone: (33) 1-42-61-01-51


View Le Saint- Hôtel à Paris Listing

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