To the Palace Born
Working at a palace hotel is more than a job—it’s a calling.
FRANCE Magazine introduces you to some of the people behind these
According to Robert’s Dictionnaire Historique
de la Langue Française, it was in 1903 that the French
borrowed the word “palace” from their British neighbors, creating
yet another of the many faux amis that exist between their
two languages. At the time, the French already had at least two
perfectly good words for the Buckingham brand of palace—palais
and château. What they didn’t have was a word to designate
the palatial hotels that were springing up in Paris and along the
Riviera to cater to wealthy British clients. Taking their cue from
“gin palace” and “coffee palace”—two fancy fixtures of 19th-century
London—the French coined “Palace Hôtel.”
The term has endured to this day, yet while
everyone seems to know exactly which hotels are considered palaces
(there are six in Paris), no one can offer a precise definition.
There certainly are no strict criteria as there are, say, for Michelin
ratings. What everyone does seem to agree on, however, is that you
cannot open a new palace. These architectural treasures (some are
registered historic monuments) have a distinctive patina, a luster
created by decades of history laced with legend and myth—not to
mention titillating touches of scandal and amusing doses of eccentricity.
They are grand theaters that have been the stage for equally grand
dramas played out by kings and queens, American tycoons and Arab
sheiks, mercurial actresses and illustrious statesmen, aging barons
and glamorous socialites....
These lavish establishments (the George
V, the Meurice,
Athénée, the Bristol,
and the Ritz)
are the undisputed haute couture houses of the hotel world. Like
the Coco Chanels and Hubert Givenchies who frequented their salons,
they know that attention to detail is everything. It’s the valet
who sets down your luggage and asks if you would like anything pressed;
it’s the upholstered stool placed next to a woman’s chair in a restaurant
so she won’t have to bend down for her bag; it’s the beautifully
packaged Mazet chocolates on the coffee table and the Hermès toiletries
in the bathroom. And it’s the concierge whose job is to know everything
about a guest—his habits, preferences, comings and goings—and to
say nothing about them. To anyone. Ever.
Like haute couture, these hotels form the
cutting edge of their industry, initiating amenities and services
that will eventually filter down to even the most modest establishments.
Consider, for example, that the Ritz was the first hotel to offer
private bathrooms—an innovation that at the time was considered
wildly over the top. Of course, haute couture has never been cheap,
and neither are these palaces. But even if you can’t afford an entire
outfit, you can usually splurge on an accessory or two—tea in the
Meurice’s stunning Jardin d’Hiver, a drink or light lunch in the
Bristol’s enchanting garden, breakfast in the Crillon’s magnificent
Louis XV dining room.... In fact, rarely have such extravagant dreams
been so accessible.
On the following pages, we discover each
of the Parisian palaces through one of their employees. These articles
are not critiques or ratings—many other publications provide that
service. They are, rather, attempts to glimpse that elusive thing
called soul, without which these palaces would simply be luxurious
Le George V
Le Plaza Athénée
IN FULL BLOOM
JEFF LEATHAM'S iconoclastic floral designs
are redefining the Four Seasons George V
“Basically, I’m the John Galliano of flowers.” Settled comfortably
into the plump cushions of a Louis XVI chair at the Four Seasons
George V, Jeff Leatham matter-of-factly delivers the perfect
analogy for his place in the world of floral design.
Dressed casually, with the sleeves
of his thick black turtleneck pulled fashionably low over
his fingers, he waves toward the ravishing 17th-century Flemish
tapestry, the richly colored Savonnerie carpet and the other
elegant appointments of the Galerie dining area. “Each palace
is different, of course, but they all tend to have 18th-century
decors, which makes them somewhat similar. What I wanted to
do here was to create a new energy, something that would set
the George V apart.”
Like Galliano, who revolutionized
the classic houses of Givenchy and Dior, 31-year-old Leatham
has done just that. Rather than merely adorning the George
V with tasteful arrangements, he has practically turned the
hotel into a fabulous backdrop for his daring creations. In
fact, the word “arrangements” hardly begins to convey Leatham’s
work; “installations” is perhaps more apt. Recently, for example,
the space in front of a majestic mirror was occupied by 15
transparent four-foot-high vases holding up a sheet of glass,
which in turn was topped by dozens of smaller vases filled
with vara orchids, forming a stunning bright-purple carpet.
Behind them, bunches of deeper-hued tulips and black calla
lilies tilted out of the top of yet more tall vases, completing
the dramatic tableau. The entire composition took up about
100 square feet and, as always, elicited astonished oohs and
aahs from passing guests.
“Of course, I couldn’t do this sort
of thing if Didier Le Calvez didn’t give me carte blanche,”
says Leatham, referring to the Four Seasons George V’s general
manager. Indeed, if Leatham is Galliano, Le Calvez is LVMH’s
Bernard Arnault, spending close to $1 million a year so that
Leatham can give full reign to his creativity. With Le Calvez’s
enthusiastic support, Leatham has blossomed into a celebrity
florist whose talents are in demand at couture shows and more
international events than he can handle. His growing renown
has led to TV appearances, this year’s publication of Flowers
by Jeff Leatham (Filipacchi) and the manufacture of a
new vase designed for his signature “tilted” arrangements.
In turn, his ravishing displays have helped propel the George
V to the top of “world’s best hotels” lists since its reopening
three years ago.
Leatham’s edginess is in keeping with
the hotel’s historic reputation for offering state-of-the-art
luxury. When it opened in 1928, the George V boasted such
revolutionary amenities as fire alarms, two-line telephones
in every room and suites with two bathrooms so a couple could
be ready to go down to dinner at the same time. In the decades
that followed, it remained one of the French capital’s most
prestigious addresses, attracting Parisian high society, haute-
couture shows and an international Who’s Who, including General
Eisenhower, who made the hotel his headquarters during the
Liberation of Paris.
In December 1999, the George V reopened
following a $125 million refurbishment. Returning guests soon
discovered that it integrated all the technological bells
and whistles expected of a 21st-century four-star establishment
while retaining the inimitable cachet of a palace. The new
chef, Philippe Legendre, quickly racked up one, two and then,
this February, three Michelin stars for the hotel’s gourmet
restaurant, Le Cinq. His cooking is, as the French say, à
se mettre à genoux (worth getting down on your knees for),
with such elegant and imaginative preparations as smoked Breton
lobster roasted with chestnuts and a roasted rack of venison
dusted with crushed chocolate-covered almonds. His deft touch
is also evident at La Galerie, the hotel’s more casual restaurant,
where the Parisian gratin gather for lunch or tea.
While Legendre was collecting stars,
the hotel’s new spa was busy earning kudos of its own (Travel
& Leisure regularly ranks it among the world’s top 10). Lightly
perfumed with its signature Ambre de Népal, this serene
retreat offers a heated pool and beauty treatments ranging
from shiatsu massages with green tea service (a room is specially
outfitted for this purpose) and Margarita body scrubs to the
more mundane manicures and pedicures. American clients are
especially taken with the facials, which start with a full
back massage and last 90 luxurious minutes.
Yet in spite of these stellar amenities,
the two things guests still seem to notice most are the extraordinary
warmth and personableness of the staff—and those amazing flowers.
Little wonder. Over the years, Leatham has treated visitors
to breathtaking displays, some of them integrating butterflies,
couture gowns, designer shoes—even six-foot-tall resin orchids.
Sometimes humorous, often sensual, they are always what luxury
should be—surprising. “What I really love is to play with
color and texture, to create emotion,” he explains. “And I
love to make people happy.”
Making everyone in this 245-room hotel
happy Leatham-style requires seven full-time employees who
work out of a cramped basement room. Here, shelves are crammed
with vases, a computer is wedged in the corner, and the walls
are covered with press clips and glam shots of Leatham from
his days as a model. (Originally from Utah, he worked in the
Paris fashion business for several years before starting his
career as a florist in 1996.)
Days typically begin at 7 A.M., when
the flowers arrive directly from Amsterdam. With Sade blaring
from a small JVC stereo, three workers tend to the first order
of the day: unpacking the newly delivered flowers, trimming
stems and getting them into water. Next, long-stemmed roses
are run through a machine that removes leaves and thorns (“Foliage
detracts from the impact of the blooms,” maintains Leatham).
Given that he uses some 14,000 flowers a week, the entire
process can take several hours.
Leatham then makes his rounds, personally
inspecting each vase and giving instructions as to what needs
to be replaced. “I usually change the entire color scheme
about every 10 days,” he says, “otherwise I get bored. But
even in between, I tend to keep tweaking things.” And every
day, the water in every vase is changed, the stems on every
flower trimmed. While his staff attends to this monumental
task (a special trolley is needed to move the enormous vases
he favors), Leatham prepares any special arrangements needed
for that day’s guests. “Sometimes housekeeping tells us what
flowers or colors a guest likes or doesn’t like,” he says,
“although I don’t always pay attention. When Cher was here,
I was told she didn’t like roses. But I knew she hadn’t seen
what I could do with them. So I filled her room with all these
incredible black roses, and she went wild!”
By 6 P.M., everything is in place.
As darkness falls, the most magical hours begin, with tiny
votive lights flickering among the flower displays. “I want
this place to feel sexy at night, to have a youthful energy,”
enthuses Leatham. “And as you can see, I just love candles—it’s
a Stevie Nicks thing, I guess. One of these days, you’re going
to see me twirling around in the lobby!”
He pauses, surveying the enchanting
scene. “It’s perfect,” he sighs. “But in a few hours, we have
to start all over again.”
Fours Seasons Hôtel George V, 31 avenue George V, 75008
Paris. Tel. 33/1-49-52-70-00; Fax 33/1-49-52-70-10. fourseasons.com.
THE ROYAL TREATMENT
At The Meurice, JOSEPH GARDON ensures
that every guest feels like a king
If Interpol ever got its hands on the cell-phone speed-dial
lists of the world’s rich and famous, its first question would
probably be: “Who’s Joseph—and why are all these people calling
That would be Joseph Gardon, director
of guest relations at the Hôtel Meurice. For more than 20
years he has been at the beck and call of the celebrities,
CEOs and crowned heads who have made this hotel their Parisian
home away from home. In other words, he’s the guy they ring
up from their private jet when they arrive in Paris sans reservation.
Or when they forget their cufflinks in their room. Or want
to dine at a booked restaurant. Or are looking for an heirloom
rose bush to take home to the wife. In short, he’s the guy
who makes sure that everyone who stays in this legendary “Hotel
of Kings”—be they tourists or heads of state—is treated like
“Guests shouldn’t have to wonder who
they should call for this or that,” explains Gardon. “So I
let them know that whatever they want, whatever they need,
they can call me, and I will have it taken care of.” This
has made Gardon a sort of clearinghouse for requests that
are then dispatched to concierges, housekeeping staff, dining
rooms, the spa or any other part of the hotel. It also keeps
him tethered to his cell phone, which chirps incessantly.
One minute, it’s a woman who has left
the hotel but forgot to lock her jewelry in the safe; the
next it’s a gentleman whose wife sent along her Hermès scarf
to have it cleaned at the hotel because she likes their laundry
service. Then there’s the couple who want the living area
of their suite transformed into a dining room. Gardon fields
these and other calls from the hotel lobby, where he’s saying
good-bye to departing guests, making sure all went well during
their stay. A few minutes later, he’s off to the dining room,
where he welcomes an actress giving interviews at the hotel
that day. Then he sprints upstairs to a suite to make sure
the arriving guests will find it exactly as requested, with
the temperature at precisely 65°F and the bed facing north....
Delivering this kind of service is
an art form cultivated at the Meurice for nearly two centuries.
The hotel’s story began back in 1817, when a prescient postmaster,
Charles-Augustin Meurice, built an inn in Paris to welcome
British travelers after their arduous coach trip. In 1835,
the thriving business was relocated to its present site on
the rue de Rivoli, where it became a perennial favorite with
aristocrats: Queen Victoria; the King of Spain, Alphonso XIII
(who brought his own furniture); the Prince of Wales; the
Maharaja of Jaipur; the Grand Duchess of Russia....
Parisian high society also flocked
to the hotel, adding even more glitter to its gilded salons.
Their lavish parties were briefly interrupted during World
War I, when the hotel served as a military hospital, and again
during World War II, when the Germans made it their headquarters.
One of the residents was General Dietrich von Choltitz, who
had orders to destroy all Paris monuments if the Allies captured
the city. Fortunately, he was dissuaded and surrendered to
French forces, leaving Paris’s architectural treasures intact.
British and American military then used the Meurice as a base
from which to search for their dead, missing and wounded.
The postwar years saw the stream of
famous personalities resume unabated. Florence Jay Gould,
wife of U.S. railroad magnate Jay Gould, moved into the hotel,
inviting the literati of the day for luncheons and other highbrow
gatherings. Later, the Shah of Iran learned he had been dethroned
while staying here, and Julia and other films were
shot in the Meurice’s elegant salons. But for sheer shock
value, no anecdotes can begin to vie with those about the
flamboyant Salvador Dalí. The story recounting the day he
had a flock of sheep delivered to his room—then shot at them
with blanks—is only part of his surreal contribution to hotel
The Meurice entered the 21st century
more resplendent than ever, thanks to a two-year, $65 million
top-to-bottom restoration that was as painstaking as that
accorded any historic monument. Indeed, it was carried out
under the scrupulous direction of architect Jean-Loup Roubert,
also responsible for restoring the Paris Opera.
Upstairs, rooms and suites were reconfigured
and given authentic decors to match every period in the hotel’s
history, from Louis XV to Napoleon III. Rare-marble bathrooms,
custom-designed dressing rooms and top-of-the-line French
and Italian fabrics were among the luxurious touches lavished
on these rooms. On the ground floor, Roubert also made major
structural changes and directed a veritable army of French
and Italian artisans who spent months laying mosaic tiles,
painting delicate friezes and layering gold leaf onto ornately
carved wall panels. Perhaps the most dramatic part of this
massive restoration, however, was exposing and refurbishing
the fabulous Art Deco glass roof in the Jardin d’Hiver, which
had been covered up in the 1960s.
The overall result is a glittering
jewel box of a space, at once gilded, luminous and airy. Surrounded
by these regal trappings, it’s not hard to feel like a king
or queen—or at least like their privileged guest. Having Louis
XIV’s Tuileries gardens as your front yard doesn’t hurt either.
Nor does the frequent arrival of dignitaries accompanied by
scores of uniformed and plainclothes police, squad cars and
In any case, you can count on Gardon
to foster whatever illusions of royalty you may entertain.
“People today are more demanding than ever,” he notes. “And
they have every right to be. They expect cleanliness, luxury,
modern amenities and impeccable service, and we have to provide
all of that.” There may not be Dalís ordering sheep these
days, but there are businessmen who expect faxes to be delivered
less than five minutes after they arrive, and the paper clip
they requested to appear almost immediately.
“New hires don’t always understand
this,” he continues. “Sometimes they ask me, ‘Why should we
move guests to another room when there’s nothing wrong with
the one they’re in?’ I tell them their question is irrelevant.
Their job is to show guests another room and another and another
until they are happy. That is all that matters.” Louis XIV
should have had it so good.
Hôtel Meurice, 228 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris. Tel. 33/1-44-58-10-10;
Fax 33/1-44-58-10-15. meuricehotel.com.
Working behind the scenes, EVA SANCHEZ
maintains the Plaza Athénée’s legendary standards
Leonardo DiCaprio is coming to Paris. More precisely, he’s
coming to the Plaza Athénée, and he’s arriving in a couple
of hours. This bit of news doesn’t make pretty, twenty-something
Eva Sanchez swoon; for this no-nonsense gouvernante,
DiCaprio is simply another VP4—code for the hotel’s highest-level
She sweeps into his room with an air
of authority, taking in every detail with her expert eye.
Her housekeepers have already been here, cleaning, fluffing
and arranging. Now, an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter
and a painter are in the suite, making double sure everything
works perfectly and is in pristine condition. “We do this
for all VP4s,” she explains, moving a bottle of hand lotion
a millimeter to the right. “But I still come through and give
everything a final look.” Satisfied that the flowers, fruit
basket and Champagne are picture perfect, she consults her
clipboard and moves on to the next highlighted name on the
computerized list of the day’s arrivals.
Next to each name is a string of codes
indicating everything from preferred bed size to details about
a guest’s réserve, the items regulars store at the
hotel until their next visit. “This guest is an elderly gentleman
who’s been coming here for years,” says Sanchez, pushing open
the double doors to his suite. “His réserve is exceptionally
large—in fact, he has so many personal affairs and is so particular
about their placement that he has his butler come a day early
to set everything up.” Clearly, the butler has been busy.
His master’s suits are hanging just so in the closet, his
favorite tapes are arranged neatly next to the stereo, his
art books are stacked on the desk, his favorite knickknack
is on the mantle, and his good luck charm is on his bedside
table. But all is not perfect. Noticing that a bulb has burned
out on a sconce, Sanchez immediately whips out her cell phone
and calls in the electrician. During the gentleman’s stay,
she will ensure that everything remains just as he likes it—including
having his shoes lined up and laced to his specifications.
Neither DiCaprio nor the elderly gentleman
will probably ever see Sanchez. Yet it is her brand of exquisite
attention to detail that has kept the world’s most discriminating
travelers coming to the Plaza Athénée since it opened in 1911.
Situated on the avenue Montaigne, just a few doors down from
the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, it quickly became a favorite
with the leading entertainers of the day—Josephine Baker and
Rudolph Valentino were among those to sprinkle their stardust
on this illustrious address. Later, as the avenue became the
most prestigious shopping street in Paris, the Plaza attracted
fashionistas from around the world, including the famously
chic Jackie Kennedy.
Taking a page from its neighbors in
the fashion industry, the Plaza updated its look in 1999.
Philippe Starck acolyte Patrick Jouin added elegant yet whimsical
elements to the dining room, where France’s most famous chef,
Alain Ducasse, serves up his rarefied culinary creations.
Jouin also redesigned the bar, creating a space that is at
once classic and hip; perched on amusing metallic Louis XV
barstools, customers get a kick out of watching their drinks
light up from below when set down on the iceberg-like bar.
“Young people still want excellent service, but they don’t
necessarily want their grandmother’s furniture,” says François
Delahaye, the hotel’s general manager.
Delahaye’s bid to attract younger
generations was behind the decision to renovate the 7th and
8th floors in Art Deco style—the preferred choice of guests
like DiCaprio. Yet even the more classic floors feel fresh,
with savvy selections of fabrics in sophisticated tones adding
a contemporary touch to the 18th-century decor. The overall
effect is that of staying in the home of a Parisian friend
with impeccable taste—and the means to indulge it.
Sanchez is thrilled with the new look.
“It is so much more gratifying to take care of rooms when
they are this beautiful,” she notes. As for the other part
of her job—catering to guests’ ever-changing whims—she considers
it a personal challenge, approaching each task much like a
general organizing a military operation.
Good intelligence is vital. “These
are our Kardexes,” she explains, opening a file drawer with
hundreds of large index cards covered with notations and photographs.
“This is how we keep track of guests’ preferences.” These
range from how they want the bed turned down to the exact
number and size of soaps they want in the bathroom and the
dry cleaner that is to tend to their silk ties. Photographs
help ensure these desires are crystal clear: “This photo shows
how one man likes his shirts ironed and folded—the collar
just so, the top two buttons buttoned, but not the third,”
says Sanchez, pulling a Kardex from the file. In some cases,
the entire room has been photographed so that when guests
return—even a year later—everything is exactly how they left
it. “If they left a certain book open to page 240, they will
find it on the exact same table, open to that very page,”
Needless to say, delivering this level
of service requires excellent strategy, organization and communication,
and like any good military commander, Sanchez masters all
three. (Lucky for the Plaza she is so invisible, or an alert
CEO would probably hire her away.) It almost seems that the
more outrageous the challenge, the more she delights in pulling
it off. “We had this one young woman here from New York who
insisted that her entire room be disinfected,” she recalls
bemusedly. “Apparently she had allergies or something like
that. So we did it, and we had everyone who entered her room
during her stay wear surgical gloves. We did all her laundry
separately, and each piece was returned individually wrapped
in plastic.” One imagines the poor woman sequestered Howard
Hughes-like in her room, fearful of every Gallic germ. “Not
at all!” laughs Sanchez. “She took taxis, went to restaurants
and did a lot of shopping. In fact, she bought so many things
that she asked the valet to buy extra suitcases for her. Then
she had us pack everything, wrapping every item separately
in tissue paper. It took three of us all day!”
Being a perfectionist—and having a
sense of humor—are clearly assets in this job. So does this
exacting gouvernante kick back at home, letting a little
dust collect on the coffee table or a dish or two pile up
in the sink? “Not really,” she giggles. “I admit it, I’m pretty
much of a neat freak.”
Hôtel Plaza Athénée, 25 avenue Montaigne, 75008 Paris.
Tel 33/1-53-67-66-65; Fax 33/1-53-67-66-66. plaza-athenee-paris.com.
MORE THAN FARE
At the Bristol, ERIC FRECHON is making
"hotel food" the most acclaimed cuisine in town
With its well-tailored elegance, the Bristol would seem an
unlikely setting for a revolution. Less than a decade ago,
however, it was the site of a radical change that profoundly
altered not only the gastronomic landscape of Paris but the
world’s expectations of the French capital’s palace hotels.
Until then, these establishments had
almost prided themselves on serving very good classic French
food, but nothing fancy, thank you. In fact, it was widely
assumed that this solid, tasty, predictable fare was what
customers wanted (if they were after culinary fireworks, they’d
go out). By the early ’90s, however, many hotel dining rooms
were attracting so few guests that they were almost depressing,
and seemingly unbeknownst to hoteliers, the word among savvy
travelers was that the only reason to eat in your hotel was
In 1994, Bristol owner Dr. Rudolph
Oetker broke with conventional wisdom when he hired Michel
del Burgo, a young chef with a reputation for being as talented
as he was temperamental. The daring move paid off. Not only
did del Burgo draw a new clientele to the hotel’s two spectacular
dining rooms (the Bristol is unique in Paris—and in Europe
for that matter—for having different dining rooms for different
seasons), he contributed to the ongoing redefinition of luxury.
Once again, a superb meal in a spectacular setting with outstanding
service had become a delicious part of the palace experience.
Del Burgo was so successful that in
1999 he was scooped up by Taillevent, the legendary three-star
restaurant from which the George V—taking a lesson from the
Bristol—had just poached chef Philippe Legendre. So Oetker
struck again, recruiting Eric Frechon, who had made a name
for himself with his nervy modern bistro, La Verrière d’Eric
Frechon, in a remote corner of the 19th arrondissement. Under
Frechon’s direction, Le Bristol, as the hotel’s restaurant
is known, won a second star and is gunning for a third. Frechon’s
shrewd culinary signature? A brilliant and surprising interaction
between luxury ingredients such as foie gras and simple regional
foods and recipes. Typical is a luncheon entree of endives
rolled in slices of ham, gratineed with Parmesan and topped
with slivered black truffles—a lavish rendition of a homey
dish known to every Frenchman.
For any serious food lover, being
present in Frechon’s domain in the early morning is the ultimate
in gastronomic voyeurism. One after another, his suppliers
arrive in the immaculate and orderly kitchen where the air
is already richly perfumed by enormous simmering stockpots.
First comes the fishmonger with striped mackerel, huge flat
turbot and silvery sea bass line-caught off the Ile d’Yeu
just hours before. Then a rosy-cheeked elderly woman arrives
with a big wicker hamper brimming with bouquets of fresh herbs
gathered that morning in her garden. She in turn is followed
by a pretty young woman who fills the room with a royal stink
when she opens a small metal hamper containing something neatly
wrapped in linen towels—truffles, of course.
In season, the Bristol’s kitchens
go through as many as five kilos of truffles and 700 grams
of caviar a week. “The real extravagance here, though, is
the fish,” says Frechon, an amiable Norman who’s been cooking
since he was 15. “All fish is becoming scarce, but the finest
quality fish has become frighteningly rare and staggeringly
Later, as the lunch service gets under
way, Frechon is everywhere at once, tasting absolutely everything
before it leaves for the dining room. Meanwhile, some 30 talented
professionals go silently about their tasks. Among them are
pastry chef Gilles Marchal and boulanger Jerôme Paysan,
whose bread, baked twice daily on the premises, is so good
that it’s regularly delivered to the Thai royal family.
Watching the exquisite precision with
which this kitchen runs, it’s hard to believe that on an average
day it feeds between 300 and 350 people, exclusive of cocktail
parties and room service. “To pull this off, it’s imperative
to have a top-drawer staff and to convey to them exactly how
you want things done,” says Frechon, 37. “This is especially
important since we’re open seven days a week, and I simply
can’t be here all the time. But I have some great people working
with me—they know my cooking style so well that we hardly
have to talk anymore.”
Frechon makes running this complex
show seem easy, which is very much in keeping with the character
of the hotel itself. Almost invisibly occupying a prime stretch
of the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, the Bristol is, quite
simply, a supremely classy hotel. Of course, there’s nothing
simple about being simple when it comes to producing such
high-altitude luxury, and the hotel’s ambiance of effortlessness
and flawless efficiency can largely be attributed to the fact
that it’s had only two owners, the Jamet family, who opened
the handsome limestone palace in 1925, and Dr. Oetker, a German
industrialist who purchased the property in 1979.
Under both owners, the Bristol has
always exhibited a sense of restraint; instead of overgilding
the lily, luxury is born of discretion and understatement.
To Dr. Oetker’s credit, however, he also knows when to go
over the top—one of the most enchanting and original swimming
pools in Paris was the centerpiece of his extensive 1986 renovation.
Designed by the same naval architect who worked on yachts
commissioned by Onassis and Niarchos, this nautical piscine
is located on the top floor. Set into a beautifully constructed
teak deck, it offers fine views, a sundeck and the distinctive
luxury of urban laps by daylight or starlight.
Since 1995, the Bristol has carried
out a rolling renovation of rooms and suites. While each room
is unique, there are two different sections, each with a different
style. The Residence, the newer wing built in 1945 on the
site of a former Carmelite convent, looks out over the garden
and has plush, feminine rooms with pastel chintz. The original
building, built in 18th-century style, has a more traditional
French decor, with higher ceilings, silk-covered walls, period
furnishings and—like everywhere else in the hotel— original
works of art. Some suites have expansive terraces and private
gyms, and all rooms have vast Carrera marble bathrooms, reputedly
the largest of any Paris hotel.
Best of all, perhaps, is the room
service menu tucked into the desk drawer. Offering the same
fare available in Eric Frechon’s restaurant, it’s a veritable
summons to spectacular indulgence. Imagine for a moment you
and someone you love enjoying scallops with white truffles,
pigeon breast roasted with juniper berries and chocolate profiteroles
with bourbon vanilla on your private terrace, looking out
over the rooftops of Paris....
Hôtel Le Bristol, 112 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, 75008.
Tel. 33/1-53-43-43-00; Fax 33/1-53-43-43-01. hotel-bristol.com.
PHILIPPE KRENTZER is putting customer
relations at the heart of the Crillon experience
In one of the most magnificent 18th-century salons in France,
a chorus line is busily practicing C’est la Fête!,
the opening number of a musical to be staged the next day
by employees of the Hôtel de Crillon. A professional choreographer
exhorts the happy amateurs to do their best, corrects a step
here and there, and then begins the drills again.
The head waiter from Les Ambassadeurs,
the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, belts out, “Cuisine au
beurre, c’est le meilleur!” (Cooking with butter, it’s
the best!), as one of the dancers, a tall elegant man with
a boyish face, breaks out of the ranks to answer his cell
phone. Minutes later, Philippe Krenzter, 38, the Crillon’s
directeur général—which is to say the boss of everyone in
the room—rejoins the chorus line, kicking high with the best
of them. And you thought the manager of such legendary lodgings
would be a haughty aristocrat with no patience for frivolity….
“The biggest luxury today is human
contact and sincerity,” says the affable Krentzer, restoring
himself after the rehearsal with a cup of sublime hot chocolate
in the hotel’s winter garden. “You see, the whole concept
of luxury is in constant flux. Things that were once spectacular
have become commonplace—for example, many people now have
fancy faucets in their marble bathrooms. So we have to keep
renewing and reinventing what we offer our guests, coming
up with ideas that will strike them as truly wonderful and
unimagined pleasures. One of the things I’ve done here is
to make customer relations the heart of the Crillon experience.”
Krentzer, who came to the hotel in
January 2002, is eminently qualified to be resetting the pendulum
of a Paris palace hotel. A graduate of the celebrated Lausanne
hotel school, he went on to work at the Four Seasons, the
Ritz, the Savoy and Claridge’s in London; the Four Seasons
in Chicago; the Omni in Hong Kong and the Oberoi in Jakarta.
“The key to our new concept of luxury is our team of four
customer-relations agents,” he continues. “They discreetly
interact with our guests to see if there’s anything we can
do to make their stay in Paris happier and more fulfilling.”
These attractive, intelligent, worldly young women speak seven
different languages and can arrange everything from guided
tours of museums to private visits to couture houses or jewelers.
They’re also available to accompany guests shopping, to the
opera or to dinner, perhaps for linguistic reasons or just
for the pleasure of having some local company.
Providing such personal touches is
a tall order in a hotel with 147 rooms and suites, two restaurants,
a terrace, tea room, bar and eight reception rooms. Krentzer
manages the challenge by running the hotel “like a small village,”
and he has no lack of imagination when it comes to dreaming
up ways to give guests personalized experiences. Recently,
for example, he opened an Ecole des Fleurs. “Bilingual flower-arranging
classes are a pleasant way for our guests to make contact
with Parisians and to learn something new,” he says. “I hope
to do more of these sorts of things, but of course it’s important
not to do anything that would shock or unsettle such a dignified
And dignity is something the Crillon
has in spades. While most of France’s famous châteaux are
found in leafy settings far from urban crowds, this one actually
overlooks the square that functions as the spiritual grand
salon of France, the place de la Concorde. Designed by
architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel in 1758 at the behest of Louis
XV, the magnificent neoclassical façade and adjoining site
were acquired in 1775 by architect Louis François Trouard,
who completed the structure with a splendid private mansion.
It was within these august walls that the Treaty of Paris
recognizing the independence of the United States was signed
on February 6, 1778. Ten years later, Trouard sold the building
to the Count de Crillon, and it remained in his family until
1909, when it changed hands and reopened as the last word
in posh Parisian accommodations.
Many of the 18th-century treasures
here have been impeccably maintained, although the furnishings
of one salon—its wood paneling included—are now on permanent
display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Wandering
around the ground floor, one has the quiet thrill of inhabiting
rather than just gazing at some of the most stunning and historic
salons in Paris.
The hotel’s main dining room is perhaps
the most beautiful in the capital with its soaring marble
walls, marble checkerboard floor, huge crystal chandeliers,
winsome murals and gilt-framed mirrors. It’s this rare pedigree
that’s at the heart of the Crillon.
That doesn’t mean it’s stuffy, though—far
from it. The Crillon is pure romance. In fact, there is perhaps
no more wonderful way to experience the magic of Paris than
to sip Champagne on the balcony of a hotel suite, gazing down
at the neat grid of lamps illuminating the inky night like
sentries, and marveling at the statues, fountains and Egyptian
obelisk of the place de la Concorde. Just beyond, all of Paris
glitters at your feet....
And while the Crillon may be centuries
old, it is definitely not old-fashioned. Beneath its polished
parquet floors and Aubusson carpets, this venerable establishment
has one of the most modern infrastructures of any hotel in
Paris. It was thoroughly renovated in 1981 by the Concorde-Taittinger
group, and a more recent soup-to-nuts overhaul of 60 rooms
has equipped them with the latest in high-tech gadgetry.
Indeed, Krentzer knows that keeping
up with the competition isn’t enough—he has to stay out front.
This means constantly keeping a finger on the pulse of change
and responding immediately. While innovations such as cell
phones and the Internet have dramatically altered the Crillon’s
way of working, evolutions in travel habits have also resulted
in major changes. Not that long ago, much of the palace clientele
was royalty or individuals who had inherited great fortunes—they
would stay for weeks or months at a time with no regard for
what they were spending. “Such insouciance has largely become
a thing of the past,” says Krentzer. “Now the typical stay
is three days. This means that we have a smaller window of
opportunity in which to create a highly textured and emotionally
vivid experience for our guests. That is why the heart of
our efforts is rich human contact through the warmest, most
professional and most detailed service we can possibly provide.”
These and other trends have virtually
redefined the job of general manager. Like his colleagues
at the other palaces, Krentzer has also had to deal with everything
from the aftermath of 9/11 (Americans make up about 40 percent
of the palace clientele) to the government-imposed 35-hour
workweek, not to mention the new demands in promotion and
communication that require him to spend almost a third of
his time traveling.
And of course, presiding over the
only Parisian palace still under French ownership confers
certain privileges and pressures all its own. “The world expects
a certain eternal elegance and style from France, but that
can also be intimidating. My job is to remove the thorns from
the rose, so that everyone leaves the Crillon with a perfectly
Hôtel de Crillon, 10 place de la Concorde, 75008. Tel.
33/1-44-71-15-00. Fax 33/1-44-71-15-02. crillon.com.
SHAKEN STIRRED WHATEVER
Thanks to COLIN FIELD, the Hemingway
tradition is alive and well at the Ritz
Every Tuesday through Saturday, starting promptly at 6:30
P.M., one of the most charming shows in Paris—a bilingual
revue with no script but endless improvisation, laughter and
wit—begins anew as Colin Field, 41, parts the heavy brown
paisley curtains and unlocks the doors to the Hemingway Bar
at the Hôtel Ritz. No sooner has he slipped on his immaculate
white waiter’s jacket and taken his place behind the bar than
the attractive older blonde who’s been lingering in the vestibule
presents herself and orders a Dakota (vodka, carrot juice,
beef bouillon, salt, pepper, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce).
Field concocted the drink in honor
of his father, a former RAF gunner. “It wasn’t that difficult
to find the inspiration— I just tried to think what might
be consoling if you were manning a machine gun in midair,”
he says, with an endearingly telltale blush that hints he
may have used this line before. Mixing the drink with the
sure hand and precision of a chemist, Field continues his
chat with the blonde while wielding his cocktail shaker, then
finally serves her drink. She takes a long sip and says: “J’adore
Most people, in fact, adore Colin
Field, who’s become a unique institution at the Ritz during
the nine years that he’s been head barman at the Hemingway.
This cozy little bar, formerly known as Le Petit Bar (to distinguish
it from the Bar Vendôme on the other side of the hotel) is
entirely Field’s creation. He was in fact hired to revive
the famous drinking hole of writer Ernest Hemingway, who “liberated”
the hotel on August 25, 1944.
A regular at the hotel before the
war, Hemingway returned to Paris as a war correspondent, anxious
to revisit the place of which he had often said, “When I dream
of life after death, the action always takes place at the
Ritz.” Since 1940, though, the Ritz had served as the official
residence for Nazi dignitaries, including Hermann Göring,
who reputedly spent a lot of time in his room high on morphine
and dressed as a woman. But by the time Hemingway pulled up
in his jeep wielding a machine gun, the Germans had already
pulled out—all that was left to do was celebrate their departure
with a round of dry martinis.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do
with this bar from day one,” continues Field. “First, it was
important to respect the fact that this had always been the
Ritz’s black-sheep bar, which is why people loved it so much.
Real luxury, of course, often has a slightly dissolute edge,”
he says with a twinkle in his eye. “Anyway, I always say that
the Hemingway is the Left Bank, and the Vendôme is the Right
Bank.” In other words, the Hemingway is spirited, bohemian,
artistic, unconventional and convivial, as opposed to, well,
buttoned-down, wary, calculating and conservative.
Field, who originally hails from Rugby
in northern England, where his father managed a chain of five
movie theaters and was well known as a local showman and bon
vivant, developed a taste for the finer things in life early
on. “My father was enamored of the restaurant scene, and he
taught me how to use a snail holder when I was still a small
boy. Thanks to him, I became fascinated with the complexity
of a formal silver service, and by the time I was 14, I’d
already decided that I wanted to be a bartender in Paris.”
Why Paris? “I was completely smitten by the glamour and elegance
of the city, so after I finished my A-levels, I crossed the
Channel to attend hotel school here—it seemed infinitely more
interesting than the other possibility, which was attending
East Sussex University.” Field worked at a variety of bars
around Paris before the call came from the Ritz. “You know,
there’s nothing special that happens in this bar,” he says
modestly. “It’s just that I’m more in love with it than anyone
else. Still, certain bars end up having such a bright reputation
that they become a lighthouse for a hotel, which is important,
given that a bar is the easiest way of experiencing a hotel.”
Now the vest-pocket bar has filled
up, and Field breaks away to mix a Kashenka, which he describes
as “a dry middle-of-the-evening cocktail I invented for a
pretty Polish cabaret dancer who worked in Paris in 1991.”
It’s Polish vodka flavored with macerated strawberries, poured
over more fresh strawberries and garnished with a rose petal.
At least that’s the basic recipe. “I tailor every drink to
the customer and make them all from scratch” says Field. “We
don’t even slice oranges or lemons ahead of time—otherwise
they’re dead by the time you put them in the drink!
“Working here is like putting on a
little show every night, which is why I always need five minutes
to myself before I go on,” he continues. “I love this job
because it’s totally unpredictable. As you know, ‘Everything
happens at the Ritz,’” he says, paraphrasing Hemingway. “And
most important, everyone expects to have a transporting experience
here.” Indeed. But does this still happen?
Beyond having the remarkable Mr. Field
maintaining the flame of the Ritz’s glamorous and harmlessly
naughty reputation as the place where such larger-than-life
characters as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Coco Chanel took their
pleasures in large doses, just how is this grande dame faring
at the venerable age of 105? Is the hotel that contributed
an adjective to the English language—ritzy—still up to its
own superior standards? The short answer is that the Ritz
is getting on quite brilliantly, thank you very much.
Neither mummified into a pastiche
of what it once was nor inadvisedly modernized, the Ritz today
succeeds by continuing to meet its own relentless standards
of excellence while catering to a whole new layer of modern
needs. Since 1988, it has boasted one of the most spectacular
health clubs in the world, a $70 million sanctuary that occupies
a subterranean level of the hotel. With a decorative theme
that is quite appropriately ancient Rome, it offers an indoor
pool and an impressive array of exotic health and beauty treatments,
including ozone-inhalation sessions to increase the oxygen
in the blood, and a massage machine that purports to dissolve
As inviting as the spa may be, odds
are you’ll be in no hurry to leave your room. While the Ritz
offers the chance to stay in some of the world’s most lavish
suites, it’s the “standard” double that continues to earn
the hotel’s reputation. In these rooms, the beds are made
up with hand-ironed linens and lamb’s wool blankets, and the
bathrooms are ingeniously well lit and faced in marble and
honey-colored stone, with big piles of thick, softly scented
towels. The details are unforgettable, including all the trademark
inventions of founder César Ritz, such as hand-stitched pink
silk lampshades and key-style toggles on every light switch.
The Ritz also has one of Paris’s favorite
restaurants, L’Espadon, where talented chef Michel Roth has
won two stars by reinterpreting some of the dishes that the
hotel’s original chef, the famous Escoffier, made famous,
as well as adding his own superb creations, such as a tart
of cèpes or wild duck with salsify and smoked bacon.
It’s also worth noting that the hotel has a first-rate cooking
school with a program that runs from morning demonstration
lessons to monthlong courses for professionals.
Whether learning to make a millefeuille
vanille, stopping in for a drink with Colin Field or indulging
in the full Ritz treatment, no one leaves this hotel without
a memory they’ll never forget.s
Hôtel Ritz, 15 place Vendôme, 75001 Paris; Tel. 1/800-223-6800
or 33/1-43-16-30-30; Fax 33/1-43-16-31-78/79. ritzparis.com.