Nowadays, we think of London’s grand hotels as traditional places, where guests have been visiting for years, and change is resisted rather than welcomed. Yet for much of their history, the opposite was true. Both The Savoy and the Ritz were the designer hotels of their time, with modern technology, unheard of creature comforts and a level of service – whisper it – that often had been imported from the Continent.

Today, it’s fair to say you don’t stay in one of these hotels if you are working your way up the greasy corporate pole – they’re the preserve of those who’ve arrived and don’t mind others knowing it. Concerns about expenses aren’t an issue, though if asked, chief executives and chairmen will point out that the convenience of hotel suites and high-quality restaurants for confidential chats represent excellent value for money.

Yet while these well-known names are brands with cachet, they do bring challenges. How does the hotel change without losing what made it special, cherished even? It can’t alienate the guests who have been coming for years, but needs to attract a new generation of high-spending visitors , and what is stylish to one person is flashy to another. It’s a tough balancing act: rely on history, or construct a new hotel behind a well-known name. Each one of the hotels below has arrived at a different answer.

The Waldorf Hilton
Of all the hotels here, the Waldorf has most radically reinvented itself, having just completed a $56 million renovation and changed from Le Meridien Waldorf to The Waldorf Hilton. The exterior is unchanged: traditional early-20th century London architecture and a prime position between Fleet Street and the Strand. Most of central London is within easy reach and Covent Garden and Soho are an easy stroll away.
Inside, it’s a very different story. The reception desk is illuminated yellow glass, the walls are minimalist white, and the main accent colour comes from the bright red leather wing chairs designed by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobson.
Aldwych is on a slight slope so there are several flights of stairs, including one to reception and to the restaurant (Homage) and bar, but there are new disabled-access elevators for wheelchairs at the side of each. In the bar, wine by the glass is reasonably priced at £5-£9.50. On the other hand, you could always try a bottle of Cristal at £195. The design mixes a traditional parquet floor with mirrored rectangular columns and a stamped pewter effect behind the bar.
Homage Grand Salon is good value, with a no-nonsense approach to its menu: starters cost £5-£12 (the Scottish langoustine salad, baby artichokes and asparagus was delicious) while main courses are around £14. I had grilled calves’ liver, cracked black pepper jus and braised cos lettuce. Scalloped ionic columns reach to an extremely high ceiling, a glass-fronted wine cellar is tucked into one of the archways off the main room, and there’s a tinted glass central bar used for service at night and the breakfast buffet in the morning.
The 299 rooms come in all shapes and sizes (the first and eighth-floor rooms have higher ceilings). There are good views over Aldwych and the other three surrounding streets, but rooms have differing levels of noise depending on whether they are closest to Aldwych (constant) or the side roads, which are used through the night, but less heavily. The quietest are the internal rooms with no view, and for long stays or light sleepers, these are the best value. Rooms are divided into contemporary and design and both are modern in feel, with strange clothes horses in the corner shaped like robotic women, wall-mounted plasma-screen TVs, tea and coffee facilities, powerful showers, no-fog mirrors (which are a joy when you’re in a rush in the morning), a trouser press and a laptop charger integrated in the safe (why doesn’t everyone do this?). There’s a small, but well-appointed business centre below reception, and guests can use a privately run LA Fitness leisure club two floors below, with a small swimming pool. The club staff are excellent. In April 2005, an executive lounge will be completed.
Verdict: Excellent. A famous name, freed from tradition by frequent changes of ownership, has reinvented itself for the 21st century.
Prices: Queen Hilton rooms from £179 ($337).
contact: The Waldorf Hilton, Aldwych, London WC2B 4DD, tel  020 7836 2400,
Tom Otley

Part of the Savoy Group (now renamed the Maybourne Hotel Group) along with The Berkeley and The Connaught, Claridge’s has the feel of a one-off. Built by Richard D’Oyly Carte, also responsible for The Savoy, it had a similar level of technology and comfort, yet combined this with the old tradition of the hotels that had previously occupied the site, by offering apartments for long-term residents.
A glance over Claridge’s guest register reads like a Who’s Who of the 20th century. Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II and Jackie Onassis have all stayed here and are immortalised by photos adorning the lobby.
Photographs aren’t the only reminder of its history. Although the hotel was renovated in 1999 by New York designer Thierry Despont, the lobby stays true to the 1930s. Topped by a vast glass chandelier made of 300 hand-blown glass pieces, it’s a little gaudy to the modern eye, but a temple to Art Deco nevertheless, right down to the signature green and white china that carries petit fours for the afternoon tea brigade.
Art Deco continues through some of the 203 guest rooms, while others take their inspiration from the Louis XVI era. All rooms are spacious and feature a large desk and
classy stationery that might tempt even technology-savvy guests to ditch email and put pen to paper. If you need to stay connected, there are European and US
dataports, and internet access is available through the TV for £17.50 per day.
But what really sets Claridge’s apart is the service. The tail-coated doormen and suited waiters are helpful as well as immaculately turned out. In the restaurant it can be hard to tell the waiters from the customers.
Dining here is expensive if you opt for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s – £150 for two with wine and service – and the chef’s celebrity status and rave reviews mean it is tough to get a table. The Reading Room restaurant is a close second for cuisine (and easier on the wallet). Sitting in lounge chairs to eat is an unusual dining experience, but that could be what makes it popular with a greying crowd. The £37.75 set menu offers a choice of three French dishes per course, such as cumin-scented cream of butternut squash soup to start and roast loin of venison with spiced crust, celeriac mousseline and juniper jus to follow. This is more reasonable than breakfast, which can reach three figures if you order for two off the à la carte menu.
If further indulgence is on the cards, the hotel is in a superb spot for shopping. Nearby New Bond Street is home to shops such as Chanel and Gucci, while Oxford Street offers Selfridges. If the hotel bill has broken the bank, there are 24 channels of in-room entertainment. For £30 guests can access 15 movies and 15 music channels on a system that is refreshingly simple to navigate (this also includes internet access through the TV). Expect more renovation: there are plans in the pipeline for the addition of some 25 rooms and a new luxury spa.
Verdict: After wisely restoring its Art Deco styling, Claridge’s is a perfect blend of old and new.
Price: Superior queen rooms from £214.
contact: Claridge’s, Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1A 2JQ, tel 020 7629 8860
Ginny McGrath

Savoy, a Fairmont hotel
The Savoy has made lots of headlines in recent years, mainly because of its changing ownership. Previously part of The Savoy Group, it has now been bought in a joint venture between His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Bank of Scotland Corporate, part of HBOS plc, with Fairmont Hotels and Resorts in charge of management.
A $48 million refurbishment is promised, updating the Thames Foyer area and the restaurant overlooking the river but retaining the history, including the Savoy Theatre
next door, which was the original reason for the hotel’s creation.
From the minute the doorman sweeps you in through the front doors, there’s no mistaking The Savoy for anything other than a luxury hotel. Staff fall over themselves to ensure you receive VIP treatment, regardless of your room category. The turndown service is meticulous, there is silver service at breakfast, and staff remember your name.
Some refurbishment took place under the previous owners, but more work is needed as some of the rooms look a little tired. The best are those with a view of the Thames and the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. My River room was huge and set off by a working fireplace. The modern bathroom was kitted out with an oversized shower head, fluffy towels and expensive toiletries but my favourite feature was the mirrored ceiling which, in such a traditional hotel, is a decadent and slightly racy touch.
Business travellers are well catered for with plenty of power points and a broadband modem to plug into, as well as internet access via the TV, at £17 per day. There
is also a mobile phone loan system, which allows guests to rent a phone, free of charge. Insurance (£1.50 per day) and call charges are debited from your credit card. This is useful if you are visiting from overseas as there are no charges for incoming calls.
Aside from the refurbishments, there are already two outstanding dining options. Banquette is Marcus Wareing’s take on an American diner, with a theme representing a 1950s Corvette Stingray and decorated in red, ivory, brown and stainless steel with streamlined banquettes that stretch the entire length of the restaurant. Unlike at The Savoy Grill, both the atmosphere and menu are informal with guests in jeans and sneakers ordering burgers, chips and bottles of beer. But this is not your average fast food joint. Josh Emett, head chef at the Savoy Grill, leads the kitchen while Elias Lallouris, formerly of Claridge’s bar, ensures guests are happy and relaxed – a key part of the Banquette experience. Thanks to its position over the main entrance, entertainment is provided by the non-stop comings and goings of guests.
For drinks there’s the Laurent-Perrier champagne bar, open until 1.30am.
Verdict: Prices might soon go up when the refurbishment takes hold, but the cachet that goes with “you can reach me at The Savoy” is priceless.
Price: Fairmont queen rooms from £209.
contact: Savoy, a Fairmont Hotel,
Strand, London WC2R 0EU,
tel 020 7836 4343,
Lauren Custance

The Ritz
Preparing for its 100th anniversary next year, the Ritz was conceived by renowned hotelier César Ritz to be state of the art: bathrooms in every guest room, double glazing, a sophisticated ventilation system and brass, rather than wooden, beds. One of the first steel-framed buildings in London, the French chateau-style Ritz is probably architecturally the greatest of London’s
grand hotels, standing proud on Piccadilly with its perfect symmetry emphasized by large copper lions at each corner of the roof.
The Ritz has been owned since 1995 by the fiercely private Barclay brothers, who have spent $75 million on refurbishing the Grade II Star listed building, so to visit now is to see it at its best. The ground floor has a Louis XVI theme, with the vaulted Long Gallery running the length of the building, linking a series of elegant public rooms and drawing the eye to the far windows of the restaurant overlooking the hotel’s Italian Garden and Green Park. Off the Long Gallery, Palm Court is the place for tea and you must book weeks in advance.
The Ritz doesn’t hide from view and, as such, is firmly on the tourist trail. To keep the tourists at bay, discreet uniformed attendants mill around the lobby, and there’s a formal dress code in both the fabulously ornate Ritz Restaurant and Palm Court (jacket and tie), and the Rivoli Bar (jacket). Shorts, jeans and trainers are not allowed.
There are several room grades: superior single, superior king, deluxe king, junior suite and deluxe suite. All are in the distinctive Ritz colour schemes of blue, peach, pink and yellow and furnished with rich fabrics, 24-carat gold leaf and restored antique furniture in keeping with the original Louis XVI style. In fact, so fine are these rooms
that you tend to keep a tie on even while relaxing. A ratio of two staff to every guest room means there’s never a delay for room service, though it is unobtrusive and
co-ordinated with a brilliance that comes with a great attitude and excellent training.
In fact, without exception, every member of staff left the impression that in a few years they might be management themselves.
Who stays? Well, anyone who can afford it, on business, pleasure, or simply because they haven’t got around to buying a place to live in London just yet. The night we visited, there were mummy, daddy and child-sized cowboy boots left outside the door of the next room for overnight polishing.
For dinner we pushed out the boat and, among other dishes, had crepes suzette cooked on a trolley by the side of our table, then a night cap before bed – though the
price of hot water with a lemon infusion (£5.25; $9.90) was a reminder that the Ritz will always be a treat.
Verdict: The grandest of the lot. Perfect for special occasions or when you want to impress.
price: Superior king rooms from £370.
contact: The Ritz Hotel, 150 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9BR, tel 020 7493 8181,
Tom Otley

The Dorchester
Regal enough to host Prince Philip’s stag party on the night of his marriage to Queen Elizabeth II, and refined enough for General Eisenhower to plan the Normandy invasion from his office suite, the Dorchester is a hotel you have to look very closely at to find fault. Built in 1931, the property completed a multi-million dollar renovation in May 2003, revitalizing the faded grandeur of its public spaces and moving the Dorchester at full speed ahead into the 21st century.
On entering the hotel, I arrived at The Promenade, a lobby that runs the length of the ground floor, where guests sip tea and listen to live piano music. The Promenade’s gilded marble columns, sparkling chandeliers and abundant floral arrangements exude affluence, but manage not to feel too overdone.
In the guest rooms, hand-woven carpets and antique furniture create the cozy feel of an English country house, while tucked discreetly behind an armoire sits a near-perfect entertainment and business centre. Through the TV, with an infrared wireless keyboard, guests can use the internet and e-mail; Microsoft Office programmes Word, PowerPoint and Excel; 60 on-demand videos, 5,000 music tracks and various news and entertainment channels. The console also contains a colour printer, fax machine, DVD/CD player, and modems for UK and US plugs.
If you have any technical questions, a team of E-butlers can come to your rescue. Of course, this hi-tech wonderland comes at a fee: £15 for 24 hours of internet, £5 for music and £12.50 per movie. It may be a bit pricey, but it’s well worth the convenience of getting work done from the comfort of your four-poster bed.
There is no shortage of dining options. For impeccable service and well-presented food, try The Grill Room, which serves traditional British fare, though the menu is extensive enough to satisfy all tastes – expect to pay £75 per head. If that doesn’t excite you, the other option is the Dorchester Bar, which serves Italian food.
A more unusual dining experience is offered in the Krug Room, a subterranean restaurant located in the master kitchens. With the flick of a switch, the opaque glass becomes clear and reveals 12 red leather chairs around a glass table. A far cry from the ornate decor of The Grill Room, the clandestine Krug Room is another testament to the Dorchester’s discreet approach to hi-tech amenities, which have been carefully placed around the room so as not to interfere with the property’s Old World elegance that has attracted well-heeled guests for over 70 years.
Verdict: Hi-tech blends with elegance, allowing guests to stay in style without sacrificing business essentials.
Price: Superior doubles from £375 including tax and service charge.
contact: The Dorchester, Park Lane, London WIA 2HJ, tel 020 7629 8888, ¦
Mary Beth Hubbard