October 14, 2020 9:00:17 AM
Picture this: a top-hatted doorman whisks you through swishing revolving doors to a place of calm with world-class food and cocktails at your ﬁngertips.
One of the most hassle-free ways to relax at the moment is by booking into one of Britain’s great selling points – its beautiful, historical hotels – and they don’t come much more stylish than London’s Savoy.
Walking in on a rainy October weekday, I am pleasantly surprised by how lively it is. I had been bracing myself to be rattling around a pin-drop quiet hotel with only my friend Rory for company.
I have been several times before and it is naturally not as busy as usual, because the reopening is being phased. The newer Beaufort Bar is open, but not yet the iconic American Bar. Kaspar’s, the restaurant overlooking the river, is closed for now, but the Savoy Grill by the Strand is doing a roaring trade for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Other than the discreet masks, spread out tables and hand sanitiser dispensers, looking around the hotel’s Thames Foyer at tea time, I would never have guessed that we were in the throes of a global health crisis. There is no shortage of ‘keep calm and carry on’ spirit from the staff who are – without exception – chatty, efﬁcient and caring.
Afternoon tea here has been a popular custom since the hotel opened in 1889 and it remains in full swing in 2020. In the 1920s, the ‘thé dansant’ (tea dance) saw in-house bands provide a soundtrack for professional dancers to demonstrate the latest Jazz Age steps. These days, everyone stays seated to eat and drink champagne, but live music is played in the glass-domed atrium in the middle of the foyer, evocative of the hotel’s illustrious heritage.
So, what other changes might guests notice? Franck Arnold, the debonair new general manager, is fresh from the Ritz Carlton in Toronto. His staff here have more than halved from 500 to 200, which is a sobering reminder of the shock that our businesses have been through this year.
Only 100 of the property’s 267 bedrooms have reopened. But there is a higher staff-to-guest ratio than pre-lockdown, so the service, for which the hotel is famous, is second-to-none as ever.
There are small tweaks, but not particularly inconvenient ones. The swimming pool is open for family groups up to six, so it would be a good idea to book ahead.
The staff, of course, keep their distance around the hotel, so they cannot join you in the lift with your luggage, for example, but they carry it up separately. In the restaurants, using menus that load onto your phone is encouraged.
Unwinding at the Savoy would be reason enough to spend a few days in London, but if you feel like exploring, the hotel sits between Covent Garden, Somerset House, the South Bank and Trafalgar Square, so there is plenty of social distancing-friendly sightseeing and scenic walking to be done.
Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario who built the Savoy in the 1880s, picked a plum location for a hotel. Even as a lifelong Londoner I am bowled over by the view from my room, the Monet Suite, on the seventh ﬂoor. At a point in the Thames where the river wiggles through the centre of town, from my window I can see Big Ben, the London Eye and the new skyscrapers going up at Vauxhall and Battersea, and to the east are the glass towers of the Shard and Canary Wharf.
Named after one of the most notable guests ever to have stayed, the Monet is a one-bedroom Edwardian-style suite with a sitting room, and a bathroom with The Savoy’s trademark black and white chequered ﬂooring and a big claw-foot bathtub. The view inspired Claude Monet, who whimsically depicted the trains from Charing Cross railway bridge leaving trails of steam and smoke, hazing up the view of Westminster. He ﬁrst painted the Thames in 1899, and returned twice, staying here each time for two months.
The roll call of his fellow esteemed guests is lengthy: as a loyal fan, Churchill could call in as many as three times a week. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Agatha Christie were all regulars.
To enjoy nightlife at the hotel, Rory and I head downstairs to The Beaufort Bar, arguably the more romantic and seductive of the two bars. The American Bar is the original but even when it opens again, I would recommend stopping by its black and gold sister for people-watching and cocktails. The two offer different but equally memorable experiences.
There is a welcoming buzz (until the 10pm curfew) at the Beaufort, with its slick white-jacketed waiter service and cosy alcoves. The novel concoctions I try are wonderful – the Bright Spark, a cocktail of gin, rose-petal liqueur, champagne and sherry cordial, and Look Into My Eyes – a mix of vodka, champagne, white wine and passion fruit cordial.
If you’ve been enjoying The Savoy documentary series on ITV, ﬁlmed at the start of the year, you will notice familiar faces around the place. Breakfast is served in the Savoy Grill, where one of the series’ big characters, the effusive, charismatic French manager Thierry, holds court.
All in all, the hotel’s reopening is resoundingly proof that you can have what we could all do with right now – some uplifting razzle-dazzle and old-school glamour. Lockdown was its ﬁrst unplanned closure in history. It is cheerful to see that, even in unprecedentedly difﬁcult times, the grand dame can offer a glamorous, decadent city break – as it has done for over 130 years and counting.
How to plan your trip
Doubles at The Savoy (thesavoylondon.com; 020 7836 4343) currently start from £568. Afternoon tea costs £65pp, or £75pp with a glass of champagne.
Olivia Williams is the author of The Secret Life Of The Savoy and the D’Oyly Carte Family, published by Headline, £20. Available now.