THE Ritz makes few concessions to the 21st century, but air conditioning is among them – and as I sit waiting for Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen on the hottest day of the year I’m profoundly grateful.
When Laurence bowls into the room, it’s clear that he doesn’t share my concerns.
Black suit, black boots, black tie and a white shirt – with trademark billowing cuffs – complete a rather dandy, if somewhat impractical look.
A pair of gold-rimmed Ray Bans is perched atop that famous dark mane – now showing a few flecks of grey – and he’s looking tanned and healthy, if a little warm.
We’re here to talk about hotels and he’s chosen The Ritz as his favourite London property. The grand dame celebrates its 100th anniversary this year (The Ritz, that is, not Laurence), and business is booming, not least thanks to a number of promotional packages.
Unusually among London hotels, US business is strong, which goes to show – for Uncle Sam at least – that Rococo decadence beats austere minimalism hands down.
So what is it about it that works?
“I like The Ritz because they get the service just right,” Laurence says.
“I’ve spent so much of the past year in ‘seven-star’ hotels in the Middle East, but if that’s seven star, I don’t want it – I like five star. You don’t want people dribbling and toadying all over you.”
What also irks him is the “X Factorish” approach to hotels and restaurants, where overnight sensations grab all the attention. Quite a turnaround for someone who made his name making over houses in a weekend.
“You can get it really wrong in London. Places spring up overnight, they close down, they get overrun by Jordan – and there’s someone who can fill a room. I like The Ritz because it’s just so un-wannabe,” he says. “It’s the generic luxury hotel.”
It certainly reeks of luxury and old money – and lots of it. It’s hardly the democratic design ethos that Changing Rooms espoused.
“Yes, it’s elitist, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with elitism, as long as it’s accessible. There’s no reason why anyone in the country shouldn’t be able to have tea at The Ritz; just like there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t be able to book a weekend in Venice.”
Apart from the most obvious one, that is. Bed and breakfast at The Ritz costs from £420 a night. Afternoon tea is a little more affordable at £35 a head.
But if Laurence is trying to do anything with BBC Holiday, it’s to encourage people to travel with a bit more panache. And if that means saving up and travelling less often, so be it.
“We want people to take a more considered, more intelligent approach to travel. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going away less and enjoying it more.”
It might mean spending a bit more money. In the case of The Ritz it might mean conforming to a dress code. And if that’s the case, go with it, he urges.
“There’s nothing wrong with dressing up. I can remember coming here as a child with my parents and it was a big deal. It’s nice when everybody makes an effort – it’s like we’re all on the same team.”
‘Undergrooming’, as he calls it, won’t do you any favours when you’re trying to attract a waiter, or get the top table in a restaurant. Not that it’s anything Laurence would have to worry about. Surely he must get fed up with people assuming he’s gay?
“It doesn’t really happen anymore. I think people know I’m married. What made me laugh is when the tabloids were saying I was ‘secretly’ gay. The idea that I could be secretly anything is just hilarious.”
Whatever secrets he had are probably out by now – in a BBC poll he was named the sixth most famous person in the country (“I was horrified to find myself just below people like Jonathan Ross, who really deserved to be there”).
I get the impression that’s “horrified” as in “really rather thrilled”.
But back to hotels. Laurence looks so comfortable holding court in our suite it’s hard to picture him staying anywhere else. But he’s very catholic in his outlook, even flying an unexpected flag for minimalism.
“I like minimalism because it’s a fantasy style. It’s like going through the looking glass. Nobody has ever actually successfully managed to live in a minimalist interior, so there’s something nice about staying in a minimalist hotel for one or two nights.
“Olga Polizzi does it very well. I look forward to a couple of nights somewhere like the Lowry as a clearing experience, just as I do somewhere like the Danieli in Venice, which is fabulously old fashioned and just how a hotel was in 1890.”
The basic flaw with über cool properties, he says, is they don’t age über coolly.
“Look at the Morrison in Dublin – it was so fashionable it became a cliché. Suddenly every high street shoe shop looked like that; all underlit and backlit.
“So then you start feeling more fondly towards places like the Clarence, where the panelling is stained, and there are pockmarks in the floor; it wears its history well and it adds up to a much softer experience.”
Surprisingly, the Hilton Metropole at the Birmingham NEC comes in for some praise, because the service was just right and it did what a business hotel should.
“And for that, I will forgive them the carpet on the walls,” he declares.
Post-Changing Rooms, Brits are much more design literate than they used to be, but Laurence is keen to dispel the obsession with neutral colours.
“Don’t be afraid to have points of brilliance, like a very sexy black bedroom. Everything else can be some shade of Kelly Hoppen string, or Farrow and Ball bogey… but why not have a scary private place for yourself? It’s like having a great jacket lining.”
You wouldn’t expect anything less from the man who gave Changing Rooms some of its more Rococo moments.
“We knew the more confrontational it was the more people would watch, but when they opened their eyes and burst into tears, we’d be genuinely upset.”
That was before he was named the sixth most famous person in the country.
“Now of course I’d back out of the room twirling my moustache and laughing like a Bond villain,” he says.
Somehow I can’t quite believe it.
Ritz facts – 100 years
- The Ritz opened in 1906, in the tail end of the Art Nouveau era. The Chateau style was already about 60 years out of date, but owner César Ritz favoured the classic look.
- Despite the décor, the building design was cutting edge for the day – it was the first steel-framed building in London and a precursor to the great skyscrapers in New York.
- The building has hardly changed in 100 years. The ballroom was replaced with the private Ritz Club in the 1970s, but all the room layouts are original.
- A 1934 review in The Bystander magazine reported 50 celebrities of the day in the Palm Court restaurant.
- Rivoli bar manager Alan Cook has created a suitably decadent cocktail to celebrate the centenary: the Ritz 100. Vodka, Grand Marnier, peach liqueur and champagne served in a Martini glass, garnished with 24-carat gold leaf. A snip at £16.