London - I’m sure this top-hatted, penguin tail-coated man has seen some pretty fancy stuff in his day. Ostrich skin, Louis Vuitton and the like.
He’s reaching into the boot of my cab and he’s about to discover that I’m masquerading as one of the highfalutin types who normally stay at the Savoy Hotel in London.
My suitcase is hardly the larney type to begin with, but because the airline has unceremoniously removed one of its four wheels, it now perches lopsided, and I’m embarrassed that this porter to the rich and famous has to handle my less than perfect gear.
He takes one look at my wonky luggage and says in his posh English accent: “Never invest in expensive bags old chap. Suitcases are meant to be disposable.”
I haven’t yet set foot inside the lobby, but I feel welcome. It’s one of the porters’ jobs I guess, and the Savoy’s are darn good at it.
Opened in 1889, the history here’s as thick as oatmeal stout and you can feel it in every passage. The front entrance’s rotating doors are like time machines. On one side is modern London; on the other, grandiose art deco style that seems untouched and in period despite a three-year and R2.4 billion (yes, that’s billion) make-over a few years ago.
The Savoy offers 206 rooms and 62 suites, with prices ranging from R4 500 to R180 000 a night. No two marble-floored and lavishly furnished rooms are the same, but they all have something in common – spirit. And I mean that in every sense of the word.
On my bedside table was a framed black and white photo of musician Joan Baez. I hoped that she’d slept in my room, but even if she hadn’t it’s likely someone famous had.
Over nearly 125 years, the Savoy has been graced by celebs galore – Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, John Wayne, Sir Winston Churchill and Marlon Brando, to name hardly a few. It feels like their ghosts are everywhere.
The ground floor is where it all happens. It’s a bustling hub where visitors and staff crisscross on their way to each of the colour-coded lifts (red, green and blue), the Thames Foyer with a winter garden gazebo known for afternoon tea, or the two restaurants and two bars.
A chance encounter in one of the back corridors, with a cabaret singer decked out in feather boa, shiny black bob and eyelashes like garden rakes, led me to the Savoy’s newest bar, the Beaufort. She was about to make her grand entrance through a side door and invited me to follow, and as we appeared from behind a grand piano she said: “Welcome to the Jet Black and Gold” – the Beaufort’s well-chosen nickname, as this colour scheme dominates the lounge.
The American Bar is better known. Styled just as it has been since the beginning, with cream walls and deep blue and gold chairs, this has been a hangout of the rich and famous since American barman Harry Craddock introduced his prohibition-era cocktails to London here in 1925. Craddock’s recipes are printed in The Savoy Cocktail Book, which is still in print. Make sure to try his White Lady if you go.
Book a table at the Savoy Grill on arrival at the hotel. Management by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has pushed waiting lists through the roof, so you’ll need to get a slot in advance. But it’s worth it.
Rich red lacquer walls and art deco chandeliers give a warm and moody ambience that’s second in quality only to the first-class food. Some are probably too fancy for middle-class tongues but Ramsay’s made sure common folk eat well too. I had the fattest pork chops I’ve seen, and a dessert to die for. Get the lavender ice cream. My taste buds will never be the same.
The River Restaurant (of course it overlooks the Thames) at the back of the hotel is less conspicuous than the Grill. It’s olden-day chefs are rumoured to be the inventors of dishes such as Melba toast, peach Melba and omelette Arnold Bennett. It’s a stately venue that can double as a conference room and can seat hundreds.
An interesting South African connection has led to a Savoy dining superstition and probably the world’s most famous hotel pet – Kaspar the cat.
Kaspar stands around 1m tall and was carved from wood in art deco style by Basil Ionides. He’s been a guest since 1926 and he lives in a display case near the lobby. That is, until his services are required.
Legend has it that in 1898 a Joburg resident visiting the Savoy hosted a dinner party for 14 people, but when one failed to arrive, the table sat an unlucky 13. On his return to South Africa, said host was shot dead.
Since then the Savoy will not seat dinner parties of 13, and if such circumstance arises Kaspar is seated as the 14th guest. He gets a full setting and is served each dish. Brilliant.
If you find yourself in The Strand in central London, pop into the Savoy and say howzit to Kaspar, the top-hatted porters and the spooks.
They’re all there to welcome you. - Saturday Star