In London's most iconic hotel, 116 years of history lay the foundations for forward-thinking cooking
The Ritz is such an impactful destination that it has forever changed our vocabulary. How do you cook food that stands up to a place with so much history, in one of the city's most glorious dining rooms?
Few names are more synonymous with luxury and elegance than The Ritz. It’s one of those rare occasions when the name transcends simple noun status, and ends up becoming an adjective, too. To be ritzy doesn’t just connote a hotel on London’s Piccadilly, but a certain state of being, one that is wholly and entirely lavish. It is difficult to overstate the impact of an establishment that quite literally redefines our vocabulary.
First opened in 1906 by César Ritz, The Ritz hotel quickly established itself as an iconic part of the London hospitality scene. It gained the patronage of King Edward VII in the years before he took the throne, who is reported to have claimed, “where the Ritz goes, I go”. In the 116 years since its opening, the list of notable clients has only increased, with Queen Elizabeth often dining at the restaurant, and The Queen Mother even having a favourite table.
It was at that exact table that I found myself on a balmy afternoon in early August, completely and utterly awestruck by the dining room. Since 1906 people have gushed about the beauty of The Ritz Restaurant, but to see it with your own eyes is truly something else. To step into the space is to take a time capsule back into a bygone era. It is ornate to the point of being overwhelming and decorated like something out of a fairytale. It is, to put it bluntly, a hard act to live up to. And yet, executive chef John Williams manages just that.
“The cooking needs to match the room,” he tells me. “I remember when I had been here four or five weeks, I wasn’t happy with the service, so I took the whole kitchen and said ‘Come on, we’re going upstairs.’ There must have been about 20 chefs there and some of them had never actually seen the restaurant. I said ‘Look, have a little look around. Do you think your food suits this restaurant?’”
It was hardly an overnight endeavour to turn the restaurant at The Ritz from a reliable, if slightly outdated establishment to a place where the food and the service are impeccable. And while yes, the glamour of the setting seems to hawk back to a bygone era, the experience seems wholly anchored in the present day, if not looking slightly to the future. You’re not about to come to The Ritz and see small plates and natural wines occupying the menu, but there is a kind of modernity to the food that has been meticulously crafted by Williams and his team over the nearly two decades he has been working there. “The word I always say is 'evolve',” Williams says. “In a kitchen, the day you don’t evolve, you die. If there’s no evolution, a kitchen only goes backwards.”
Part-way through a meal here, when the fourth course was coming to our table, a parade of trolleys were set up around us. Suddenly we had three men, bedecked to the nines in their coats and tails, getting to work. To my right, one was filleting a gleaming whole pigeon, carving out slices of pink meat. In the middle sat what I can only explain as a medieval torture device; a duck press (or I suppose in this case, a pigeon press), into which the carcass of the bird was loaded and macerated for all its worth to extract a fairly healthy amount of juice from the remaining meat and bones. This was then handed to the gentleman in front of us who was flambéing all manner of ingredients in a frying pan set atop a mahogany trolley. It was all then elegantly arranged on a plate and presented to us, before the three men wheeled off into the distance, leaving me to wonder if it had all been a mirage brought on by my third glass of wine and the late-summer heat.
When the front-of-house staff look that good and they get to cook and be flamboyant, it creates a rapport. It helps break down barriers
To some, this kind of tableside preparation – known as gueridon service , and a hallmark of throwback French fine dining – may seem ridiculous, but it is extremely fun when it's done right. And isn’t that what dining is all about? Plus, as Williams points out, it allows the front-of-house team to take centre stage, as they rightly should. “It’s about elevating the status of the restaurant management team,” Williams said. “I mean, look at them! Some of them have got tails and that and, you know, it’s way too over the top for them to just carry plates. When they look that good and they get to cook and be flamboyant, it creates a rapport and it fits in that room. People used to say, 'Isn't it a bit stiff, having these people in suits coming to your table?' And now, of course, the first thing people say is ‘Oh, I didn’t expect them to be so friendly.’ Doing these things helps break down those barriers.”
To write about The Ritz as an institution is almost to tell two parallel stories; that of the hotel that has existed since 1906, and that of John Williams who joined the restaurant as executive chef in 2004. It is no mean feat to take on a restaurant of this stature nearly a century after its opening, but Williams more than rose to the task. It would be easy to see it as a living relic, but over the last 18 years, Williams has made it feel contemporary. You only need to look at this year’s National Restaurant Awards list, when the restaurant jumped a whole 40 spots from the previous year to place fourth, to see that. “We’ve been cooking great food for 10 years. I think it’s got better and better each year,” Williams tells me. “At a place like The Ritz, it takes a long time to get your message out there, but eventually the news does get out. It hasn’t been something where we’ve flipped a switch. It’s all here, it’s always been here.”
Later on in our conversation, Williams leans forward and lowers his tone conspiratorially. I had asked him about the significance of their Michelin star and the buzz around the restaurant at the moment and he had been considering my comments when he announced “I’ve never told anyone this before, you can ask Jackie,” before gesturing to the restaurant’s communications director, who looked vaguely concerned. “I came here, and I remember thinking, 'You’ve got to organise that restaurant. You’ve got to make that work. And my goal was to have the best hotel kitchen in London. But the one word that I never mentioned, that I was always striving to do, was getting a Michelin star. But I never told anybody.”
It was a goal Williams and his team achieved in 2016, when they were awarded their first star. He was quick to add that he doesn’t want any of what he is saying to come across as arrogant, but I’m struck by the humility of it. This is a man who leads one of the most exquisite culinary operations in the city. Why shouldn’t he be able to admit to his ambitions? I didn’t live in London in 2016, so I can’t comment firsthand on the quality of the food then, but a consultation of industry friends affirms Williams’ comments that the restaurant has been consistently getting better, year on year. I can be almost certain that the food now is a damn sight better than it was when they got that first star.
The Ritz has sat stoically in its commanding spot on Piccadilly since 1906. It has played host to pop royalty and actual royalty, served as the backdrop for scenes in iconic Richard Curtis film Notting Hill and is rumoured to be where Margaret Thatcher passed away. The hotel and its restaurant have been intrinsically woven into London’s history. And yet, over a century later, it is easily serving up what may be the greatest food of its illustrious life, holding the title of one of the best restaurants in the country. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a story for the ages.