Richard D’Olyly Carte built the Savoy Hotel from the profits of his successful opera company, with which the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are synonymous. Opened in 1889, London had never seen anything like it, not only was it the first hotel to boast electric light, air conditioning and an electric lift, the Savoy pioneered the en suite bathroom and offered guests the last word in luxury accommodation.
The Savoy Grill or Grill Room as it is often called, has remained the hotel’s flagship restaurant ever since, with D’Olyly Carte making the wise decision to employ César Ritz (who later founded his own prestigious hotel) as manager, bringing with him the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier to head up the kitchen. It proved a dynamic partnership and Escoffier’s culinary approach was a revelation to wealthy Victorian diners of the time, including the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, whose patronage (and expanding waistline) secured the Savoy’s reputation as a leading gastronomic venue.
Re-launched by Gordon Ramsay Holdings in 2010 the restaurant’s golden days were revived with a menu celebrating the most extravagant French cuisine. Designer Russell Sage meanwhile complimented the original seating plan by installing crystal chandeliers and cosy black mohair booths for a seductive atmosphere, along with black and white photographs paying tribute to just a handful of the stars who have dined here over the years, including one of Marilyn Monroe sharing a joke with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall which captures the infectious glamour of the space.
Whilst it’s a long time since Marilyn or Frank Sinatra graced the threshold or since Vivien Leigh was introduced to her future husband, Laurence Olivier, the restaurant’s clientèle remains just as A list, fed with a steady stream of actors who stop by for supper after performing on the stage of the Savoy Theatre opposite. Once Winston Churchill’s favourite restaurant, the wartime leader enjoyed nothing more than to discuss the issues of the day with cabinet colleagues over a good lunch, and it’s easy to imagine him quaffing a glass of chilled champagne before tucking into one of the Grill’s signatures, Beef Wellington.
Escoffier invented many famous dishes here, beginning with the pêche Melba in honour of the Australian singer Nellie Melba in 1893, shortly followed by Melba toast. A great PR exercise, other dishes Escoffier named after personalities of the time included the unctuous omelette Arnold Bennett, the first of four courses from the Grill’s Escoffier Signature Dishes Menu (a reasonably priced £38). Specials change frequently and feature classics such as flambéed steak Diane finished table side, giving diners almost as much drama as the neighbouring Savoy stage, and a daily trolley runs during lunch service serving everything from suckling pig to steak and kidney pie.
Whatever tickles your fancy, The Grill execute classic dishes to an unrivalled standard and the extensive a la carte menu provides a feast of the finest ingredients. I couldn’t resist ordering one of my all time favourites, lobster thermidor. Whilst not invented by Escoffier, the dish has been tantalising diners since 1894, back when the Savoy Hotel was still in its infancy. Beautifully tender, sweet lobster luxuriating in a perfectly tangy cheese and mustard sauce, golden on top from a short blast under the grill, it’s the ultimate comfort food, especially when accompanied by irresistible hand cut chips.
Illustrating Escoffier’s philosophy that “good food is the foundation of genuine happiness”, a vanilla and passion fruit baked Alaska for two was the grand sugar rush finale, expertly flambéed table side and providing a piece of culinary theatricality you’re never too old for. You’d feel almost cheated if yours was the only table devoid of this intoxicating form of magic.
Since our visit it was announced that former MasterChef: The Professionals contestant, 36-year-old Kim Woodward, has taken over from Gordon Ramsay stalwart Andy Cook as Head Chef, becoming the first female to lead the kitchen brigade in the restaurant’s 126-year history. Aside from this startling leap into feminism, something tells me relatively little will change – and that’s a good thing.
The Savoy Grill, The Savoy Hotel, Strand, London WC2. For more information and to make a booking visit the website.