The scene: A birds-eye shot of a hotel lobby ringed by tiers of open balconies. Down below, black-and-white marble floors surround a massive circular concierge desk. Crowds bustle every which way, shadowed by liveried bellhops in silly-looking pillbox caps. John Barrymore saunters through. He is carrying his walking stick in one hand and his longhaired dachshund in the other.
“Adolphus is very vexed with you,” he tells a pillboxed bellhop. “You forgot to take him for his walk this morning.” Off to the side sits Lewis Stone—Dr. Otternschlag—wanly smoking a cigarette. “People come, people go,” he intones world-wearily. “Nothing ever happens.”
It is the opening of Grand Hotel, Oscar winner for best picture in 1932, and it gave the folks in the proverbial Peoria their first glimpse of an eye-popping phenomenon: the palatial luxury hotel that beckons guests to a pampered world within a world.
Grand Hotel the movie takes place in Berlin, but, not surprisingly, it is the city of Paris, with its taste for residential pomp and ritualized pleasure, that gave birth to this majestic, sometimes ungainly beast. The French call this kind of hotel a “palace.” The real Grand Hotel opened in Paris in 1862, and when she inaugurated it, Empress Eugénie pronounced it “like home,” meaning, of course, her home, not your home.
In 1898, the Ritz debuted on Place Vendôme, and its formula spawned a golden age of palace building around Europe but particularly in Paris: the Hôtel de Crillon, 1909; the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, 1913; Le Bristol Paris, 1925; and the Royal Monceau and the Georges V, both 1928. (The oldest of the current palaces may be the Meurice, which started as a posh inn for English travelers in 1815.)
And today the city is far and away the most palace-heavy one in the world. There are currently 11 or 12, depending on how you count. (“Palace” is also an official designation created by the French Tourist Ministry in 2010, but some of the most renowned—the Ritz, for one—don’t have it, and the French use the word more broadly.)
So it is also Paris, more than any other city, that is doing its utmost to keep this Old World artifact robust and healthy in our leaner, meaner Uber-Twitter age. It is not the simplest of tasks. Airbnb promises all the comforts of home in an actual Parisian home. Then there’s a new breed of palace from Asia, which strips out many of the grand hotel’s ruffles and flourishes. They’ll still bring you that iced tea before you realize you’re thirsty, but the bathroom faucets aren’t little gilded swans; they’re brushed aluminum and they’re shaped like...faucets.
Paris hates change. That’s part of its brand identity. It has kept the city a gem and made it an urban-planning nightmare—too small, too hemmed in, and too constricted by law and custom for its exquisiteness to be fiddled with in any meaningful way. But there is a price to pay for preservation. “The culture of the Parisian hotel is trop rigide!” says Marc Raffray, the general manager of the Hôtel de Crillon.
And yet...and yet there’s the Ritz (rooms from $1,120; ritzparis.com) and the Plaza Athénée (rooms from $1,305; dorchestercollection.com), two of Paris’s grandest grandes dames, as these hotels are sometimes called, shutting down for years of stem-to-stern refitting. The Plaza reopened in 2014, renovated and with three added buildings. The Ritz reopened about a year ago, after spending $400 million on the job.
Now comes along the equally grand Hôtel de Crillon (rooms from $1,360; rosewoodhotel.com), reopened in July after four and a half years of hammering, gilding, replanting, and rethinking. The Crillon occupies a glorious slice of the building Ange-Jacques Gabriel designed in 1758 for the northeastern corner of his Place de la Concorde. In 1778, in a salon on the future hotel’s second floor, Benjamin Franklin signed the treaty that brought French recognition of our Declaration of Independence.
A pedigree like this does not inspire the urge to turn everything inside out, and no one has. Still, change is in the air. When I walked through the Crillon a month before its reopening, I could make out a fresh spirit. The lobby is still lit by glittering crystal chandeliers, except now they’re bedecked by garlands of silver chains, like whimsical Christmas ornaments. The quaint engravings on the corridor walls have been jazzed up with the application of quirky multicolored dots. “The idea is to bring the 18th century into the 21st—but not in a gimmicky way,” Raffray says.
Upstairs, the rooms continue the two-century straddle. Gone are the gilded ancien régime stage sets, replaced by a mix of old and new pieces. Nothing jarring, but for a monument in a powdered wig, it’s a roll of the dice. “It’s a risk not having period decor,” Raffray concedes. “Either you like it or you don’t.”
Over on the Avenue Montaigne, the Plaza Athénée has a new official motto: “Once upon a time, the palace of tomorrow.” The grammar may be murky, but the sentiment is clear. “We kept the Louis XV furniture—guests expect it—but we wove silver threads into the fabric to make it more modern,” says chief operating officer Francois Delahaye. “Most designers want to leave their marks by bringing in too much modernity. It’s a fight between the designers and the managers, but it’s a beautiful fight.”
The true battle of the grandes dames will be waged on the ground floor, where real life unfolds. “Rooms are static—you can only communicate so much with a room. Public spaces are emotional,” says Frank Schuetzendorf, a senior lecturer at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, one of the great hotel academies.
At all these hotels, big lobby spaces have gotten chopped up and rejiggered as intimate nooks. Gone for the most part are the vast fishbowls where a Dr. Otternschlag could watch people come and go. At the Ritz, a boiserie wall went up on the long corridor leading back toward the Rue Cambon and the cozy Marcel Proust tearoom carved out; you can get vanilla-infused madeleines there but no scones. (Proust was a Ritz regular—his last words were a request for a Ritz-brand beer, which may be the ultimate celebrity endorsement.)
“We want to keep it residential,” says Christian Boyens, the Ritz’s general manager, who spearheaded the renovation.
Residential is the new mantra. Raffray and Delahaye say it a lot too. If the metaphor for the classic grand hotel was theater, the metaphor for its new incarnation is home. The Crillon has no concierge desk—just stations in a small salon where a team of young majordomos floats freely, helping out wherever needed. “They’re like butlers, but we don’t really have butlers in Paris—we got that idea from Rosewood,” Raffray says. (Rosewood Hotels manages the Crillon.)
“We’re all saying residential because we’re fighting against Airbnb, which is affecting our business badly,” Delahaye says. “Little items, little pictures in the rooms, they’re all meant to give a homey feeling to combat Airbnb. We’ve all suffered against them.”
There’s only so homey a grand hotel can get, or even should get. A better opponent to Airbnb is La Réserve (rooms from $1,250; lareserve-paris.com). With only 40 rooms it feels more like a Parisian hôtel particulier—a bourgeois mansion—than a grande dame. Didier Le Calvez, the general manager who formerly oversaw the George V, credits Asia’s Aman Resorts with creating the first super-luxury pocket hotel; La Réserve is a fresh breeze in Paris.
Hidden away on the Avenue Gabriel, near the U.S. embassy, the hotel is barely noticeable. Don’t plan to book a sales meeting. Where the meeting room might have been, there’s a quiet library with a fine grand piano. I sat down and played happily, and no one said a word. “This is like a Parisian apartment,” Le Calvez says.
Still, the grandes dames have a lot more on their minds than Airbnb and La Reserve. In making their hotels less conspicuously hotel-y, the owners have set their sights on a different audience: Parisians. “If all you’ve got are buses of Chinese, Japanese, and Americans, you don’t have a soul,” Delahaye says. “It’s a different experience to sit at the bar surrounded by beautiful Parisians.”
Personifying Paris has become critical to the grandes dames in recent years, especially in light of the arrival of the Asian ones. Mandarin Oriental (rooms from $1,215; mandarinoriental.com) opened its Paris outpost in 2011. The Peninsula (rooms from $1,055; peninsula.com) spent a reported $460 million to buy the old Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber and $400 million or so to redo it. It opened in 2014. Each brings a crisper, more corporate flavor to what a big luxury hotel should feel like, whether it’s in Paris or Shanghai or indeed anywhere.
New players like us have brought an element of luxury Paris didn’t have before,” says Katje Henke, the Peninsula’s new general manager. “It’s a little more understated and subtle. You won’t find that flowery-poufy French style. There’s more technology, which business travelers appreciate. I think we made the other hotels reevaluate things.”
Having so many world-class luxury hotels makes Paris unique. The profitability pyramid is steep, and the money is at the peak. “There will be a fight to be the top five,” Raffray says, “and those who aren’t will have to lower their prices,” he adds. “We aim to be one of those five.”
All of which is excellent news for travelers. One thing you aren’t going to find at any of these establishments is the haughty indifference of a bygone era. When Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp brought looser-limbed American service to the George V in 1997, the newspaper Le Figaro balked. Overly chummy, they sniffed. But Sharp’s influence has by now taken root all over this famously starchy town. No one’s going to insist that you have a nice day, thank heavens. But hiring staff who are “not familiar but comfortable,” as Le Calvez puts it, is now obligatory. “The days when we could look over our eyeglasses at the client are over. The Four Seasons and the Mandarin brought that to the table.”
Also swept away with the tide is the classic grand hotel manager, the type played so superbly by Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: an impassive stickler for hotel protocol. Raffray points out that he hails not from Paris but from the palmy island of Mauritius, a French colony during the years when the Place de la Concorde was being built. They breed them easier-going down there, he says. You’re going to be seeing a lot of him on the ground floor—it’s one of the reasons he was hired. “If you need a cup of coffee or help loading your car, I’ll do it,” Raffray says obligingly. “We’re breaking all the old codes.” Yes, Dr. Otternschlag. Even in Paris.