By Dave Nelson I love hotel bars. They are stylish and over-priced, but who cares? You can drink there without staying in the over-priced rooms. Cool!

Back when the world was young, I took my wife to dinner at the Savoy Grill for her birthday. I was still in theater production back then so the Savoy seemed a natural destination. The Savoy hotel is attached to the Savoy theater, founded in 1881 by impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte with the fortune he made producing the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Savoy was the world’s first theater (indeed, the world’s first public building) powered and lighted completely by electricity. D’Oyly Carte opened the Savoy Hotel next door in 1889. The hotel was the first to feature electric lighting, elevators, continuously flowing hot-and-cold water, and private bathrooms in the most expensive suites. Cesar Ritz (of the Ritz hotels fame) was the first hotel manager. Auguste Escoffier was the hotel’s first chef.

Every major political and entertainment figure of the 20th century stayed at the Savoy. Churchill had cabinet meetings at the Savoy. (British tax dollars at work!) The Beatles stayed there, as did Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, Enrico Caruso, Judy Garland, and Harry Truman. (American tax dollars at work!)

The celebrity list of former guests is endless and yet the Savoy Hotel still let me in the front door.

We were a bit early for the reservation so we wandered down the main corridor and found a bar. It turns out this was the American Bar, world famous, though I didn’t know it at the time. Its most celebrated bar manager had been Harry Craddock, an England-born naturalized American who deserted the States during Prohibition. (Prohibition was generally not a good time for hotel bars.)

Harry Craddock American Bar

Harry Craddock buries a cocktail shaker in the American Bar’s wall, 1927.

Craddock was notable because he shook the last legal martini in New York (at the Holland House in 1919) and reputedly poured the first dry martini in England (yes, in the American Bar at the Savoy.) He created dozens of other American drinks which the Brits guzzled with high-toned gusto. And he codified his work in the “Savoy Cocktail Book,” still regarded as the greatest reference guide for bartending (shown below in its original 1930 design and a later cover).

The Cocktail Book


Cocktail Book 2
So my wife and I found ourselves in the cocktail Hall of Fame, and I can’t remember if we ordered cocktails. We ordered…something which arrived at the same time our table was ready. A guy in a white bowtie and a waist coat carried the drinks to our table in the Grill where, again, we ordered…something. Did I mention this took place when the world was young?

After dinner, we decided to take a London cab rather than the Tube. As we embarked, I said to the cabbie, “This is my wife’s birthday. Is it possible to take us on a tour of London?”

My question clearly bamboozled the driver. He was a Cockney (with a slight lisp!) and he wasn’t quite sure what to do. He said he wasn’t really a tour guide and he didn’t know what to charge.

“I have 75 pounds in my pocket,” I said. “Will that cover it?”

“Most definitely, Guvnor!” (At the time, the British pound was worth $2.40.)

And off we went into the London night! He showed us a dozen amazing places in the next hour or so. He showed us the side-street boutique where Queen Elizabeth did most of her clothes shopping. We went by the first English coffee house which eventually became the world’s first insurance company, Lloyd’s of London. (Apparently, the Brits used to drink coffee all day while making bets on the fates of trading ships at sea.)

He drove us by the Libyan embassy where, just a month earlier, a Libyan “diplomat” had gunned down a London policewoman guarding the Embassy. And we stopped by many wonderful, ancient places that now I can’t recall. But at each one, our cabbie noted, “It’s very old, very old.”

Only he couldn’t say “very old.” He was like a Cockney Elmer Fudd. “Very old” always came out as “Veh-whee ode!” My wife and I still laugh about that.

It was the best night in London. Ever.

The Savoy Hotel at night

The dazzling Savoy Hotel at night in all its glory, looking across the Thames. Photos courtesy of The Savoy, a Fairmont-managed hotel.