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The Savoy: World's Most Famous Bar Where Bigwigs Like Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill Said Cheers

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The Savoy was a dream child of Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theatrical impresario, who wanted to bring something phenomenal (to his town) after the fashion of many hotels he had visited during his tour in America.

News18 Tippling PointWhich is the most famous bar in the world? There can be so many contenders from all parts of the world. But still, millions of people who have ever visited London would not think twice to award the trophy to a great deluxe hotel in the town.

The Savoy was a dream child of Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theatrical impresario, who wanted to bring something phenomenal (to his town) after the fashion of many hotels he had visited during his tour in America. Comfort, luxury and impeccable service should be the hallmark of the new hotel, he insisted, so that the visiting Americans should feel at home on the Island.

So in 1889 the first purpose-built hotel threw open its gates to an awe-struck public - The Savoy.

First, it was the architecture and decor that caught the attention of the people. Victorian in style, those long rows of balconies looked out to the river Thames while offering alfresco dining to the customers.

Nights became spectacular in London with the opening of the hotel. Both the Savoy theatre and the hotel stood washed in electric lights, thanks to the commercial light bulb recently been patented in the US. Customers poured in by hundreds to see how by a mere flick of a switch they could turn lights on and off in their rooms. It was magical.

The atmosphere turned more electric when they found they could soar up to different floors with the help of artesian wells that supplied water for the two hydraulically operated lifts in the hotel. And if the customers wanted anything, they only had to speak to a tube built in their room. The staff would answer the call bringing whatever they ordered. There were four staff lifts as well.

Soon word spread. Celebrities - the most glamorous, the most intelligent and the most talented - from all parts of the world began to pour in to see what was so sensational about a stay at the Savoy.

While some waltzed in hogging all the limelight, some sat on corners, savouring the new beauty that their eyes had never set upon. Perhaps that could be why the crew couldn't identify a middle-aged man who came in one evening at the Savoy in 1920 to watch the filming of their new movie. When asked he modestly replied that they were adapting one of his stories.

From the corner of the set, his face almost hidden by a potted palm, HG Wells sat through the painful procedure of translating his words into a fledgling medium.

Soon film stars began to frequent the lobbies of the Savoy. Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, you name your celebrity, you'd find him/her at the hotel.

Legends like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Marilyn Munroe, Frank Sinatra also found their recluse in the new place.

In 1952, the hotel was besieged by fans when Charlie Chaplin checked into the Savoy with his family. But how could you recognise him without his characteristic moustache and bowler hat! So it was easy for the great thespian to slip out from the Savoy to visit his childhood haunts. It was reported that sometimes out of sheer fun Chaplin joined the crowd chanting at the closed gates of the Savoy: "We want Charlie! We want Charlie!"

It was a bit hard for the poor fans to see that their wish had already been granted.

Winston Churchill came with a train of his friends, his cabinet, who all got enamored at the coziness of the new hotel. The moment the bartender saw the legend walking in, he would fish out the private whisky he had kept under lock and key. Churchill might be considered one of the greatest leaders of the world, but at Savoy, he would dispute the bills and quarrel for the last penny he thought he needn't have to spare.

Margot, Lady Oxford checked into the Savoy after her London home was devastated by a bomb during World War II. Refusing the plea to slip into the air-raid shelter, she'd sit in the Thames Foyer late into the night challenging anyone who had the balls to join her playing bridge.

Cesar Ritz who joined in 1890 as the general manager of the hotel knew from the beginning that there should always be music at Savoy, music that "covers awkward gaps in the conversation." Great musicians of the time were invited. Then one evening in 1912, an inspired couple took to their feet and danced to a number, flagging off yet another great tradition.

The hotel soon laid a dance-floor at the centre of the Thames Foyer catering to the tastes of its customers. The guests tangoed through the general grimness that gripped the country during the two World Wars.

Savoy's American Bar is the longest cocktail bar in London. The Savoy Cocktail book, a sort of bible in the industry, was published by the legendary barman at Savoy, Harry Craddock.

In 1969, Savoy's barman Joe Gilmore tossed together grapefruit juice, Grand Marnier, Champagne and rose water to create the legendary Moon Walk cocktail. As a gift from the hotel he promptly sent the drink off in a flask with some glasses to Houston for a few special people.

After a few days Gilmore received a thank you note from Neil Armstrong who just came out of his quarantine after his stint on the moon.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

first published:May 24, 2020, 14:23 IST