Perhaps it was the early chill of a London morning that awakened me; the very thought made me burrow deeper under the crushed-velvet bedcover. I was staying at Home House, a private club that accepts nonmembers like me for lodging and meals. The previous evening was still a pleasant blur of conversation, claret and crackling roast duck in the club's dining room overlooking Portman Square, London's most fashionable address in the early 1800s.
I turned to the night table and focused myopic eyes on the book I was reading when I fell asleep: "Can You Forgive Her?" by Anthony Trollope, the 19th century novelist of English aristocratic manners. Then, with superhuman effort, I staggered down the corridor and drew a bath from two lion head spouts that quickly filled the 6-foot-long marble tub. As I floated in the hot water, I remembered that Madonna had stayed in this very room not long ago. Yes, I can forgive her.
I was in London in May, pretending to lead the life of an English gentleman, an admittedly declasse ambition in the progressive era of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. During four days of fantasy, I confined myself mostly to Mayfair, the 40 square blocks bounded by Hyde Park, Piccadilly, and Oxford and Regent streets, home to London's most traditional clothing shops, private clubs and restaurants. This meant lodging in premises that date at least to the Edwardian era, getting measured for custom-made clothes--"bespoke," to use the British term--and dining and drinking at places of which my grandparents would have approved.
Of course, paying for that experience, especially in expensive modern-day London, would amount to financial folly--$7,000 or more, by my calculations. Instead I adopted the approach I use at antiques shops: browsing to my heart's content but disgorging my wallet on only a few objects. This may mean staying for only one night at a grand hotel, then moving into more affordable premises (as I did, moving to 8 York House, a B&B; bargain at $50 a night for one, $70 for two); deciding whether to purchase a bespoke suit or shirts but not both; and turning tidbits at a well-known bar or tearoom into a full meal.
For my first day in London, I put up at the Ritz. Among its many virtues is its proximity to the clothing establishments of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, where I would spend much of my time and money. Another big plus is the hotel concierge, Michael de Cozar, a font of information on anything to be bought, imbibed or visited.
Of the two shirt makers he suggested, I chose New & Lingwood, at 53 Jermyn St. Turnbull & Asser, just across the street at 71 and 72 Jermyn, is better known but requires a minimum order of six shirts. At New & Lingwood, a quiet, two-story establishment next to a shopping arcade, Sean O'Flynn, the chief shirt maker, assured me I would have to buy no more than four.
"Our hallmark is a generously cut shirt," he says. "Something to let you put on a few pounds over the years." Given my weight trajectory in the last few decades, it's a hallmark that makes fine sense.
After mulling over scores of fabrics, I made four choices: two cotton poplins ($196 each), the first a narrow blue stripe and the other a blue and red gingham; a white, double-layered cotton voile ($210) that can be worn with a tuxedo; and a navy-blue Sea Island cotton ($235) that feels like cool satin. After selecting collar and cuff styles, I let O'Flynn take 10 measurements of my neck, torso, arms and wrists (including the thickness of my watch). A Hollywood producer, the only other client at the moment, was making impatient sounds in the background, but to no avail: My shirt maker would not be rushed, even for American royalty.
In three weeks, O'Flynn would have a sample ready and send it to me at home in New York. I was to wear and wash the shirt twice, and if I was satisfied, O'Flynn would make the three other shirts, which I would receive six to eight weeks later. The cost, including mailing charges and import taxes, was about $950. I bought the shirts this time but made suits a browsing experience for this trip.
I mulled over the rest of my shopping strategy during lunch next door at Wiltons, a clubby, wood-paneled restaurant dating to 1742. The high quality of the service and food have remained unchanged for decades. Waiters in black suits and waitresses in white nanny uniforms move about at the pace of a slow waltz. Some of the heavy wood tables were hidden behind curtains to accommodate patrons who wanted privacy. I ordered a half-dozen succulent oysters ($15) and a grilled Dover sole ($38). They needed no seasoning other than a squeeze of lemon.
I walked a few blocks to Savile Row, and after window-shopping at several tailors on the concierge's list, I entered the oldest establishment on the street, Gieves & Hawkes, No. 1 Savile Row, and explained my plight to Mark Henderson, the chief executive: I had exceeded my shopping budget, but I still wanted to be measured for a suit in hopes that I could afford one on a future visit to London. Henderson obliged, demonstrating the patience one expects at an establishment that has been in business since 1771 dressing the elites of history, from princes and sultans to tycoons and actors.
Before entrusting me to a bespoke cutter, Henderson recited the dress-for-success mantra that has guided Savile Row for centuries: "You have only a few seconds to make a lasting first impression, and what counts in that brief time are appearance, body language and what you say--in that order."
For a minimum of $3,400, Gieves & Hawkes would tailor a suit that practically guarantees the "appearance" factor and would last me a lifetime, a credible claim now that I'm past 50.
The store takes up a whole street corner and four floors, including the sprawling basement where master artisans assemble the wardrobes of royals and superstars (who, in keeping with store policy, cannot be identified).
I consulted with cutter Brian Jeffrey, whose credo is to balance what a customer wants with what the shop thinks he needs. I wanted a suit I could wear day or night all year except summer. Jeffrey suggested a dark gray, midweight wool in a subtle herringbone. He convinced me that cuffs look good and add weight to keep the pants straighter. I held firm to a single back vent instead of the two side vents he advocated. He then took more than a score of measurements from shoulders to ankles.
If I had gone ahead with the suit, I would have returned for my first fitting in four weeks, though tourists can be accommodated within 10 days. A second and final fitting would take place either on my next trip to London or on a visit by the store's tailors to New York, part of a biannual tour of several American cities to service customers. (Alas, Los Angeles is not on the Gieves & Hawkes route.)
If the price and time demanded for a bespoke suit sound daunting, so does the maintenance. The suit shouldn't be worn more than once a week or sent to the dry cleaner more than twice a year. In between, Jeffrey suggests cleaning it by gentle sponging and keeping it wrinkle-free by steaming it for a few hours over a tub of hot water.
As I left the store, the cutter offered a final word of advice: "If you have an old suit, hang the bespoke suit over it to keep it filled out." That made my decade-old Armani sound like a shoe tree.
Knowing that my measurements for a Savile Row suit were on file put me in a festive mood. And what better place to celebrate than Claridge's Bar on Brook Street, a few blocks north. I entered through the hotel's lobby, passing framed photos of Winston Churchill and members of the royal family who partied here in their youth. The hotel and its bar, both heavily refurbished in recent years, are trying to walk that difficult tightrope between the traditional and the hip. Columns and sconces show traces of the bar's Art Deco heritage, while the almost-bare walls and clean lines of armchairs and stools exude a contemporary minimalism.
The clientele was just as eclectic: businessmen in bespoke suits, tourists in jeans, even a mother with a baby carriage. Between slow sips of two classic Claridge's cocktails--a Citrus Martini (lemon vodka, Cointreau and lime juice) and a Flapper (champagne with creme de cassis)--I enjoyed a light dinner of appetizers, including a Californian vegetable roll, chicken tempura and an assortment of sushi. The tab was $66.
While Claridge's Bar has sought to adapt to changing times, the Palm Court at the Ritz--the setting for London's most fabled tea service--remains resolutely traditional. The central skylight illuminates pots of palms, the hanging lamps look like birdcages, and a central niche holds the sculpture of a woman surrounded by angels.
Surveying the awed customers around me, I sensed that this was a ritual with as many layers of significance as a Japanese tea ceremony. There were young children served tea by their parents as a rite of passage to becoming young ladies and gentlemen; elderly visitors from the ex-colonies feeling a bit of pre-independence nostalgia; Americans determined not to make a faux pas; Brits from the countryside persuading themselves that some things never change in London.
The service was uniform for all. Tea (seven varieties) arrived in silver teapots with silver milk jugs and strainers. On the bottom level of a triple-tiered tray were finger sandwiches of smoked salmon, egg and watercress, cucumber, and turkey and cheese; on the middle tier, freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream; and on top, a selection of afternoon tea cakes. At $42, tea at the Ritz seems pricey at first glance, but in fact, it held me over until breakfast the next day.
I spent my last afternoon in London at Selfridges, the venerable old department store that has kept its Burberry clientele while reaching out to a younger generation with slogans like "Walk the walk, carry the bag." It happened to be Japan Week, and the seven-story establishment seemed to shake one moment to shrill Japanese heavy metal bands and doze the next with barely audible ancient string instruments played by kimono-clad women. I hastened past a gantlet of Asian scent-sprayers and chose a classic umbrella, even knowing that I would forget it on the plane home.
That final evening I headed for Home House, technically several blocks north of Mayfair, but all the same a prominent landmark on my map of a traditional gentleman's London. It's far less snobbish than other clubs. In the grand salon I did not come across any florid-faced elderly men snoring in their armchairs. In fact, the average age of members and visitors seemed to be early 40s, and a third of them were women.
A major renovation has almost brought the townhouse back to its original, pristine Georgian style. A skylight tops an atrium and marble stairway. The walls of the main drawing room are decorated with Grecian urn bas-reliefs and scenes from mythology. In the music room, a grand piano under a crystal chandelier awaits a member's whim to play a waltz. The bedrooms are individually decorated in the styles of the residence's many past owners: Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco.
The future club was built in 1776 as the residence of the Countess Elizabeth Lawes Home, a Jamaican-born heiress. Its last and most notorious occupant was Anthony Blunt, exposed in 1976 as a spy in the pay of the Soviet Union. Apparently his income as chief caretaker of the queen's art collection wasn't enough to support his lifestyle as a gentleman.
I can believe it.
* Getting there: From LAX, nonstop service to London's Heathrow airport is offered on British Airways, American, United, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $955.
* Where to stay: At the Ritz, the standard for luxury in London, rates begin at $483 to $679, double, plus 17.5% tax. This summer, for a couple staying a minimum of two nights, the hotel is offering a rate of $400 a night that includes full English breakfast and taxes. Contact the Ritz at 150 Piccadilly, London W1V 9DG; telephone (877) 748-9536 or 011-44-20-7493-8181, fax 011-44-20-7493-2687, Internet http://www.theritzhotel.co.uk.
Dukes Hotel, a small, elegant establishment tucked in a quiet St. James's courtyard. Rates: $315 to $365, plus 17.5% tax. Contact Dukes Hotel, 35 St. James's Place, London SW1A 1NY, tel. (800) 381-4702 or 011-44-20-7491-4840, fax 011-44-20-7493-1264, http://www.dukeshotel.co.uk.
Home House, a private club with 18 rooms and suites, where members get priority in reservations. Bookings must be made through http://www.merlintravel.com. Rates $315 to $455, plus 17.5% tax. 20 Portman Square, London W1H 6LN, tel. 011-44-20-7670-2000, fax 7670-2020, http://www.homehouse.net.
I also tried 8 York House, a tidy bed-and-breakfast (with shared bathroom) north of Mayfair. Rates: $70 per night for two, with breakfast and tax included. 39 Upper Montagu St., London W1H 1FR, tel. 011-44-20-7262-5905, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Where to eat: Wiltons, 55 Jermyn St., local tel. 0207-629-9955. Known for its fish and game; $120 for three-course meal for two.
Quaglino's, 16 Bury St., tel. 0207-930-6767, fax 0207-839-2866. It has been refurbished in a dazzling contemporary style. British and continental cuisine; $80 for two.
The Palm Court at the Ritz, tel. 0207-493-8181, fax 0207-493-2687. Tea ($42 per person) is served at noon, 2, 3:30 and 5 p.m. daily; book at least one month in advance.
Claridge's Bar, 54-55 Brook St., tel. 0207-629-8860, remains London's most popular bar.
* Where to shop: For bespoke suits, Gieves & Hawkes, 1 Savile Row, tel. 0207-434-2001, fax 0207-437-1092, http://www.gievesandhawkes.com, and Anderson & Sheppard, 30 Savile Row, tel. 0207-734-1420, fax 0207-734-1721, e-mail email@example.com. Both offer timeless styles. Anderson & Sheppard's prices start at about $2,500, almost $1,000 less than Gieves & Hawkes' least expensive suit.
The leading bespoke shirt makers are New & Lingwood, 53 Jermyn St., tel. 0207-499-0280, fax 0207-499-3103, http://www.newandlingwood.com, and Turnbull & Asser, 71 and 72 Jermyn St., tel. 0207-808-3000, http://turnbullandasser.com. Prices at both are comparable.
Selfridges, at Oxford and Orchard streets, tel. 0207-629-1234, http://www.selfridges.com, offers traditional and the wildly hip. A personal shopping consultant can be booked at 011-44-20-7318-2300 (from within London, 0207-318-2300) for $21, a fee that is redeemable against purchases.
* For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) GO-2-BRITAIN (462-2748), http://www.travelbritain.org.