NEWSMAKERS

RAISING THE RITZ

Can a former bellhop and his family restore the glory of a famous Montreal landmark?

JACOB RICHLER October 15 2007
NEWSMAKERS

RAISING THE RITZ

Can a former bellhop and his family restore the glory of a famous Montreal landmark?

JACOB RICHLER October 15 2007

RAISING THE RITZ

NEWSMAKERS

Can a former bellhop and his family restore the glory of a famous Montreal landmark?

JACOB RICHLER

ON A VISIT to Montreal back in the spring, I was surprised to find that people everywhere were murmuring busily about a local institution to which it seemed no one had paid the least attention for a very long time: the RitzCarlton. Long the city’s finest hotel, it was also the first there or anywhere to have been conceived to operate under the combined banner of what were at the time the premier names in the business—those of César Ritz, the Swiss hotelier who begat the Ritz chain, and the Carlton Hotel on Pall Mall in London, which opened in july 1899 with Auguste Escoffier as its head chef and pêche Melba, that lovely dessert he had invented for the Australian

diva Nellie Melba, on its opening menu.

“Did you hear the news about the Ritz?” a regular at Winnie’s bar on nearby Crescent street asked me during my stay. “Some guy who used to be a dishwasher there just bought it. They say he paid a buck—and he’s gonna shut it down and turn it into condos.”

Sure, I thought, everyone knows that over the years the Ritz-Carlton Montreal and its founding ideals have grown apart—maybe even estranged. For nearly two decades it has been an institution on the skids. The kitchen had slipped badly, the plumbing is going, the renovation of the Ritz bar was catastrophically ill-conceived, and its three lower-level bars and restaurants—the Maritime Bar, the Grand Prix, and the Intercontinental—are still lying fallow 15 years after they were shut down. The boutique hotels of Old Montreal, like the St-James, had moved in unchallenged on the former Ritz cachet. But all the same, this purported purchase price was unlikely

for a hotel that had cost more than $2 mil lion to put together back in 1911.

What’s more, I knew the buyer being discussed. We had been friends in primary school, and when later we worked together at the Ritz in the mid-eighties, it was regrettably not him who was the dishwasher—ƒ was. He was a bellhop. Even so, he never struck me as the sort to want to shut the Ritz down for profit. But all the same I rang him up right away to tell him what I had heard.

“No, no—I wish that had been the price, but it was quite a bit more than that,” Anthony Torriani confirmed over the phone from his home in Monaco. “That’s not the plan, either. It’s really a lot more complicated.”

Indeed it is. Simply put, late last year the Rolaco Group of Geneva—which had owned the Ritz-Carlton Montreal outright since 1991—quietly sold a majority stake to two new investors—the Mirelis Financial Group of Geneva, and Torriani Group Luxury Hotels (Canada), which now manages the property. Together they will oversee a drastic transformation of the old Ritz-Carlton that will see its 229 rooms and suites reduced to 130, while it sprouts 35 condominium residences, 15 condo suites, a completely redesigned bar and restaurant, and a new 11th floor, among other things. The $100-million retrofit is scheduled to begin early next year and will span 15 months. It is long overdue.

“Everybody keeps saying to me about the Ritz, ‘It’s such a shame—if only somebody would do something,’ ” Torriani said to me when we met in Montreal over Grand Prix weekend. “I’ve been away in Europe for 20 years. I seriously underestimated the value of the name and what it meant to people here. We haven’t even announced the plans yet— and they’re already trying to buy condos and asking where to make their deposits.”

NO ONE KNEW it then, but back in 1986 the Ritz-Carlton was in the midst of its last heyday. The badly missed Maritime Bar was still going strong with a menu that featured nearly 20 different takes on Dover sole. The Intercontinental restaurant, with its charming three rooms in three different decors—Provençal, English and Italian—still thrived on price-refugees from the ultra-posh Café de Paris. There was the seamy Grand Prix bar for travellers looking for company, and the chic Ritz Bar to service the more mild-mannered establishment. And the Café de Paris and Ritz Gardens were full each day from sun-up.

When I came knocking in search of a summer job, I was assigned to the dishwashing department deep in the basement, and from there, after a brief period of purgatory, was granted a reprieve to head upstairs to the hideously busy pantry of the Café de Paris

and Ritz Gardens, where my job was to sort dirty dishes and glasses and cutlery that arrived relentlessly on the busboys’ trays and transport them downstairs on the freight elevator. It was here one afternoon whilst guzzling vichyssoise from the briefly unsupervised cold station that I noticed a familiar face pass by in a waiter’s uniform.

“Excuse me,” I said. “But if I’m not mistaken you’re a Torriani.”

“Yeah. So who are you?”

“I went to Selwyn House with your brother Tony.”

“That was six years ago,” Richard Torriani said, looking confused.

Let’s just say that with the Torrianis, fam-

ily resemblance runs unusually strong—but more to the point, it made sense that a Torriani should be there, working in a hotel. When I had met Tony six or seven years previously, his father Marco had been the deputy general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Montreal (now the Omni Hotel). The following year he became GM at Le Parc Regent (now the LaCité apartment complex), and then the family decamped to Chicago, where Marco Torriani became GM at the Mayfair Regent. So it made sense to me that he should know Ritz GM Fernand Roberge, and be able to get his children summer jobs at the Ritz if they wanted them—and better jobs than, say, mine. And he did. Shortly thereafter, Tony materialized as a busboy, and we became friends again. And then that summer I became friends too with Jonathan Torriani, who turned up with a job at the Ritz front desk, and Andrew Torriani, who was a captain—a sort of deputy maître d’hotel in the old way of doing things—at the Café de Paris. Twenty-odd years later, on Dec. 15,2006, Andrew Torriani became general manager of the hotel, the man charged with micromanaging its reinvention and return to relevance after the intervening years of neglect.

“For years and years I had always said to

my dad, ‘If you were ever interested, I would love to do a hotel company with you. You can be president and I’ll do the legwork,’ and that’s kind of the genesis of [Torriani Group Luxury Hotels],” Andrew Torriani explained to me of his family’s circuitous route back to the Ritz-Carlton from that summer of 1986.

They have been a busy gang. Torriani -père, a one-time professional hockey player from Davos, Switzerland, has for nearly 20 years served as managing director of the Hotel du Rhône in Geneva, and since 1997 as president of the École hôtelière de Lausanne, which is arguably our pre-eminent school of hostelry. Andrew Torriani spent most of the interven-

ing years in management at Air Canada. Jonathan is amongst other things a partner in Newrest, an airline-servicing company with catering, concession, duty-free, restaurant and hotel operations that has 12,000 employees and operations in 18 countries. Richard works in sales, marketing, and branding out of Geneva. Anthony works in finance, in Monaco, where he founded Monaco Asset Management, and—more recently—with his brother Jonathan, Monaco Luxury Hotels and Resorts, of which Torriani Group Luxury Hotels (Canada) is a direct subsidiary. It was Andrew who brought the Ritz-Carlton to the family’s attention as an investment possibility, and Anthony who helped bring Mirelis Financial Group to the table, a move facilitated by the fact that they are also investors in his Monaco Asset Management.

“For me, without exaggeration, this is a

dream,” Tony Torriani confided back in June. “We’re a hotel family. I’m returning to my favourite city in North America, to my favourite hotel in the city. We’re in a position to run the Ritz the way it should have been done—imagine that! The emotional aspect is huge.”

So too the cost, and the stakes. The project begins with an enticingly forward-looking architectural design from the Montreal firm Provencher Roy & associés architectes. But the Ritz needs more than strong sales of these new condo units to succeed. It needs to regain the cachet and mystique it has been bleeding to new, upstart boutique hotels better designed to meet the needs and desires of the exquisitely spoiled contemporary high-end traveller. It needs to come up with a restaurant concept that will be as attractive to locals as to the stranded traveller—and while with the Torriani family’s incomparable European connections it’s easy to imagine a Joël Robuchon or an Alain Ducasse or Georges Blanc restaurant at the Ritz, it is possible that the local market may not warm to this sort of transplant any more than it did to, say, Fouquet’s, the local offspring of the famous Parisian brasserie that failed after a painful run just around the corner on rue de la Montagne. The Ritz needs to once again operate a bar that locals want to be seen in. Above all, it needs to remember that tastes change, and that even classical elegance has to be reinvented and loosened up now and then. In London, of course, the Carlton is long gone, and in New York, where the Plaza is undergoing a similar condo-izing rethink, Ducasse has failed at the Essex House and in January will be trying again at the St. Regis, where they have done without a proper restaurant since the glorious Lespinasse was shut down in 2003—and if anyone in America is grateful to Escoffier and his peach Melba, it is not because they eat it anymore, but rather that without it, there would be no icecream sundae. These are tough times for oldworld grandeur. M

THE NEW BUYER WASN’T THE DISHWASHER. I WAS.