How do you replace a Soviet icon? This was the challenge facing the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company when they took over the site of the former Intourist Hotel, the grim, state-owned tower that defined accommodation in Moscow during the Soviet era. Their answer was to create a new icon for the new Russia, and the hotel that rose from the rubble of the Intourist was the antithesis of Soviet austerity, a gleaming monument to luxury and indulgence. The Ritz Carlton Moscow opened its doors on 1 July 2007, and within months its fine-dining restaurant, Jeroboam, was voted Best Restaurant in Moscow, and its rooftop O2 Lounge was feted as Moscow’s Best Terrace and Bar. For a city with a reputation for frosty service and harsh functionality, the arrival of the Ritz Carlton was something of a bombshell. “The hotel has created a new standard of luxury in Moscow,” enthuses general manager, Oliver Eller. “We feel that we have elevated service to a whole new level.”

Part of that commitment to service involves connecting guests with the Moscow Zeitgeist. Where the Intourist existed to keep guests separate from ordinary Muscovites, the Ritz Carlton has made itself part of Moscow’s social architecture. To this end, dedicated staff are employed to give guests access to the most exclusive bars, restaurants and events in the city. At the same time, Jeroboam and the O2 Lounge have become two of the most prestigious nightspots in Moscow, attracting a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Russian celebrities and high fliers.

Before the demolition of the Intourist Hotel, Tverskaya ulitsa 3 was a gloomy address, more notable for its pillbox architecture and resident minders than for any commitment to luxury and service. Anyone looking at the site today would be amazed at the transformation. Rising above a glass-topped colonnade, just a few hundred metres from Red Square, the elegant stone façade of the Ritz Carlton Moscow fits in perfectly with the Russian Baroque buildings on all sides. At first glance, the hotel exterior conjures up the architectural flamboyance of Tsarist Russia, with ornately carved masonry, bracketed balconies and tall Corinthian columns. A second glance reveals the Norman Foster-inspired geometric canopy above the entrance and a striking architectural juxtaposition with the sleek glass box containing the upper levels of the hotel. This is more than just an artistic flourish; the dark glass absorbs solar energy thereby warming the hotel during Moscow’s icy winters. The hotel’s 334 elegant guest rooms comprise 163 superior rooms, 72 deluxe rooms, 30 executive rooms, 33 club rooms, 13 executive studio suites, 22 Carlton suites and the 240 sq m Ritz Carlton Suite, which has caused quite a stir as Moscow’s largest and most expensive hotel room. Priced at just under US$14,300 per night, the suite targets statesmen and CEOs with its massive floor space, state-of-the-art amenities, and bullet-proof dining room, complete with a private kitchen.

After the unsightly Intourist Hotel was razed in 2002, Russian architects Mosprojects were commissioned to produce a new hotel to compliment the neoclassical architectural style of Tverskaya ulitsa, the grand Moscow boulevard laid out in the time of Catherine the Great. The resulting building is a graceful blend of sleek modernity and period grandeur. As soon as guests step into the grand marble-lined lobby, they are enveloped by a sense of calm and privacy. The reception and concierge areas are deliberately understated, so that no unnecessary sense of bureaucracy intrudes on the first impressions that guests form of the hotel. This stands in marked contrast to the Soviet era, when guests at the Intourist Hotel were monitored by state-approved minders (there were even rumours of bugged phones in rooms and suites).

After the difficult years that followed the fall of Communism, Russians are rediscovering the good life, and this epicurean spirit is fully indulged at the Jeroboam restaurant, administered by triple-Michelin-starred chef Heinz Winkler. Set inside a modernist glass cylinder, the regally-styled 50-seat eatery was voted Moscow’s Best Restaurant by Time Out in 2007 and 2008. The menu showcases Winkler’s ‘cuisine vitale’, which fuses haute cuisine principles with healthy ingredients and preparation, a unique concept for a city still haunted by the dietary frugality of the Soviet era. Guests can even learn how to prepare some of the exquisite dishes on bi-monthly cooking courses run by Jeroboam’s Chef de Cuisine, Leonard Cernko.

Rather than dwelling on Soviet hardships, the Ritz Carlton celebrates opulence and sophistication, with an impressive 1,100 square metres of meeting and banqueting space. The lush interiors were crafted by German designer Peter Silling, known for his love of rich textiles and custom fabrics. Accordingly, the lavishly upholstered chairs and couches dotted around the hotel resemble a private collection of period heirlooms. The use of traditional colours and patterns does not stop the design ethos from being modern and progressive. In the award-wining rooftop O2 Lounge, guests sip cocktails in revolving egg-shaped chairs, upholstered with baroque textiles, whilst sampling innovative sushi and sashimi from sushi-master Seiji Kusano, prepared using ingredients from Tokyo’s Tsukiji seafood market. Above them rises a vast geometric glass dome, hung with a series of outsized lanterns, resembling the interior of a spacecraft from a 1960s science fiction epic. Again there is function to the design – the insulated glass provides a warm, naturally-lit space that guests can enjoy even in the depths of winter. As well as 100 indoor seats, the O2 Lounge boasts a stunning 120-seat terrace which offers a panoramic view over the Kremlin and downtown Moscow. “The views are so mind-boggling you almost have to pinch yourself to realise they are real,” insists Oliver Eller. There are similar views from the higher classes of rooms and from the private terrace in the Club Lounge, an exclusive space where Club-class guests can enjoy an all-day food and beverage presentation.

In contrast to the regal styling elsewhere in the hotel, there is a sense of playfulness at the O2 Lounge. For the 2009 summer season, a mock-up of the Baltic island of Sylt was erected on the terrace, complete with traditional wicker beach chairs. When Barack Obama visited Moscow in July 2009, the hotel mixologists invented a series of celebratory cocktails, including drinks entitled ‘Yes we can!’ and ‘Winds of Change’.

After luxury, attention to detail is the other driving force at the Ritz Carlton. The style of the rooms recalls the splendour of imperial Russia. Russian novels line the book shelves. Portuguese red cherry wood and burl veneers add a regal flourish to the furniture and panelling, and the marble for the bathrooms was sourced personally by Peter Silling from Russia’s Altai Mountains. The choice of local materials was not accidental. Moscow’s new millionaires are famously nostalgic for Russia’s golden age. The overall effect is of stepping into a suite at one of Russia’s imperial palaces.
Befitting the Ritz Carlton brand, the bed linen comes from Frette of Grenoble, and the exquisite bathrooms, with heated marble floors and separate baths and rain-effect showers, are stocked with signature Bulgari products. Rooms contain all the expected technology like flat screen plasma televisions and Wi-Fi Internet access, but the touch-screen panels that control everything from the lights to the drapes are discretely hidden so as not to disturb the period effect.
This same commitment to detail extends to the spa, managed by the ESPA group. This Zen-like space features steam rooms, spa baths and ice fountains, and a seemingly bottomless 110 sq m pool set beneath a ceiling dotted with sparkling Swarovski crystals, like a star-spangled sky. Where better to work off the indulgence of the US$3,000 Tsar’s breakfast, a morning feast of Beluga caviar, foie gras, truffles and Cristal champagne?

The Moscow Ritz Carlton strives to provide not only a five-star hotel experience, but a Russian five-star hotel experience. So, as well as superior business and concierge services, the hotel has a variety of specialist butlers and sommeliers to add a uniquely Russian flavour to proceedings. In the 105-seat Caviarterra restaurant, beautifully decorated with carved oak panels, a vodka sommelier is on hand to advise guests on the perfect vodka to accompany their meal, from a choice of over 400 premium labels. Another unique feature is the nightlife butler, described by Oliver Eller as ‘an extremely well-connected individual’ with access to the exclusive guest lists at Moscow’s most prestigious nightclubs and cocktail bars. The 500-plus members of staff at the Ritz Carlton aim to offer something extra on top of the five-star service that guests expect from a hotel of this class. “Service does not just come down to what you pay for on the bill,” insists Eller. “It’s all about human interaction.” This concept finds its best expression in the role of the bath butler, a member of staff who will transform guests’ bathrooms into sensuous bowers, with candles, aromatic oils, and caviar, champagne or cigars and cognac. Perhaps the ultimate indulgence at the Ritz Carlton is the Pétrus Room, a temperature-controlled wine cellar containing one of the world’s largest collections of Château Pétrus vintages, which can be booked by guests as a 10-seat private dining room. Amongst the wine collection is a case of 1907 Heidsieck & Co Monopole champagne, salvaged from the wreck of a Swedish freighter that sank on its way to deliver wines to Tsar Nicholas II. Truly, guests at the Ritz Carlton can enjoy an experience fit for a tsar.