I have a pet travel peeve: Things that are meant to be luxurious but are not. Like room service. Theoretically, it’s a good idea — provide the weary or privacy-seeking traveler with a relaxing, time-saving, and discreet way to eat.
But reality is different.
Think about it: We usually order room service when we’re either too tired, too busy, or not presentable enough to deal with the rigmarole and exposure of a public venue. We’ve either come off a long flight; or woken up early to get work done in your room before a business meeting; or you have not yet showered; or have just showered; and/or (for all the reasons above) are wearing a bathrobe. The bed is often unmade.
None of those states are ones in which I am happy letting a stranger into my room. And not just letting him (or her) into the room, but actually hanging around with them. Because that’s what happens.
There’s a knock. You go open the door. Smile, greet, stand aside as the things are wheeled in.
Small talk ensues. Where would I like the table set up? Plates are pulled out, beverages poured. May they pour the wine or the beer? And the water? Would I like to leave the second course in the warmer, or plate it? Interspersed are usually questions about how my flight was.
I can’t leave while this is going on because there is no place to go. Certainly not in a standard-sized room. In a suite, one could momentarily recuse oneself and go scream silently in the bedroom. But even if I’m in a suite, I don’t. Because that would be rude. The room service staff are invariably very nice people trying to do their job well. And anyway, I need to hang around to sign the bill.
But first comes the inevitable recitation of what was brought. Which the room service staff were clearly also instructed to do, but which I also hate. I know what was brought, since I’d ordered it and have developed an uncanny ability (you could call it a party trick) to assess at a glance if before me are indeed the eggs benedict, the orange juice, the bowl of berries, and the coffee. The bread basket and butter? Yup, spotted that right away, too.
I hate the question about whether there is anything else that I need. This is usually repeated at least twice. And at this juncture I’m usually no longer feeling benevolent but have become convinced they are taking sadistic pleasure in prolonging the agonizing encounter. What else could it be? For I am certain of one thing about room service: Before ordering, one has considered the menu options long and hard. There couldn’t possibly be anything else one wants. Other than to be left alone.
And then comes the bill part. There is the flourish and slight formality with which the bill is presented, usually in a large hard leather cover, followed by the pen. The signing of it requires finding a perch, as you’ll need both hands. Awkward, especially when wearing one of those massive hotel bathrobes which, because of their rug-like thickness, don’t always close properly (the more luxurious the hotel, I find, the thicker the bathrobes, and the harder to tie — stay tuned for my rant about that.) So at this point of the proceedings, I’m always on high alert. Anything but relaxed.
Also because I need to calculate the gratuity and total the bill. Correct: This is not rocket science. But it’s just irritating enough in a state of either acute hunger, or exhaustion, or just plain embarrassment: the robe, the messy bed, the open suitcase…is the lingerie visible? These are not usually the sentiments one has at the bill-signing moment in a restaurant, where, moreover, the waiter is not standing there looking at you as you figure how much money you’re going to give him.
Then come the goodbyes. The wishing me a pleasant meal/day/stay and the reminder of what I should do once I’ve finished eating: either to call room service again and someone will arrive to remove the tray/table, or to just roll the table out into the hallway to be taken away. Obviously, I always choose the latter. Which inevitably leads to what I consider my travel Inspector Cluseau moments: Still in said bathrobe, barefoot, bedraggled, I open the door, look furtively in both directions to make sure the coast is clear, and shove the table out. It just feels wrong; like throwing your garbage on the curb.
That said, much is forgiven when the food is excellent. From recent room service encounters, I recall a fabulous super at the Peninsula in Shanghai last February when my plane from Xi’an got in long after the restaurants had closed. (It was sort of like child birth, I guess — I no longer remember the pain, just the pleasure, intensified, no doubt, by the lights of the Bund outside my windows.) And another at the Barriere Majestic in Cannes last December — I was sick, running a fever, and all I remember was the soothing effect of terrifically prepared Asian chicken dumplings, which I ate in bed under my quilt. (The restaurants at both hotels are superb, and that trickled down, as it always does, to the room service food itself.)
And then there was The Brando resort, off Tahiti in French Polynesia, last June. I was there and one night ordered room service — part of the reporting, you know. My stand-alone, one-bedroom but three-room beach-facing villa had an outdoor eating area to one side — a table surrounded by chairs under a palm-frond roof not far from the plunge pool. I no longer remember what I was doing — lounging inside, or staring at the sunset from the beach, or in the pool.
But I do remember that I suddenly looked over toward the table and – shazam! The lanterns were lit, the food was plated and under silver cloches to keep it from cooling, the wine had been uncorked and placed in an ice bucket, bottled water was at the ready, napkins had been unfolded. No one had said hello or goodbye. No questions had been asked. And there was no one about.
And once we were done, everything vanished in exactly the same way. I was unaware of when. It was so fun and flawless I went back for more and had breakfast in my villa on another day.
It was as if I’d summoned not room service but a fairy godmother.
The secret? Running alongside the exterior wall from the front of the villa to the table — and this is true of each one of the Brando’s 35 residences — is a dedicated, vegetation-concealed service path along which plates, glasses, cutlery, and food are discreetly carried over by the staff directly to the table and removed again the same way. Genius.