Room service ... the reality doesn't always match the fantasy. Photo: Peter Braig
'Oooh, I absolutely love room service!" So gushed Eloise, the six-year-old heroine of Kay Thompson's 1955 book of the same name about a little girl who grows up in New York City's Plaza Hotel. The precocious Eloise loved nothing better than to order for her pug Weenie and turtle Skipperdee and instruct the room service waiter to "Charge it, please!".
I have a bit of Eloise in me. I've always loved the idea of having room service at my beck and call 24 hours a day. Perhaps that's why I became a travel writer: to earn a living by ordering club sandwiches and testing how quickly they arrive.
I'm also enamoured of the idea of living in a hotel, as did the author Jacqueline Susann, who resided in New York's Navarro Hotel for many years. Many of my favourite authors of the 20th century sought the solace of hotels, even flea-bag ones, because when they'd finished a day's work, there was always a bellhop to send out for whisky or a room service waiter who'd arrive with a jug of cocktails.
I say I love the idea of room service because the reality doesn't always match the fantasy. I don't order it that often, preferring to be sampling local food, away from the bland international menus offered by many of the larger hotels. I'd choose the hotel restaurant over breakfast in bed, in any case, as I'm addicted to long, slow breakfasts in dining rooms and I'd rather observe other guests than what's happening on CNN.
When I've had to use the resource, it's mostly because I've been tired and hungry and I'm in a place where there's little option. To be quite frank, a starched tabletop and a rose in a vase rarely compensates for lukewarm food, inflated prices and a 20 per cent tip.
Not long ago, I stayed at a reputable Paris hotel where a plate of chopped lettuce with dressing was listed on the room-service menu at €40 (about $60). What irked me most was that the rest of the order - orange juice that cost as much as a glass of good champagne - was forgotten and I had to call for it twice. I'm not a cheapskate and I understand that 24-hour room service is a loss leader, that hotels lose money providing the service, but I sensed a certain indifference to guests that was not deserving of five stars.
It's surprising how common it is to come across indifferent room service. In response, guests are voting with their wallets, with increasing numbers cutting down on discretionary spends such as room service and mini bars.
Some hotels are responding in their own way, by reducing room service hours or eliminating it altogether, replacing it with "grab-'n'-go" food outlets in the hotel lobby. The Hilton group has experimented with this in some of its hotels, such as at Midtown Manhattan and the Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. It makes perfect sense in destinations where there is a multitude of dining alternatives and at hotels with a high percentage of families checking in.
Recently, I stayed in one of Starwood's Aloft hotels, which had no room service but did have a well-stocked and inexpensive takeaway food outlet in the lobby. It was a mid-range hotel but the management made a virtue of practicalities. There were no porters; supermarket trolleys were used to carry luggage, a witty touch.
Of course, luxury hotels need to offer 24-hour room service to win their five stars. And many are worthy of Eloise's approval. London's Goring Hotel, for instance, delivers a free afternoon cocktail to each guest, with mixing instructions, served on a silver tray.
In the end, it's the thoughtful and inventive details that make a hotel's room service stand out. In June while in Shanghai, travelling alone, I was reminded of why I love room service when it's good. I came down with a serious flu and was unable to get out of bed for five days. At the PuLi Hotel, room service staff delivered regular infusions of ginger tea and wonton soup, the concierge bought medicine, paid for out of his own pocket until I could pay him back, and staff monitored my health with the care of a parent. I absolutely love room service. Sometimes.