There’s nothing quite like being served in bed. Most of us only get the experience once or twice a year, but globetrotters in any halfway-luxurious hotel can get it whenever they want. Food and drink service has been central to the mission of the hotel ever since horse and traveler alike needed watering. And yet “room service” (as we generally picture it) is actually less than 100 years old. What did it take to get food from the kitchen to the top-floor suite?
Hotels have been around in some form or another as long as there have been places to go and people to go there. The Greeks had them, the Silk Road had them, and during the Middle Ages, inns dotted the roads, providing shelter and sustenance to weary travelers and their horses. Taverns and restaurants were attached to these inns, and some, notably in France, gained recognition for their cuisine. For some hotels, that’s still true today; lodge for a night or two at the Pullman London St. Pancras Hotel, and have access to all the finest that London has to offer, as well as everything within reach of St. Pancras Railway Station.
By the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution created a new tier of the very wealthy, and this elite class began to travel the world. Hotels began popping up to cater to them, not just as waystations, but as holiday destinations. And as the century unfolded, hotels were built with increasing levels of luxury.
The biggest leap forward in in-room service, though, happened in New York City. The original Waldorf Astoria was constructed in the final decade of the 19th century, and it soon stood a symbol of decadence and celebrity. During subsequent decades, however, the building became somewhat of a technological dinosaur. In 1928, the decision was made to sell the site, tear down the hotel, and build a new, state-of-the-art hotel on a different location. The original site became home to the Empire State Building, and the new Waldorf opened its doors at its present location on Park Avenue in October of 1931. President Hoover, broadcasting on the radio from the White House, proclaimed, “The opening of the new Waldorf Astoria is an event in the advancement of hotels, even in New York City.”
The President wasn’t just paying the hotel lip-service. In addition to being an Art Deco masterpiece, the new location was a pioneer in hotel science. Towering 47 stories and housing 2,200 rooms (none of which were identical), The Waldorf Astoria achieved an impressive number of firsts: complete electrical wiring, reservations necessary to dine in the restaurant (the Palm Room), red velvet ropes to create order outside, male and female chefs, a children’s menu, and, as you’ve probably guessed, room service.
Privacy was a major concern for the new Waldorf Astoria, as it catered to a wealthy, fashionable, and socially-prominent set of celebrities and foreign visitors. Driveways, entrances, elevators, hallways, and public spaces were all designed to keep the public’s peering eyes off the posh, partying patrons. Room service, in addition to an unprecedented level of service, created yet another level of privacy. What better way to bask in private luxury than world-class cuisine brought straight to your room? The concept soon caught on at hotels around the globe.
These days, room service seems like a given. At places like the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, clients can even order a masseuse to their room. But it took thousands of years — and an uptick in private wealth and celebrity — to make consistent room service a worldwide phenomenon. So the next time you have eggs benedict and a Waldorf salad in bed (both invented by the Waldorf Astoria’s original maitre d’ Oscar Tschirky), count yourself among the historically lucky few, benefitting from service originally designed to serve movie stars and Presidents.