I’ve already taken tea at The Ritz several times and I would have saved a bit of money if I paid for all of them. But I only paid once back in 2001. You see, I am a tea aficionado and could not say no to a visiting family or friend who’d asks me to join them for tea. And they’re always willing to pay for the hefty price tag that comes with the eccentric experience of this quintessential British ritual. Most of them do their research before coming to London and the sought-after tea at The Ritz is always on top of their list. Getting a table is no easy feat though. They are usually booked up at least three months in advance. I usually suggest they try tea at The Savoy or The Dorchester or Fortnum & Mason but they’d always come back to me and say, “oh, but we wanna experience tea at The Ritz!” And who am I to argue with them?
Tea at The Ritz is so popular they have six sittings a day. It takes place in the hotel’s Palm Court under the gilded cupola with the eye-catching Dior plump chairs in beige and gold colours and tables are covered with thick damask laid with the Ritz crockery and vintage-style tea lights. It is indeed a lavish setting, unrivalled amongst all the five star hotels in London.
My first tea at The Ritz was surprisingly mediocre, but unforgettable. It was a week before my birthday as a married woman back in 2001 and I’ve convinced my husband to join me for tea. Getting my husband to have an Afternoon Tea with me is not always the easiest thing to do. Jared believes that Afternoon Tea is just for ladies. “Oh, but I might be the only man there” or “Go with the girls for a catch up” or “I am too busy!” and few other excuses are usually given when he hears me mention an afternoon doing what the British do best. Anyhow, he agreed to go with me a few days before my birthday and as I was coming from work that day I booked the last sitting at 7:30 pm. We arrived at the Palm Court a bit early and of course, dressed up appropriately. Even the ‘dressing’ part of going to The Ritz turns him off. Yes, there’s a dress code given the hotel’s elegant nature and lavish setting. Men are required to wear tie and jacket. Jeans, trainers and sportswear are not permitted at any of the restaurants at The Ritz. We were given a corner table away from the crowded centre area as I had requested. It was Jared’s first time to do a ‘proper’ tea and he felt so uncomfortable the whole time. But we got through the ritual of eating the dainty finger sandwiches, followed by the warm scones topped with lashings of clotted cream and strawberry preserves and we also tried some of the delicate mini cakes. As it was the last sitting of the day we weren’t rushed at all but Jared just wanted to get out of there so quickly that we only stayed for a little over an hour. As soon as we left the hotel he said to me, “sorry darling, it’s just not my cup of tea!” (“Not my cup of tea” is a term British people use to describe things they like and by adding “not” describes the opposite). He felt so bad at how he behaved that a week later he surprisingly did something special for my birthday. No, he didn’t take me for an overnight stay at The Ritz but it’s worth a long story for another time.
My second visit to the Palm Court was a rather dismal experience. It was a business meeting and regrettably, the service was dreadful. A couple of Japanese ladies invited me to tea rather than the usual lunch or dinner. We felt rushed from the moment we were seated. “We’re full today,” a waiter told us. “We’ve got over 400 people booked in for Afternoon Tea. You only have an hour and 45 minutes to enjoy your tea!” “You mean, we have to leave in less than 2 hours even if we’re not finished drinking our cuppa?” I protested. “Sorry Madam but we have to clear up the table at least 15 minutes before the next sitting is up.” she told us. I explained to my companions what was going on and one of them said (in Nihonggo, of course), “This is unbelievable. Bad hotel. Please tell them Elna-san!” “Yes, I will tell them but for now let’s order our tea.” I told them. The tea stand was brought in and we ended up hastily eating the sandwiches and scones and were sipping our tea in succession that even before we could try the mini-cakes or ask for a tea refill the server was back again to remind us that we only have fifteen minutes left. She pointed her fingers to the crowd at the lobby, between 50-60 people, waiting to be seated. “Could we please box up the cakes so we can take them back to the office to share?” I asked the server. “No Madam, it’s against house rules.” she exclaims. One of the Japanese ladies said that Afternoon Tea at The Ritz was kind of a ‘highway robbery’ experience and not worth the $300 she paid for the three of us. We left the hotel feeling very disappointed and defrauded. The other times I went there was more satisfactory and enjoyable than the first two visits. I made sure we took the last sitting, had more than enough time to gossip while slowly sipping our tea, and we were never rushed.
In saying all of that however, taking tea at The Ritz isn’t all that bad. The classic tea sandwiches have excellent fillings, the scones are freshly baked served with big pots of strawberry jam and clotted cream. They have fabulous tea selection and there is proper patisserie, creme caramel served in tiny glasses, impressive chocolate mini cakes and other sweets with ‘Ritz’ logo on it. Trolleys are wheeled out with freshly baked tarts and cakes and sliced by the waiters right in front of you. You can even ask for refill not just of tea but of sandwiches, scones and all the sweets available. And you can eat to your heart’s content. There’s also a pianist, harpist and violinist playing some classical and contemporary music and there’s a familiar jolly atmosphere that fills the air. Each table has a request card the guests can fill in for song choices they might want the pianist to play.
“But is it worth the exorbitant price that The Ritz charges?” you ask. Simply put, it’s all about the experience. You’re not just paying for the exotic tea, delicate sandwiches and scones and the special occasion flummery but also for the historic setting, the classically trained pianist/cellist duo and hey, someone’s got to polish those silver tea sets and cutleries every time they’re used. Tea at The Ritz is indeed an institution in itself, and a very peculiar British tradition you may wanna try to do for once in your life while visiting England. As for myself, don’t think I’ll ever tire of taking afternoon tea. So when a family or a friend invites me to tea, either at the famed Ritz Hotel or some obscure teashop in London, off I happily go usually in a floral silk tea dress even in the dead of winter.
(Featured photo of The Palm Court was taken from The Ritz Hotel website)