Sat, Oct 10, 2009
My daughter and I had just landed at Heathrow Airport after an overnight flight from the United States. We were in London to do a little sightseeing, take in a play in the West End, perhaps some shopping in Knightsbridge, and finally take afternoon tea at The Ritz London.
Since it can be difficult getting a reservation for afternoon tea at The Ritz, I reserved a few months in advance. There are many wonderful things to do in London, but there is only one Ritz and taking afternoon tea here is “the” quintessential British experience.
We did quite a bit of walking on this trip, and even though I pointed out many of the major London landmarks, my daughter wanted to take pictures of the flower boxes hanging from the windows of buildings we passed. After a busy couple of days, the time for our “tea party” at The Ritz had arrived.
As we made our way to the afternoon tea, we took a path through the tall sycamores of Green Park and on this particular Sunday afternoon, it was warm, bright and clear. Even though it was early Fall, the leaves had not yet begun to change color. The joggers were out, and there were so many picnickers that much of the grass was covered with blankets spread out in the sun. Nearing the famous address at 150 Piccadilly, I noticed that the Ritz Hotel building resembled something you might see in Paris, rather than London. (More on the architectural history below). At the front entrance, there was the usual hustle and bustle of guests arriving and departing with uniformed doormen helping them with their luggage and taxis. Once inside the hotel lobby, you get the feeling that you are walking into someone’s elaborately decorated private home, a grand and palatial home to be sure. It feels more intimate than a hotel, and calm and confident staff are available at every turn.
The London Ritz was designed by architects Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis and completed in 1906. The exterior is designed in the manner of a grand French chateau, and Mewes carried the French theme inside where the entire hotel is done in the style of Louis XVI (except for the art deco Rivoli Bar).
Afternoon Tea is served in the Ritz’s Palm Court, a room separated from the hotel’s Long Gallery by two ionic marble columns. “Much of the appeal of the Palm Court lies in the use of curves, rounded ends, oeil-de-bouef (bull’s eye) windows and the deeply covered cornices.” – The Ritz London. In the rear of the Palm Court, in a moulded niche, is a belle epoque fountain containing a gilded female figure with young tritons blowing conch shells above her and goldfish dancing at her feet.
Taking tea here transports you back to the height of Edwardian London (1900-1910). The architect designed this beautiful room as a dramatic “stage” that would greet guests as they first entered the hotel through the former Piccadilly entrance. To some, afternoon tea here is still a “performance.”
Over the years, tea regulars at the Palm Court have included King Edward VII, Charles Chaplain, Sir Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Noel Coward, Evelyn Waugh, Judy Garland and Talullah Bankhead who sipped champagne from her slipper during a press conference in the ’50′s.
If everyone looks more beautiful here than normal, it’s not just your imagination. Caesar Ritz believed that nothing put his hotel guests more at ease than the tactful use of lighting. He spent days working with his designers and electrical contractors to get the lighting just right, and some say this is the most flattering light in Europe. During the day, natural light falls softly from a central glazed window and two shell windows at both ends. During the evening, the Palm Court lighting takes on an almost mystical quality. If you’re interested in a romantic setting, the Palm Court at night is – in my opinion – jaw dropping, off the charts, stunningly beautiful.
We were seated at our table and couldn’t help but notice that even though the room was full, it was calm and orderly. On this Sunday afternoon, there were fathers and mothers with their children, romantic couples, multi-generational families – grandparents, parents and children, lady friends out for the afternoon, and just about every other combination you could think of. Of course, everyone looked their best in the diffused light from the frosted glass ceiling above.
Tea is served in silver teapots with silver milk jugs and silver tea strainers. The Palm Court’s fine china is made by Dudson and was designed exclusively for the Ritz’s 100 year anniversary. As we were enjoying our tea, the ambiance, and the background piano music, the three tier tray was soon brought to our table.
Afternoon Tea at the Ritz starts with crustless finger sandwiches on white and brown bread, filled with smoked salmon, roasted ham (very good), chicken, cucumber, mature cheddar cheese and egg mayonnaise. It can be easy to forget that you’re in the 21st century, and imagine that this is what guests in the Palm Court were served over 100 years ago. So as to bring you the freshest scones, the waiter will wait until you have sampled the lower tier finger sandwiches before offering you the apple and raisin scones. For both of us, this was the highlight of the three tier tray; the scones were absolutely delicious and served with strawberry preserve and Devonshire clotted cream. I dare you to turn down your waiter’s offer of replenishments as the afternoon wears on.
If you can tear yourself away from the scones, you will finally reach the top tier – the sweets.
Cakes and pastries at the Ritz are light, airy and have a strong French influence. We were served a slice of Ritz chocolate cake, a black currant mousse with white chocolate center, a pistachio and rasberry sponge cake, a coconut macaroon, a vanilla custard slice and a fruit tart. These were all delightful and a perfect way to cap off the afternoon.
When you near the end of your time in the Palm Court, you are perhaps the most relaxed. The piano music is playing the background, your appetite has been sated, and the tea somehow tastes even better than when you first came in. You pause to reflect on the company you’re with, the ambiance and beauty of the room, the affable chatter of those all around you, and you say to yourself, “let’s just stay a minute or two more.”
(The Ritz London has a formal dress code in its public areas. Gentlemen are requested to wear a jacket and tie when using the Palm Court or the Ritz Restaurant.)