There is nothing more quintessentially British than afternoon tea – other than people apologising after you’ve trodden on their toes, of course – and there is no finer or iconic destination for this institution than the Ritz, bastion of tradition and glamour for over a century. Today, of course, there is a raft of competition, but somehow the Ritz still manages to get booked out months in advance. It sets the standard for making afternoon tea not just an enjoyable pre-dinner treat, but a theatrical display of pomp, ceremony and more than a little fuss.
On entering the famous Palm Court a few weeks ago, my companion Lucy instantly exclaimed, “Gosh, it’s like being on the set of Titanic!” She was spot on. Only the most jaded of critics could fail to be impressed by the opulence of the Louis XVI setting; a beguiling assortment of lavish furnishings, high ceilings, panelled mirrors and a famous marble fountain, known as “La Source.” Instantly welcomed by the charming manager, we were shown to a table with, mercifully, two chairs facing toward the centre, and not the wall. Indeed, the Ritz saved me from a potential bust-up, as nothing infuriates Lucy more than a gentlemen’s refusal to give up a special view.
Sipping our glasses of Champagne and admiring the setting, we detected accents and languages from across the globe; make no mistake, tea at the Ritz remains the preserve of tourists rather than London folk, something which bothers a few of my journalist friends. For myself, if the experience is memorable then it wouldn’t bother me who turned up, be it Russian oligarchs or ravenous Sumo wrestlers.
The main event was a purist’s delight, our waiter served all the expected classics: cucumber, smoked salmon and egg mayonnaise sandwiches? Check. Freshly-baked raisin and plain scones? Check. Cornish clotted cream? Double-heart-bypass-check. And, of course, the prerequisite selection of cakes and pastries and a fine cup of darjeeling. The fare was delicious, although if one had to be particularly picky there were no surprises, nor any creativity being exercised in the kitchen. But this, of course, misses the point entirely. They’ve been doing this since 1902, you know. One takes tea at the Ritz expecting to get stuck in an opulent time warp for two hours – men must wear a jacket and tie – seduced by the venue and the resident pianist’s playing. In that sense, job impeccably, exemplarily, exquisitely done.
Before leaving, we decided to indulge in a cocktail or two at the similarly glamorous Rivoli bar, where patrons with considerable slack on their credit card can imbibe the famous El Presidente – a snip at £350. Still feeling sober and sensible, we instead opted for an expertly made whiskey sour, perfected with a dash of amaretto and ‘The London Mist’, a mix of 15-year old Dalmore, Carpano Antica, toasted barley seeds and Absinthe. The atmosphere was soothing and conducive to chatting, not a hint of raised voices or raucous behaviour makes the Rivoli bar a Hen Party’s worst nightmare, and my idea of heaven.
But then, what else would you expect from the Ritz?
Tea at the Ritz, from £50 per person.
The Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9BR. 0207 493 8181. www.theritzlondon.com.