Monday, 22 November 2010

I think they saw us coming at The Ritz...


I'd been planning the long weekend my mother and her husband spent with us in London for a while. It was their first visit to our new place and although I wanted them to be entertained, I didn't want to litter the few days with back to back theatre/museums/restaurants. So I booked one musical, Sweet Charity, and a pub lunch on the Sunday.  On top of that there was some impromptu shopping, boating on the Thames and viewing London sights from a double decker bus. And of course a walk on the Heath with the terrier.

My priority was for us to have time together, for the two of them to get their bearings in London; to get used to the sights and smells of our new city. My mother had been before, of course, but her husband was a London virgin.

The first disaster happened a few weeks before their arrival: an email from The Theatre Royal Haymarket informing me that the production of Sweet Charity would be terminated early.  It was now too late to book similarly good seats at another show, so having discussed it with my mother, we decided to forget about going out on the Friday night. Instead I booked a late (5.30) Afternoon Tea at the Ritz. It would be traditionally English in plush surroundings - perfect for the oldies, I thought. Besides, I wanted to go as I'd never had tea there, but had been to the Rivoli Bar for pre-dinner cocktails and enjoyed the old world charm of the place.

We arrived early and were met with this view.

The Lobby art The London Ritz Hotel

 And this was where we were going to be having our tea. 

Palm Court

'Aah,' said my mother. 

I found the Maitre D' looking through a large ledger by the side of the tearoom and after giving him my name he exclaimed, 'You have booked a tea with Champagne!'. He looked me up and down, then settled his gaze on my forehead. 'Yes,' I said, while starting to feel a little uneasy. 'Take your outer clothes to the cloakroom and then come back here,' he commanded. 

There was a long queue at a side door which I took to be the cloakroom. Inside was one elderly gentleman, slowly dealing with people's shopping and coats. It took 15 minutes for us to get to the counter. To say his attitude to the customers - mostly tourists, I noticed - was brusque would be letting him off lightly. To the woman in front of me he was openly hostile and rude. All because she happened to have a few shopping bags she wanted to deposit in the cloakroom. A sin for anyone wishing to take tea at the Ritz, obviously. I was beginning to feel that we were in an unfriendly place which takes its customers for granted.

We had been early, but by now it had gone past the time we'd booked the table for. I was bracing myself for another verbal assault by the Maitrte D', but was relieved when a waiter spotted us and took us to our table. 

The tearooms were full, and as the waiter took out tea order, I felt a little better. Perhaps this, although not exactly a cheap activity, was a good idea after all. My mother beamed when the silver tea pots arrived, followed closely by the glasses of cold champagne. Although at this level of pricing, the champagne should really have been served from the bottle, it tasted right with the requisite amount of bubbles. Then a three-tiered cake stand was put in front of us, with a fast run-through of the different sandwiches and cakes. The waiter didn't invite questions, and even though I didn't understand most of what he said, I didn't feel like interrogating him. But one question he'd obviously been prepared for because next he pointed to an empty middle tier and informed us, 'The scones are freshly baked and will be served warm later.'

I peered down to take a closer look at the small squares of what looked like smoked salmon, cucumber, ham and cheddar sandwiches. The bread looked suspiciously ordinary, and when I took a bite out of the salmon one, I knew it was the cheapest supermarket bread you could find. The salmon too was tasteless and had the consistence of  a wet leather glove. There was no taste to any of the sandwiches. If I'd been blindfolded I'd not been able to tell which kind I was eating. Lord Sandwich must be turning in his grave.

Unfortunately the various cakes were equally flavourless, and as for the scones...if there was a Lord or Lady Scone, they too would be horrified. The things were more like really bad  long-life sponge cakes that you can buy in cardboard boxes at the local petrol station. Rather than 'freshly baked' they were freshly microwaved. The jam too was manufactured, it was difficult to tell what kind of fruit had been used in its preparation. Certainly a lot of E numbers and other artificial sweeteners were involved. Only the clotted cream was edible.

As I sat there and tried to eat the horrible, tasteless food, I wondered if this is what gives British cooking a bad name? If an old institution like this can serve such utter crap (at high prices), it's no wonder most Europeans consider London a culinary wasteland.

I wish I'd been strong enough to refuse to pay the bill when it arrived. But, for one, I was with my dear family. I didn't want to Make A Scene; besides I truly doubt whether the staff, who at best could be described as going through the motions, would have taken any notice of my complaints.

Oh, I nearly forgot - the piano playing was poor too. And, they insisted the gentlemen wear jackets and ties to take tea. What nonsense!

The unfriendly man in the cloakroom even had a stash of ties in case a gentleman had forgotten his....what a joke!
Worst of all, I feel such a numpty - I should know better than take my nearest and dearest to a tourist trap such as this. I sort of pride myself at not falling into any of them in London. And here I was in tourist-trap-land extraordinaire! Worst of all, as a birthday present for a friend,  we recently bought a gift voucher to have Tea at The Ritz. I'll never live that one down.... 

20 comments:

Robin Wilton said...

Oh dear. If it's any consolation, I once took someone there who I was desperately trying to impress during her visit to London, but as I hadn't reserved in advance we got even shorter shrift than you. We went to Cafe Richoux a little further along Piccadilly, and I seem to remember it being very good. It was definitely friendlier, and probably a lot cheaper too!

Miss Whistle said...

How hideous! You poor thing. I can't think of anything worse. There is absolutely no excuse, ever, for rudeness. I hope they read this.

Miss W

Little Brown Bird said...

Helena

How awful. It'll be interesting to hear their response.

A couple of years ago a friend invited me to sfternoon tea at the Dorchester to celebrate her 40th birthday. It was the most wonderful experience.

Having said that the best afternoon tea can often be had in little independent tea shops.

I feel for you

LBB x

maddie said...

Oh no, how awful. Bad customer service is never acceptable- I say this as a veteran of the industry. But at The Ritz? Unforgivable. I hope you and your family enjoyed the rest of the weekend x

Anna Maria said...

I find that the UK Tea Council recommendations are reliable:http://www.tea.co.uk/
They rate Afternoon Tea at quite a few other hotels in London much higher, than the Ritz.

legend in his own lunchtime said...

I'm sorry Helena, but I had to laugh. Many years ago, when my wife and I were still in that blissful euphoria of falling in love, she booked a tea at the Ritz on one of her visits from Germany where she was working. We were greeted by the same old git who told me i would have to go the the gentleman's room. I said, "No thanks, I've already been". He then poked his index finger into my shirt collar and said,"You are not wearing a tie". "Correct", I said, "well we can't stay here all day chatting, we have a table reserved". Carolyn grabbed me by the arm and hauled me down the passage way to the little room and helped me choose a tie from that very drawer.
When we eventually took our seat, they brought us out a tiered tray, with what only could be described as sandwiches that were left over from British Rail's heyday. I told the waiter that it must be hard for the chef to make them like that, with the edges all curled up at the edges, and recieved a blank look from him and a sharp kick in th shins from Carolyn, who was now almost in tears. She leant over the table and said in a low growl, "Look, I want to enjoy this day. I'm paying for tea, so just eat it and keep your comments to yourself."
So I did.
Tea at the Fairmont in Victoria BC is much better if you ever get over to the west coast

pinklea said...

How upsetting! You make me quite pleased that on our last trip to London, we had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. We were not disappointed: everything was wonderful! Maybe the ambiance wasn't quite as lovely as the Ritz, but we certainly had service and food far superior to what you've described.

The Return of the Native ... sort of. said...

It used to be good - then it became fashionable. I rang a few years ago to book a table for the same afternoon and the woman laughed at me down the phone - we have a three month waiting list, Madame - she said with a sneer in her voice. I was rather relieved as it's far too expensive now and obviously not good, as you unfortunately discovered. I used to love going there before Christmas though when they had carol singers ...

La Belette Rouge said...

I am so terribly sorry that it wasn't the lovely experience that you and your mother were anticipating.

JulieB said...

What a disappointment - sorry to hear it was not what you were expecting. I've always fancied the afternoon tea thing, but will steer clear of the Ritz in future (have heard excellent things about Claridge's, by the way, if you do ever brave it again).

mettebassett.com said...

Oh no, that sounds just awful. My blood would've been boiling too. How dare they treat people like that at those prices. At least you're spreading the word now (not that the tourist hordes will listen).

I've never done the afternoon tea thing here in London but often thought about it, but never quite known which place to go to. I guess the trick must be to go for a smaller place that's depending more on word of mouth reputation. xx

aurora raby said...

Try the afternoon tea at The Langham this was my birthday treat arranged by my daughter to celebrate the arrival of my first grandson. We loved it-
very, very special...

Helena Halme said...

It's nice to hear so many of you agree with me & sympathise. I think I'll steer clear of high tea in a London hotel for a while, although both the Dorchester and Langham's sound very nice.

Funnily enough, on Saturday we ducked into a small cafe next to 'my' England's Lane Books called Chamomile and had a most wonderful cakes with coffee. You couldn't compare the quality. Just shows!

Your experience Robin sounds hilarious as does yours Legend...sorry, I know it's not at all funny at the time.

Helena xx

Talli Roland said...

That's terrible, Helena. Nothing makes me angrier than poor food served at ridiculous prices in an unfriendly atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the Ritz has just become a tourist thing and so not worth it. We went to the Berkeley for the Pret-a-Portea and it was just wonderful. There were sandwiches, rolls, scones and wonderful cakes. They keep filling up the plates til you are full and then they give you a sweet handbag shaped box with 3 cakes to take home. THe waiter suggested that we don't eat the sandwiches as you can have sandwiches anytime but not the wonderful canapes and cakes! But do go when you are hungry!

Northern Snippet said...

What a disaster.It sounds like an assembly line,obviously the volume of takers for this is causing some complacency.
A friend of mine had lunch in the restaurant at the Ritz recently which was excellent and very good value,it sounds as if you would have been better off there..

notjustanothermilla said...

I've heard such tales about the Ritz too, and it's really sad. I feel bad for you. I'd love to try my favourite meal - Afternoon Tea - there but the idea of wasting such a large sum of money doesn't sit well. I quite like The Wolseley next door - tourists & local mix, the food is good and the service friendly & professional.

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

Dear Helena, how awfully disappointing! I've never liked the Ritz much but I can thoroughly recommend the tea at Claridges if you feeling like spending a fortune on tea again. Hope all's well with you xx

TheModernGirlsGuide said...

That's such a shame! When I visited a year ago to review it for my book, I found it to be enchanting and delicious so it is gutting to hear this! Even if it was a one-off - the standards of the Ritz should NEVER drop! Check out The Modern Girl's Guide to Fabulousness by Bethanie Lunn and pick one of the other tea parlours to enjoy from the T: for Tea and Treatments section!

V said...

Next time, try the Wolseley next door. Much less snotty and the scones are awesome.