How did we arrive at the idea of having something sweet at the end of a meal? I often wonder whether it wouldn't be better to start with pudding, to get the sugar rush to propel one through the rest of the meal, instead of filling up on torpor-inducing bread.
Perhaps early abuse of my taste buds has affected me adversely. As a teenager, I worked in a newsagent and spent every Saturday ricocheting between tangy salt-and-vinegar Chipsticks and saccharine Bounty bars in an eight-hour flavour ping-pong match. It worked well, unless stocks ran low of either snack, which would necessitate a trip to the stockroom, where the proprietor might try to get payment in kind for my culinary pilfering.
So, back to sweet versus savoury. Maybe I should try ordering my dessert to come first, because it suits me? Enough of this nonsense that modern kitchens like to intone: "We bring each dish as it's ready." How about you bring it when I want it, since I'm the person paying? And if I want crème brûlée before my soup, just do it.
Anyway, rant over. The worst possible venue for a grouchy critic is an established, tourist-infested chain, so this week I'm off with my family to Bettys in Harrogate, a landmark tea room that has spawned a smattering of branches, a cookery school and a mail-order business. As I round the corner in the swanky spa town to see a queue of fanny-packed ladies and their bifocalled husbands, my heart sinks yet further. The glass-fronted café is thronging inside, and the queue, too cruel, allows us to see forks plunged into éclairs and froth inhaled from cappuccinos as we wait (and wait) in the drizzle.
What I am hoping to achieve is a replication of that teenage taste sensation: sweet, sticky and savoury mouthfuls in rotation – and I know just how to do it. Order afternoon tea for lunch. It is, I have come to realise, the perfect eating occasion for the unsophisticated palate.
Once inside, memories of the queue soon fade. For a perceived tourist trap, it's warm and comfortable, the kind of place you'd want to linger in. The well-informed staff add much to the atmosphere in the snug lower-ground room, where we settle into pastel-shaded Lloyd Loom chairs. The walls are lined with marquetry scenes which are a bit like the operation they surround – seemingly simple, but clearly a lot of work has gone into it.
Bettys Traditional Afternoon Tea (£15.95) is no disappointment, either. Three tiers of temptation: crustless smoked salmon, ham, roast chicken and egg mayonnaise sandwiches, a plump scone with plenty of Yorkshire clotted cream and strawberry jam, a miniature éclair, elegant raspberry tart and a dinky lemon-and-almond sponge cake. I can bob between the tiers to my heart's content, so long as my companions can be fended off.
Mr M is more than occupied by his Yorkshire rarebit (£8.95). His preferred meal is breakfast, and he delights in finishing a meal with a bowl of corn flakes whatever the hour. He has foregone the traditional breakfast specialities (available all day) for a shallow stoneware dish, all glistening and bubbling with a deeply satisfactory savoury meld of Cheddar cheese, Worcestershire sauce, Yorkshire ale and some crisp bacon thrown in.
There's a faintly surprising Swiss twist to many of the menu's dishes (until you learn from reading the menu properly that the chain's founder was a Swiss confectioner) – several rosti combinations, an Alpine macaroni dish and a coupe Matterhorn – but the teen's open sandwich of crab, prawn and avocado (£7.95) is about as continental as we get. The famished tween, meanwhile, loves her warming bowl of the day's soup (£4.95); home-made-tasting carrot and orange, with a roll blistered with cheese.
I'd expected to hate the Bettys experience, or at least disdain it, but by the time I've polished off the last crumbs and refilled my cup of Tea Room blend from the very correct loose leaves in a stainless-steel pot, I feel all warm and fuzzy about it. I even allow myself to be lightly fleeced in the bakery shop attached. (The Florentines are damned good, mind, even at £1.95 each.)
If I really wanted to relive my teendom, I'd rejoin the back of the queue right now, and anticipate a Fat Rascal (a Bettys speciality I've had to reluctantly pass on). But I'm older and wider now. It'll have to wait till next time.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Bettys Harrogate 1 Parliament Street, Harrogate, tel: 01423 814 070 9am-9pm daily. Around £30 for lunch for two, with tea
Café at All Saints
All Saints Church, High Street, Hereford, tel: 01432 370 415
A city stop-off with an unusual setting (a former church), and lovely veggie fare
William Curley Dessert Bar
198 Ebury Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7730 5522
A visual treat, this patissier-chocolatier serves extravagant, luscious delights
5 Parade Street, Penzance, tel: 01736 368 686
A lovely café with real buzz, amazing cakes and very tasty main meals too (for which it's safest to book)
87-135 Brompton Road, London SW1, tel: 020 3155 0111
This spin-off from the legendary Parisian tearoom is pricey, but a great treat, with its hallmark, divine macarons
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.comReuse content