Glamour and glitz, it's tea at the Ritz

An institution for the rich and famous for 91 years began to lose its sparkle, writes Meg Carter. But now, the Palm Court's back as the ultimate English tea

The two women sit side by side in complementary Laura Ashley dresses. The elder, with pepper and salt hair meticulously drawn back into a chignon, pours tea for her companion who sits demurely, hands folded across her lap. To their right, an animated trio wash down their sandwiches and tea with glasses of champagne. To their left a couple of businessmen are in intense discussion, the scones and cakes before them an irrelevance. And behind them, the discreet ministrations of the waiters pass unnoticed.

Tea at The Ritz, 1997, and at first glance only the clothes have changed since London's most famous hotel first opened 91 years ago. The venue is still the Palm Court - an assault of pinks and gold leaf with Ionic columns crowned by a windowed dome that makes the room's interior light and airy. Guests sit on rose-coloured Louis XVI chairs at meticulous pink tables. Tea is taken on Royal Worcester fine bone china with the original blue "forget-me-not" pattern. Ladies are still encouraged to wear hats while men must come in jacket and tie; jeans and trainers are resolutely banned. And in the background, a pianist plays "You Must Remember This ... "

Scratch the surface, however, and you will find a great British institution grappling with change - because despite being more popular than ever (you must now book two to three weeks ahead for a table for afternoon tea on weekdays and a staggering two to three months ahead for weekends) The Ritz is acutely conscious of the dangers of becoming a relic. It's a matter of balancing traditions with contemporary appeal, Ritz London spokeswoman Georgina Sullivan explains. "Following a change of management 18 months ago when former owner Trafalgar House sold out to the Barclay Brothers, new investment has been directed to making The Ritz more customer-friendly." She candidly adds: "Before then, a lot of people had commented on the fact The Ritz had lost its sparkle."

Which explains why, should you choose to visit The Ritz for afternoon tea, you will find a more contemporary style of food on offer. Along with 14 different types of tea - from Ritz Traditional English to Earl Grey and China Oolong - the staple of finger sandwiches, scones and cake selection has been jazzed up with the addition of speciality breads like caraway seed and sun-dried tomato. Sacrilege? Hardly. The Ritz has always been in tune with the times. After all, why else would it have proved so popular with fashionable society for more than nine decades?

The Ritz was opened in May, 1906, by Cesar Ritz, 13th child of an Alpine shepherd and a former wine waiter. It was the first place in London where young ladies could take tea alone. Barbara Cartland, the romantic novelist, was a regular shortly after the First World War when, she observed: "One could meet men, without chaperones, for lunch and tea. So you had lunch with the men you were keen on, and tea with the rest." Edward and Mrs Simpson had tea here. And the Hollywood greats came throughout the Forties and Fifties, along with the Aga Khan. Burt Lancaster, Adam Faith and Selina Scott are more recent regulars although of others the hotel staff remain suitably tight-lipped.

Discretion lies at the heart of The Ritz's appeal, you see. Not only is one guaranteed privacy (no photography is allowed when the Palm Court is in use) but discretion extends to the style of service which, while formal, is neither intrusive nor stuffy - which cannot be said of some of its rivals, like Claridges or The Savoy. The Palm Court's 14-strong team of waiters, led by Master of Ceremonies Michael Twomey, who has worked the tea room for the past 51 years, are part of the appeal, Ms Sullivan claims. "Many people come to see them - it's like having tea with old friends."

Franco Baratta has been serving tea in the Palm Court for 37 years. Taking tea at The Ritz has never been more popular, he says: "We have around 500 calls a day from people trying to make reservations. The phone starts ringing at 7am ..." Each day, the Palm Court stages two tea sittings - at 3.30pm and again at 5pm - which means a total of about 180 teas on a weekday, 230 a day at weekends. To save you the calculation, this equates to just under 70,000 teas a year taken by a broad cross-section of clientele. There are infrequent visitors up from the country for the day as well as regulars who come every month. There are the titled ("The Royal Family? I've served them all," Mr Baratta proudly reveals) and there are tourists. "Many come from America, many from Japan. And since the Channel Tunnel opened, we've found a lot of people coming over from France, Holland and Belgium - it's so quick now to come to London for tea."

The reason why is harder to equate. At pounds 21 per head for set tea, it's surely more than for the novelty, so what exactly is the appeal? Mr Baratta smiles. "I've been here almost 40 years and I'm still trying to work out the appeal," he confides. "It's the name. The room. The place - everything. It's something special."

People come for the attention to detail, Ms Sullivan believes. "Since the Barclay Brothers bought us, we've been working hard to bring this back. In retrospect, The Ritz always needed private ownership rather than becoming lost in a chain." The Ritz may not be the grandest place to take tea in London, but it makes up for that in quality and style, she insists. "Tea shouldn't be a sombre affair - it's about chatting, it's a social interlude. We are trying to bring back tea as an event that doesn't have to be a special occasion." The intention? To make it less formidable. And neither price, nor queues, she insists, should deter.

Tea is served in the Palm Court at The Ritz daily at 3.30pm and 5pm and costs pounds 21 per head.

Five more emporia - for all pockets

The Landmark, 222 Marylebone Road, NW1 Formerly known as The Regent, this five star railway hotel opposite Marylebone Station boasts an eight storey high atrium in which you can take tea at pounds 14 per head.

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1 If The Ritz is beyond your means, pop over the road to the Royal Academy and you can have tea and cakes in tasteful surroundings.

Maison Bertaux, 28 Greek Street, W1 Delicious French patisserie which caters for the coffee & croissant brigade each morning and serves lashings of tea and cakes throughout the day.

Aurora Cafe, 49 Lexington Street, W1 Idiosyncratic Soho cafe which also does light meals in the evening. Good cakes and an extensive range of teas including herbal and fruit varieties.

Russell Square, WC1 Where better on a sunny day than the garden cafe in the centre of Russell Square where you can take in some sun, some tea and a bun.

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

    £39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game