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.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
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

    Teaching Assistants

    £50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

    Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

    £1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

    Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

    £85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

    SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week