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.