Published 17 November 1996 Style Magazine 176th article
Tea for too many: Jack Blake and Michael Winner in the Palm Court at the Ritz (Vanessa Perry)
The Ritz hotel, Piccadilly, should be ashamed of itself. I refer not to the establishment in general, which has many fine attributes. I mean the overcrowded, crammed-up, ludicrously small tables in the Palm Court, where they serve tea. It resembles a Balham car dealer determined to stuff every possible vehicle onto his lot. Or a contest to see how many students can pile into a Mini. With the Ritz, it's how many people and tables can be forced into a Palm Court. The tables are so small that to pass the cream and jam front one person to another involves moving everything in sight to accommodate this. It is like an intelligence test. Anyone who achieves it, deserves senior membership of Mensa.
I decided at the last minute to take Sunday tea at the Ritz. It is something I have never done. I understand people from out of town book a long way ahead, so I was happy to be accepted (why not?) and offered space. At that point, I had not seen the space! A tie is necessary, so l dug out one of my old wide, kipper ties which are now all the rage. I see halfnaked men in my Versace catalogue wearing these knotted so they only come halfway down
Vanessa declined to have her new sports car parked by the Ritz doorman, so she parked it by the Caprice and we walked up. The doorman paid little attention to my entry. At the last moment, he nodded, I think on entering The Ritz the doorman should acknowledge you with a movement of hand to cap, in my case more. I passed into the attractive lobby, at least people inside greeted me, then to the Palm Court. It's a raised bit on the left. A pianist was playing Unforgettable, doubtless referring to the room arrangement. A young man said: "Afternoon tea?" What did he think I'd come for? An enema? "What do you mean, afternoon tea?" I said sharply. "I made a reservation." I was shown to a table, just big enough to put things on. There is a set menu - sandwiches, cakes, scones - for £18.50 per person, including service and Vat. We ordered earl grey. A few moments later the Palm Court manager, at nice chap called Darren Yeap (pronounced "yup"), said: "Two people are leaving by the statue, would you rather go there?" "Is the table the same size?" I asked. "It's a bit smaller," said Darren. I stayed put, but, after a short time, got aggravated by the activity at the service bar behind me, so we moved to the "statue" table.
The statue was of a gilded lady looking up at two cherubs blowing through seashells. The room is delightfully kitsch: the table so small I could not believe it.
The tea arrived. Strainer, not tea bags. A three-tier rack, with sandwiches on the bottom. "There's smoked salmon, cucumber and anchovy, egg mayonnaise with mustard cress, smoked turkey and sweet mustard, and cottage cheese with carrot and hazelnuts," intoned the waiter. They were all superb. So much so that, after the cakes and the scones, I went back, fully stuffed, and finished them off.
The cakes were only marginally below historic: I've never had better scones. But the throng of people made it look like a cheap restaurant. It invaded my enjoyment of the food. Opposite me was a nice family of four, father in dark suit, wife with aunt/mother-in-law/granny in floral dresses, and young boy playing with toys. Pa got the bill. He looked at it for along time, laughed to himself, his eyes still riveted to the bill, gazed longer and finally put down his credit card. I asked if Vanessa could take a photo of his four-year-old, Jack, sitting beside me. The family were delighted: "We'd love that." "He doesn't like being photographed," muttered father, Michael. This became abundantly clear. Jack threw a tantrum greater than any I have seen on a movie set. His father and the ladies tried, without success, to pacify him. After, he cried for 30 seconds, then gurgled with laughter as he looked back at me from dad's arms.
An interesting afternoon. If I was a resident of the Ritz paying highly for my accommodation and had to have tea with this excessive number of visiting firemen in overcrowded conditions, I would give the manager a speech on Sunday that would be ringing in his ears on Thursday. As I was only a tourist myself, I politely made my views known to Mr Yeap-Yup and wandered out. This time the doorman saluted like mad. Must have realised who I was.
I do not always agree with Michael Winner's views on restaurants, but I entirely agree about Oscar's (Restaurant Watch, November 3). My wife and I took a friend there to celebrate her 80th birthday and to say the meal was a disaster is an understatement. May I suggest that if Michael Winner finds himself in Bournemouth again he visit Le Chateau in Canford Cliffs Village. It is a small, family-run restaurant where the food is simple, but beautifully cooked and well-presented.
Bryan Harris Aylesbury, Bucks
I was interested to read Michael Winner's comments on Oscar's Restaurant at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, since my wife and I were there when he and his girlfriend arrived. We do not share his opinion of Oscar's: we have eaten there several times over the past three years and always found it pleasant, with decent food at a reasonable price. On the day in question, we chose different fare to Mr Winner's and it was absolutely fine. On the other hand, we did find Mr Winner's manners appalling: combing his hair while at the table, dictating into his recorder while staff were attending him, and generally causing an air of distraction without any heed to the other diners present.
Tom Needham Watford, Herts