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Putting on the Ritz for the world's best cuppa

Published 7 September 2008
News Review
790th article

Jill, left, and Michelle Stringer sitting infront of Michael and Michael Kotb (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

They serve 420 teas a day in the Palm Court of the Ritz hotel, Piccadilly. People book months ahead. They queue for sittings at 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm, 5.30pm and 7.30pm. You might think 11.30 in the morning early for tea and 7.30 in the evening rather late. Ritz customers don't. I chose 1.30. The Ritz is one of the last bastions of major dress code. No denim. No trainers. Jacket and tie essential.

I must be the only non-tie wearer in the world with a museum-worthy collection of 630 ties. They go back to the Forties, through the Fifties where I sported bow ties with straggly bits hanging down, as in the Wild West. I wore them at Cambridge University.

I've got thin black barmitzvah ties, which Brian Epstein had the Beatles wear in the early Sixties, and wide actor-laddie ties of the Seventies. I've got ties in all shapes, colours and sizes.

For my Ritz tea I wore pyjamas. Well, they didn't say, "no pyjamas". I nearly always wear pyjamas. At the London Clinic they took skin from the top of my thighs (sorry to spoil your Sunday) to graft on to my rotting left leg. As new skin grew, cloth was irritating. Geraldine suggested Turnbull & Asser, a posh shop in Jermyn Street, which makes pyjama bottoms of the best sea-island cotton, with elastic tops and poppers instead of buttons. For the Ritz I chose a dark grey pair.

I also wore a Turnbull made to measure short-sleeved white shirt and dark blue and white spotted tie. A double-breasted blue blazer came down from my attic where it had been stored for decades because I was too fat for it. This was labelled D'Avenza Roma made exclusively for Francesco London. Whoever they all may be.

The whole ensemble topped down by some black Vans "Off the Wall" shoes by Johnny Layton which had a thick white sole and were described as having "leather upper balance, man made materials, made in China".

Stephen Boxall, boss of the joint, kindly left a hand-written card welcoming me back to the Ritz saying, "I do hope you enjoy your traditional afternoon tea." Thanks, Stephen, I did.

The room is staggering. The hotel was built with true grandeur and opened in 1906. It has been restored in the Louis XVI style. Gilded statues, decorated ceiling, grand chandeliers. It's exquisite. I know of no better room, except the Ritz dining room, or my bedroom, which was a famous artist's studio. Edward VII had his portrait painted there. He called it "one of the most beautiful rooms in London". Don't rush to book. Winner ain't serving tea.

The Ritz grub was impeccable. Marvellous Earl Grey tea; perfect fresh sandwiches; scones with jam and cream; chocolate cake; raspberry rounds; shortbread; fruit in a pastry bowl; gingerbread base with apple jelly on top; mousse; a chocolate macaroon - all stunning. A quality English tea is one of the great meals of all time.

The next-door table had a birthday cake. I asked for one without a candle. Up came a lovely iced fruitcake.

The Palm Court manager, Michael Kotb (Egyptian, been there 12 years), said most of the birthday cakes were iced with a mousse centre.

"I'll have one of those as well," I declared grandly. Both were historic. Well worth £11 per cake extra.

The lady at the next table, Jill Stringer from Crowborough in East Sussex, heard me dictating. "Are you writing a book?" she asked.

"No I write a column in The Sunday Times, laughingly known as about food," I replied.

Jill responded, "I gave up reading newspapers on principle many years ago."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I didn't believe them," she replied. No answer for that, is there?

Jill was with her daughter Michelle who works for American Express in Brighton. They're a couple of tea experts. Liked it at the Goring, but thought the Ritz was better. Considered the Lanesborough best, "But they've refurbished and you have to sit on sofas." That ruled it out.

The Dorchester was a no-no for the same reason. I had tea there. Very good except for the pastries, which were French at their worst. The Stringer duo didn't like Brown's either. "Low tables and low sofas," they complained.

"Why aren't you married?" I asked Michelle.

Jill said, "I won't allow her to." Might not like the husband, I thought. Then Jill would have to eat tea alone.

A notice read "No Photography", but everyone was standing up taking photos. So Geraldine took one for us.

I forgot to mention the harpist. She was plucking away very gracefully. Note to all those dumps with piped music: a real harpist or pianist is better, even if more expensive.

Serving 420 teas at £37 (not counting extra dosh for birthday cakes and champagne teas) is £15,540 a day. That's £5,672,100 a year. With that much coming in, the Ritz could go mad and hire a five-piece string orchestra.

Michael's letters

I'm surprised Michael Winner thinks his readers believe he never ventures north of Watford, bearing in mind his choice of shoes in last week's photo.
John Faulkner, Buckinghamshire

How perfectly thrilling to find your other fan is also a queen. Must say, I thought your shoes were heavenly. Where did you park your yacht?
Don Roberts, Cheshire

Judging from the fit of your jacket and cut of the strides, it's obvious your tailor has a sense of humour.
Harry Hannam, Mansfield (north of Watford)

"Fourth review of a northern place this year," you say. Kidderminster in Worcestershire! You need a geography lesson.
David Leyland, Wigan (in the north)

Geraldine, watch out! You have competition for Michael's affections. Sarah Palin is a former beauty queen, she hunts, shoots and fishes and her favourite meal is mooseburgers. She's governor of Alaska and John McCain's vice presidential running mate. Two small snags: she has five kids and is happily married. But why should trivia like that put the great man off?
Douglas Brown, Leeds

Hotel employee T-shirts for your staff! What next? Individually wrapped grains of sand to remind them of the hideously expensive beaches you recline upon while they keep the show running?
Paul Wren, Northamptonshire

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk