A couple of years ago, the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide to Britain was ridiculed for claiming that the entire nation grinds to a halt when the clock strikes four. "Afternoon tea is a British tradition enacted daily in homes, teashops and grand hotels," announced the guide. Oh how we all laughed. That might have been true of the Britain portrayed in This Happy Breed, but coffee has long since taken over as the national drink.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived at Claridge's at 4.30pm to discover that the tearoom was fully booked. That wasn't merely inconvenient; it was a catastrophe. I'd arranged to meet my wife and children there--and our two-year-old daughter had driven herself into a frenzy of excitement at the prospect of such an extravagant treat. The look of disappointment on her face when the Maitre 'd told us we'd have to wait at least an hour sent shivers down my spine. I was clutching a stick of dynamite and someone had just lit the fuse.
Clearly, afternoon tea is back in fashion. This was confirmed a few days later when a friend revealed that he'd had an almost identical experience at the Ritz. He turned up with his eight-year-old nephew at 4.30pm, having failed to make a reservation, and was openly laughed at by the maitre 'd. He was informed that if he wanted a table for two he'd have to book at least three months in advance. Incredible as it may seem, it's now harder to gain access to a tearoom in one of London's grand hotels than it is to get a table at the Ivy.
Will a new chain of trendy teashops soon replace Starbucks on Britain's high streets? Judging from the customers drifting in and out of Claridge's, I wouldn't be surprised. I was expecting to see a few moth-eaten old ladies, dressed as if they'd just stepped out of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, but the place was teaming with gorgeous young socialites. It was less like The Lady than the party pages of Tatler. The days when the Claridge's Tearoom enforced a no-jeans/no-trainers dress code are well and truly over.
Fortunately, a table became vacant before my daughter went completely ballistic and we all squeezed on to a large, candy-striped green sofa at the back of the room. From this vantage point, we could survey the entire scene and it wasn't hard to see why afternoon tea has experienced a resurgence in popularity of late. In an ever-changing world, there's something reassuring about the old-fashioned formality of this traditional English ritual. Seeing the waiters tripping back and forth with pots of tea and trays of delicacies was almost like watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Needless to say, the tea itself was a little disappointing after all this build-up. My wife and I decided to plump for the most expensive thing on the menu, billed as the "Royal Dom Perignon Afternoon Tea". The sandwiches and cakes were pretty good--and we had no complaints about the glass of vintage Dom Perginon--but the service wasn't what it should have been given that it cost £46.50 a head. Whilst pouring my Earl Gray, the waiter actually put the milk in first, a textbook faux pas. Not only that, but after my daughter had deposited the contents of the milk jug into her beaker--and then emptied it on to her little brother's head--the waiter didn't replace it with a fresh one.
Okay, perhaps I'm being a little persnickity. There's undoubtedly something extremely charming about having tea in a posh London hotel, particularly one as pretty as Claridge's. But if I ever feel like a spot of afternoon refreshment in Central London again, I'll be tempted to confine myself to a mug of PG Tips in a bog-standard greasy spoon.