It’s the end of the first week on Olympia! We are very excited, a little tired, and desperately in need of some refreshment. We (Lydia) thought about consuming more than the gris-amount of champagne, but then she remembered that Babs is pregnant. So today we’re discussing that milder form of exhilaration: TEA! And specifically the Afternoon Tea (with champagne for some). The first in an unpredictable series.
Barbara: Only since the year before last, when I began the British phase of my life, have I thought for more than 30 seconds in a row about Tea. But now I must, and I do. While Tea is still no defining dimension of my daily routine (OK sometimes I herbal-tea-binge between lunch and dinner), I do enjoy the excuse of Afternoon Tea: to dress up in the daytime, to rush off to meet a friend or relative I haven’t seen in too long, to eat cakes in the afternoon together with someone who also needs cakes just then. Tea is a culinary treat as much as a social one, and to me it’s best enjoyed in dreary weather when a walk in the park would be markedly less nice than an indoor treat.
Lydia: The only time I can clearly recall being taken to an Afternoon Tea as a kid was at the Drake Hotel in Chicago when I was 10 or 11. Even at such a tender age, I remember going gaga over the hotel silver, and simultaneously being a bit disappointed by the idea of sandwiches with butter being a major selling point. Now, as an adult, I appreciate the idea of butter a bit more than I did then, but I still secretly think all Teas, Afternoon or not, should be something like a combination of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jeeves and Wooster, Mrs. Patmore in Downtown Abbey, and an explosion of candied violets, silver dragées and champagne, all served on very beautiful and very heavy hotel silver, delivered by someone who will look the other way when you pocket 90% of it.
In any case, whenever Barbara and I team up in person to do something fun, the first thing I can be counted on to suggest is that we splash out on Tea somewhere luxe. This suggestion is usually met by a perusal of a Victorian-style soft-focus websites showing kindly grandmothers and little girls in taffeta—and specifically not two thirty-ish year-olds wearing comfortable grey sweaters over lounge dresses. And the website reality-check is quickly followed with the realization that, in London anyway, fancy teas with the champagne opt-in cost, like, a million pounds.
That being said, the end of our first week of excitement on Olympia Monthly means we’re ready to splash out (or at least think about it). So below is Part 1, if you can believe it, of Tea Houses We’ve Known. A list strangely comprehensive for a woman who can only recall going out to Afternoon Tea once and another who doesn’t even like the beverage that much.
Barbara: The first Tea experience I really recall took place at the Plaza Hotel. I was a kid, just old enough to be Eloise’s plainer, less daring school mate. The proximity to my idol (or her portrait, anyway…) did prompt me, later that day, to run so fast I thought I was flying down the hall of my grandparent’s apartment building. I remember nothing of what I ate or drank, or those who brought me there. Just the painting.
My grandmother took me back to the Palm Court when I was in my awkward teenage years. What to wear was eminently stressful. But then we talked up the waitstaff, as was her forte, and were delighted to learn that they kept an enormous supply of tiny silver spoons and salt cellars and sugar dishes in the basement, because almost everyone (but us, of course) stole them. This stockpile’s expense was certainly reflected in the prices, and somehow our not being thieves made me feel better: even if I was a weird adolescent, my manners were obviously superior.
Lydia: I only wish I could remember ever being taken to any place in the world so indulgent as where they are prepared for the stealing of tiny silver spoons (even if it means paying $56 for a cup of Rooibos).
Barbara: My wedding was a wonderful experience, and beautiful, and so full of love it left me exhausted and tearful for a week. So I’m sorry to bring up that there was (just!) one unlovely aspect, which drove my mother up the wall and left me in tears: if you’ll pardon my French, the DJ was a completely obnoxious asshole. Anyway, the coordinator who had recommended him to us felt badly, and apologized to my brand new husband and me with Afternoon Tea. Ok, "Royal Tea,” or something equally funny, which included champagne. Tea varieties were presented in vials fitted into a wooden chest... and we even got to choose the spreads on our sandwiches. Tea as an apology doesn’t really have the power to absolve, but it’s best never to say no to a gift.
Lydia: In another example of me suggesting "fun" activities with Barbara, I once convinced her to come to a ballet class with me in London, assuring her the entire trip into Covent Garden that, yes, it would be totally fine that we are adult beginners. I had it on good authority that the class was specifically not for professional ballet dancers looking for a warm-up before tying on their pointe shoes at the Royal Ballet. It goes without saying that I was very, very wrong, and that the hour and a half of "beginning ballet" was very, very dark. Dark largely because I blacked out from anxiety and shame within the first 5 minutes. However, directly preceding that class, we had a really delicious and fortifying tea at the London Review of Books tea shop. The china is dense and white, and the teas are strong, and the cafe part of the shop is just small and cozy enough that you’re constantly knocking into people and tipping over books when you get up to order the delicious carrot cake.
Barbara remembers it differently and strangely makes no mention of that afternoon in Covent Garden: The London Review Bookshop has a tearoom that is full to the point of overflowing every time I visit. One rushed waitress bustles around explaining teas (and the pots it comes in), taking orders, barely managing to avoid the hasty gesticulations of her patrons. Gossip (about English publishing, mostly) pings around the little room just as wildly. Best, it seems, for an officious tete-a-tete. Or just a quick get together with an equally skeptical friend. Now that I think about it, I should find an alternative.
Barbara: The Ritz’s Tea Room is pink, gold and rococo. Each table seems to warrant its own waiter, a friendly young man wearing gloves and, like, a morning suit. As soon as the sandwiches disappear they’re silently replenished. Cakes and scones travel on silver carts, whisked around the room like the richest dim sum. Every little while the pianist strikes up the Happy Birthday tune, and all the waiters sing along. I think a wonderful game, if a Ritz Tea is boring you, would be to guess what each table intends to celebrate, and who is there just to be seen. While in my case no such trick was necessary - I was there in excellent company for an exciting celebration - if I were rolling in dough I’d go back just for that.
Barbara: I’ll leave off with my favorite Afternoon Tea spot, the best place in London to eat something delightful (and maybe even wrong) at the strangest times of the day. The Wolseley is the kind of place glamorous people meet in the afternoons, and where even more glamorous people take their lunch every day. It’s a grand room apparently built to show cars, and it looks more European than English. Lined with marble, low lamps, and cosy banquettes, it’s at once bustling and calm, the perfect place to feel both relaxed and industrious. Exactly the way you want to feel at four o’clock whilst eating a banana split and catching up with a fabulous friend who’d rather have something like a cheeseburger. The Wolseley feels like a fancy hotel where you can be an adult Eloise, ordering anything you want and requesting pillows to prop you up while you wait for it. Maybe it’s also where Lydia and I, each escaping from a hundred stresses, first came to fortify ourselves as we set out to build Olympia Monthly.
Lydia: Yes! The banquettes are all slightly too-worn in a way that recalls Old Europe, the service is disorganized yet attentive, and you can indeed request pillows for your pregnant friend and then yourself just because you feel needy. I did eat a cheeseburger there, PLUS a tea, we dropped all the tiny napkins onto the floor, I attempted to palm the salt shaker, and while sitting beneath those tall ceilings, amidst the clamor of clinking silver, we had an idea for a website that looked basically like this in our brains:
So, all in all, it was exactly what a tea should be.
xo, Barbara + Lydia