Last year, I partly celebrated my birthday by having tea at the Ritz Carlton. This year, it was the the Garden Court at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The two hotels offer somewhat similar experiences (and prices!) and at the end of the day it's hard to know which one I liked best. While the food at the Ritz was average and the room was elegant but boring, the service was superb and we were able to have a long and relaxed tea. At the Garden Court, the food was out of this world and the room is absolutely gorgeous, but service was average and we felt pressured to not linger over our tea. When you are paying $34 for tea, lingering should be part of the experience.
The big attraction of the Palace is, of course, its central atrium where the Garden Court restaurant is located. I'm not schooled in architectural lingo, so I won't even try to describe it, other than to say that it's just as beautiful and light as it looks in the pictures. You can see a virtual tour of the restaurant at its website. The chairs are quite comfortable and the immense flower arrangements, featuring exotic flowers, are quite amazing - it's really a room you want to visit at least once.
Given that the room is the main attraction here, I was surprised to find how delicious the food was. The "Garden Court Tea" ($34) comes with a pot of tea, assorted bite-size pastries and tarts, tiny "sandwiches" and a scone. The tea choices are quite limited; they only had three or four black teas. Between the five of us we tried the Darjeeling, the decaf Darjeeling (I think it was) and the English breakfast. Lotty thought the decaf Darjeeling was quite possibly the best such tea she'd ever had. Regina, Boris and I really liked the regular Darjeeling as well - but while Frank really enjoyed the English breakfast, I found it to be not as well balanced as my favorite English breakfasts. Vienna had one of the spiced teas, which she also really liked. In all, the consensus was that the Palace served a good cup of tea.
The sweet bits were already at the table, artfully arranged on a three tier serving dish, when we arrived. There was one of each sweet for each person, and a couple of extras for sharing. There was a plump, perfectly ripe strawberry dipped in a thick layer of first-class chocolate - it was excellent. A short bread cookie was half-dipped in the same chocolate and was also very good. I wasn't as fond of a mini eclair filled with coffee-flavored cream, but Regina and Vienna liked it quite a lot. A mini fruit tart featured what had to be the sweetest, most flavorful grape I've tasted (though Lotty says they have them at Whole Foods) and two equally ripe and sweet berries. My favorite was a mini chocolate cream tart; the filling had the most intense chocolate flavor with only the mildest hint of hazelnut (or did we imagine it?). It was superb. But the all-around favorite was a passion fruit mini tart with a raspberry on top. It was amazing how much flavor could be packed into what had to be less of teaspoon of pudding. It was a revelation.
The scones, unfortunately, were much less successful. They were quite good for what they were, flat, sweet American-style scones with dried currants and sprinkled sugar - but they didn't quite work with the whipped butter (or was it cream? in any case, it was quite tasteless), the fruit preserves (too sweet) or the lemon curd (just average). The other obvious problem was that the scones, which had been sitting on the table waiting for us, were of necessity cold. Scones are one pastry that needs to be served warm for full effect.
The restaurant redeemed itself with the sandwiches, however. We were all served four minute tea sandwiches, plus a few extras to share. My favorite one consisted of a piece of round bread the size of a half-dollar, served as the base for a dollop of the most intense pate de foie gras I've ever tasted. It was also the most delicious. It was topped by some round veggie thing which I couldn't identify but which provided a nice sweet contrast to the saltiness of the pate. The crowd favorite, however, was a cucumber sandwich. The little sandwich was filled with a thin layer of a red pepper cream and topped with cream cheese and paper thin slices of cucumber. Still, it managed to pack an unbelievable amount of flavor. Lotty described it as "stunning." A squash and zucchini sandwich, with a similar red pepper filling, was also quite good but less intense. Finally, my tablemates thought the smoked salmon sandwich, which came with a sprinkle of caviar, was quite delicious.
The amount of food was probably good for tea - though most of us had made sure to have some lunch before our 2:30 PM tea appointment. But we all felt that there weren't enough savory bites offered - by the end of the tea people were tired of so many sweets. We would have liked to order some additional sandwiches, but as we were discussing the possibility - a mere forty minutes or so into our tea - the waiter plopped the bill on the table. We can take a hint.
And there comes our only real complaint with tea at the Palace: we felt quite rushed. Part of the reason was, surely, the timing. The Palace serves teas on Saturdays between 1 and 3 pm, too early to be really called an 'afernoon tea'. We had a 2:30 PM reservation and the place really clears out by 3 PM. Around this time they close the restaurant and they start cleaning up - sending the message that you should not linger. Our tea, also, was only replenished once before 3 PM and then never again. The pots were quite small - so that meant we barely got enough tea to accompany our food. A 15% service charge was included for parties of six or more, and we certainly did not feel any compulsion to reward our disappearing waiter with anything more.
In all, I think I'd go back to the Palace though I'd probably wait a few years before I do so. I loved the food, but we like going to tea so we can socialize and talk for at least a couple of hours, and the Palace does not make that possible.
he Garden Court Restaurant
The Palace Hotel
2 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA
Tea: Sat 1-3 PM