Last Saturday (May 2005) I got together with a few of my girlfriends (and my friend Frank, who was an honorary girl for the afternoon) at the Lobby Lounge of the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco for high tea. It was a very nice experience. While neither the food nor the teas were particularly memorable, the room was lovely and very relaxing and the service efficient and unobtrusive.
I hadn't been to the Ritz Carlton before and from the outside the place reminded me of a government building. Indeed, it was originally built to be the headquarters of an insurance agency. The Lobby Lounge had the look of a turn of the century drawing room, with tall windows cased by heavy drapery, enormous portraits of ladies in period clothing and nicely upholstered chairs surrounding clothed tables. The tables are not too close together, which allows you to enjoy the room on your own. During the early afternoon, a harpist regales you with background music and a pianist takes her place in the early evening.
The service was very good, I seldom noticed the waitresses, but they were there when we needed them. I particularly enjoyed the very relaxed pace of the meal. I'm not sure if they were good at reading our clues or if the service is just naturally slow, but in either case it worked great for us. In all, we stayed there about 3 hours, well into cocktail hour, and never felt the slightest pressure to leave. It was wonderfully relaxing.
And for the price, it well should be. A traditional or vegetarian tea costs $29 and includes, in addition to a pot of tea, four finger sandwiches, one scone and a few small pastries and cookies. Each finger sandwich is the size of a fourth a slice of bread, so the meal is not very substantial, but then again, afternoon tea is not supposed to be. None of the food was particularly good (or terrible), though I did enjoy the scone. Unfortunately, there are no á la carte choices. You can "upgrade" your tea with a champagne cocktail and with some chocolates and strawberry slices, which being my birthday, I did. I enjoyed my mimosa-like cocktail, probably worth the extra $5 of the "Premier Tea," though the chocolates and strawberries weren't worth the additional $7 of the "Royal Tea."
I wasn't particularly thrilled by the teas themselves either. Most of the choices were fruit or floral scented teas. I decided on the Oolong which I hadn't tried before and proved to be too mild for my taste, my friend Frank ordered the Earl Grey and while I liked it better, it wasn't my favorite Earl Grey. I liked the Blue Sapphire better, though I tend to prefer darker teas. I didn't try the Snow Dragon that Lola ordered, but she felt it was good as long as you didn't add anything to it. With some milk and sugar it was undrinkable.
My husband had mentioned it was my birthday when making reservations and at the end of the tea they brought me a plate with "Happy Birthday" and my name written on chocolate and a long candle on a chocolate-dipped strawberry. My friends were nice enough to not sing me the "Happy Birthday" too loudly and I enjoyed it.
In all, we had a lovely experience, so much so that we decided to get together monthly for a "tea party." We'll be alternating tea at our homes with tea at the different tea houses in the Bay Area, so stay tuned for more reports.