Friday, June 6, 2008

Tea at Fortnum and Mason

In planning my trip to London, Fortnum and Mason was recommended time and again as the place for tea. So it made it to the top of my short list of London tea options. I made reservations for Saturday. The exterior of the shop is outfitted with alluring display windows; I was unaware they sold more than just foodstuffs.

Fortnum and Mason window display.
Inside I was greeted by a bewildering array of sweets and tea products. I had to ask one of the staff for the location to the restaurant. "Which one?" she asked. Apparently the place has four places to eat. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, St James's Restaurant. The room looked like a well appointed lobby with couches (chesterfields?) and lounge chairs arranged around coffee tables. There were some regular restaurant-style table in the back. There was only one couple dining there. I was hoping for something a bit more lively.

Two of the many tea varieties available.
My companion and I checked out the boisterous wine bar on the bottom floor and decided that this was more to our liking. We had to wait for a table so we used the time to explore. On the second floor, a chef was demonstrating pastry making (mmmm, free samples!). The food in the restaurant was typical London expensive and not particularly good. However, the company was most pleasant (which made up for the mediocre service). The original plan was to retire to the Parlour Restaurant for ice cream but since the sun was out we went across the street and had coffee in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Side entrance of Fortnum and Mason.

The lovely perfume counter.

I returned to Fortnum and Mason the next day, determined to get my fill of tea. I arrived at the restaurant just in time to overhear the French maître d' tell another couple that the restaurant was closing. The fellow recognized me when I greeted him and gave me a pained look when I said I'd returned for tea. They were no longer serving. There were half a dozen small groups gathered around their silver tray towers dining on dainty sandwiches looking all prim and proper. My feet sore from walking and I was hungry. "Surely you can set me up in the corner with a pot of tea?" The maître d' looked around a bit and said "Let me see what I can do." He came back a moment later, "Yes, come zis way please." When he came from around the counter, he visibly cringed when he saw I was wearing shorts, but sat me at a nearby couch. One of the black and white clad serving staff brought me a list of the teas. The couch was firm but very comfortable. It felt good to sit down. I resisted the incredible urge to pull off my boots as I waited for my tea. The server came back and laid out tea pot, hot water pot, tea cup and saucer, sugar, cream, tea strainer and a small plate of wafer cookies. He explained that I should use the hot water if the tea was too strong. Good advice, as it was very strong indeed.

I missed out on the full tea service, but I quite enjoyed my private party.
The store was closing soon so I had to hurry to make additional purchases. On the main floor I picked up a selection of sweets including something that I've never seen before: a sugar plumb. As I walked up Piccadilly, I contemplated returning the next day but decided against it. There were other places I wanted to try and felt that I had done Fortnum and Mason right. I'm determined to go back the next time I visit London, and will give myself enough time to eat and shop.

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