Perfection at the Palm Court
YOU know things have changed in your life when it's your kids who take you out for a treat. It happened when our son shouted us afternoon tea at The Ritz.
That's The Ritz, as in 150 Piccadilly, W1, the one that Cesar Ritz opened in 1906 with a special bell in the entrance to warn staff if royalty wandered in.
"How long will The Experience last for?" reads a Helpful Hint on The Ritz website.
"Enjoying afternoon tea takes approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. We offer valet parking for two hours, at the cost of £15 [$28]."
Our son had booked us into the Palm Court, a cream-and-ivory oval decorated in Louis XVI style - or rather, the style Louis XVI would have chosen if he could have afforded it. Gilt pillars, ivory walls, huge mirrors and an even huger piano. Tables and chairs were in white and gold.
"Gentlemen are requested to wear a jacket and tie," said the website.
Traditional Afternoon Tea - The Ritz speaks in Capitals - cost £40 per person late last year. We passed up on the Celebration Afternoon Tea and the Champagne Afternoon Tea, at £51 and £52 respectively.
Time for a reminder that this is Piccadilly, where the homeless sleep and beg in doorways just metres away.
A red cummerbund led us to our place, shook out the pristine, sheet-sized napkin and laid it reverentially across my lap.
A silver cakestand arrived in the middle of the table. Perfectly formed rectangular sandwiches that had never known a crust were stacked on it.
"Ham with Grain Mustard Mayonnaise on White Bread," read The Menu.
"Scottish Smoked Salmon with Lemon Butter on Rye Bread ... Cucumber (of course) with Cream Cheese, Dill, Chives on Caraway Seed Bread".
The cakestand had other levels: "Freshly Baked Raisin and Plain Scones with Cornish Clotted Cream and Strawberry Preserve ... Assortment of Afternoon Tea Pastries and Cakes."
Then there was the tea itself: a separate pot for each person experiencing The Experience.
The Menu offered a choice of 17 types of loose leaf. Seventeen! Teabags? Hose your mouth out.
I considered Darjeeling First Flush: "The Champagne of teas from the Himalayan foothills."
Russian Caravan, "reminiscent of teas carried from China by camels", had less appeal.
I settled on Lapsang Souchong Imperiale: "Smoked over pine fires to give a smoky, silky tartness."
"An excellent choice, sir," purred the cummerbund.
I hadn't realised that The Experience was a bottomless plate as well as a bottomless cup. After I'd downed three sandwiches, as many scones and a millefeuille pastry so delicious that my eyes crossed, the cummerbund offered to top up the lot.
Pearls at an adjacent table were celebrating their owner's 70th birthday and, at an apposite moment, the pianist, who had managed to play for 30 minutes without producing anything as intrusive as a tune, broke into "Happy, etc". An exquisite small cake appeared - with one candle - and the entire Palm Court clapped. Nice.
In the gents', a facilitator in a black waistcoat ushered me to a facility. A little later he ushered me to a pristine handbasin, to a crystal soap dispenser, to an individual, monogrammed hand-towel, to a marble bench where unguents glowed in glass vials.
Framed Punch cartoons from the 1920s lined the walls. I liked the one with Bertie telling the cocktail barman, "Two cherries in it this time, Charles. One must eat."
The ladies' walls, my wife reported, were lined with sofas in pink velvet. Pearls and her mates were on one.
We waddled off 20 minutes later. I sneaked as well as waddled, without buying a little memento from The Ritz gift shop.
The "Do Not Disturb" door sign with hotel crest for a trivial £20 appealed. But then I saw The Ritz London diamond-set bracelet watch. It was an equally trivial £8250 and ... well, I had my tube fare to think of.