The Langham Hotel is a tony kind of place, with real cloth minitowels in the bathroom and oil paintings of lords and spaniels whose eyes follow you around the room. If you’d shown up unannounced for afternoon tea here a couple weeks ago, you’d have been turned away.
“Sorry,” the man at the concierge table was saying to a couple of thirsty latecomers, “we’re fully committed.”
This is because the tea was being served for the 1865 historical price of one shilling, sixpence. That’s 15 cents in today’s money. An article in Westways — AAA Auto Club’s travel magazine — ran several months ago and within the first 10 minutes, hundreds of people called in for reservations.
The original Langham Hotel in London, known as Europe’s first “grand hotel,” was recently renovated to the tune of $150 million, and their PR person must be in a celebratory mood. All the Langhams around the world, from Auckland to Kowloon, were doing the one-day-only historical tea. Other local fine hotels offer formal afternoon tea — the Bel Air, the Millennium Biltmore and the Peninsula come to mind — but the Langham in Pasadena is the only one that can claim it started the entire tradition. Who comes to tea in the middle of a Wednesday, a workday? Chicks, for the most part. Rich women of a certain status. They are the formal tea’s original demographic, going back to the Duchess of Bedford, who craved a nosh before dinner. Four women who were roommates in college, now more Golden Girls than Sex and the City, flirted with the garçon in topcoat, who brought them their tea. “Do it, Gorgeous,” said the cougar in tight black dress, black hat and black stiletto boots — a real black-widow type — as he poured.
Also, young aristocrats in training. A grandmother explained to her grandchildren where England is located. “How do you say money in Portuguese?” she asked. “That’s very good.”
Two little girls no more than 6 or 7 years old were seated at a banquette, experiencing their first tea. “The vanilla bean tea is delicious,” said one, her spine erect, her pinky shooting upward as hand grasped cup.
“The shrimp is divine,” said the other.
Twee tea mannerisms have everything to do with twee tea accoutrements: the tiny silver sugar-cube tongs you use to deposit one lump or two. The prim side table, where the actual hot pot of tea sits. The stamp-size, open-faced sandwiches. The three-tiered trays hefted by serving maids, one plate for each course: a savoury, a sweet and scones.
The wives were sucking down champagne (a modern addition to high tea) in earnest now. The pianist tinkled out Debussy on the baby grand. Teatime is perfect for having vicious talk over a polite meal. Conversation topics here ranged from whose wife is “such a shrew” and who rubbed whom the wrong way to the proper way to deal with husbands: “You treat the man like a monkey.”
Murdering your friends in an elegant setting has never gone out of fashion, and you have to wonder why afternoon tea ever did.
In any case, the popularity of slow, languid formal tea has experienced a revival lately in these over-accelerated, over-tweeted times. This despite its cost — $39 per person, or $59 for the chocolate tea on Sunday. “We have chocolate sculptures and liquid chocolate you can pour into the tea if you like,” a woman came over to tell me, “and a chocolate fountain on the center table, where people dip marshmallows into the melted chocolate.”
The illusion of a bit of afternoon civility before dark was good but not perfect. “Can I take this home?” asked one woman, of the remains of her passion-fruit gateau. “Would that be gauche?”
When a young boy rejected his smoked salmon profiterole with caramelized shallot caper cream, dill sprig and lemon zest, the waiter brought out a ham-and-cheese sandwich, from which his mother first removed the cheese, then cut into smaller squares.
And the waitresses don’t usually wear period clothing. “It’s just for today and tomorrow,” said the shift supervisor. Her dress was Northeastern American Victorian, with a large, fluffy crinoline. Another waitress was dressed as a Southern belle. Lots of flounce and shoulders bare. A third girl, Becky, got a plain-Jane English frock.
The dresses, however, were not from Boston, or Savannah or London. They were from Valentino’s Costumes in Van Nuys. “These are what you would have worn to enjoy the tea,” the supervisor continued, “not to serve it. The servers would have worn black dresses with aprons. But actually, for us, it was pretty much whatever would zip up.”