The first time I went for high tea I was 8 years old and it was at The Empress in Victoria, BC. I wore my best dress and went with my mom and grandmother. It was there that I first ate cucumber sandwiches and petit fours. The servers all made me feel special and I was delighted at how grown up I felt. It was absolutely lovely and it is a memory that I cherish.
A couple of decades later, I wonder if it was one of the contributing factors that led me to being a tea drinker instead of a coffee drinker. It might very well be. I have never topped the experience of The Empress, instead going to fun but eclectic places like Red Tea Box in Toronto and discovering favourite tea brands (such as Thé Mariage Frères and Harney & Sons , both also mentioned in this post). I once had a lovely (but somewhat lonely) experience of High Tea in San Francisco at the Samovar Tea Lounge. And people who know me sometimes bring me back tea from their travels. If it is not yet clear: I love tea, the ritual of drinking it and sharing this time with others.
It is with this «tea baggage» (I’d hate to say «my tea bags»!) that brought with me to my experience at the Windsor Arms. I had suggested to my mother last Mother’s Day that we go for High Tea. It takes a long time to negotiate a day that she is willing to change her routine and to come downtown. With my Dad out of town, it finally seemed like a good time! And so, on one of the wettest and coldest days last week, I took an afternoon off work and we went to Windsor Arms Afternoon Tea. They have 4 seatings: 12:30pm, 1pm and 3pm and 3:30pm. The 1pm seating fit best with our schedule.
There are three rooms where you can possibly be seated the first is the one which you see off to the left of the entrance of the hotel: cream frou frou (where we were), a modern deep purple room (which looked warmer and more welcoming but I was told we were unable to sit in because it was for the 12:30 seating… even if there were tables available), and a small red room which looked the most enchanting but wasn’t even open.
Like most High Teas (or Afternoon Teas as they all seem to be called), the menu was set but we were able to choose our own teas. The selection was good but not overwhelming and we were both happy with our choices. The set menu? Let’s begin with what I loved. The scones were really really fantastic : light, warm and full of flavour! There were four, two of each: plain, lemon and blueberry. There was a hint of sweetness, and my mom noted that they had lightly covered them in icing sugar. I was very decadent and enjoyed the scones with the Devon cream and rhubarb preserves.
But everything else on the tiered platter was lacking, which resulted in the food being uneven. The sandwiches? As my mom noted, there was more salmon on a tiny piece of sushi from Metro. The cucumber sandwich? Soggy. Actually, I don’t even know why they are called sandwiches. They were creamy bread sushi. Pretty presentation. But we didn’t touch half of them. The mini desserts? Just OK and not actually petit fours. One saving grace was that we were asked if we wanted too take it all home and were given the classiest «doggy bag» which I’ve ever seen. The food portion was saved by ending it with raspberry sorbet.
One of the defining parts of my experience at The Empress was the service and the feeling of being «special». There was none of that at the Windsor Arms. The server did his job, but nothing more. Meaning, everything was served to us instead of being spilled on us. But if you’re looking going out for an «experience» you want more than just food being placed in front of you, right? I found the lack of flexibility for room choice somewhat frustrating. Then, our server required us to repeat all our requests, not because we were needy or asking things that were outlandish, but because he wasn’t paying attention.
What was missing to make the space, and therefore the experience «special»? As my mom said: «They need live music. Ideally, a harpist.» How right she is!
My biggest issue with Afternoon Tea at the Windsor Arms was that the experience seemed too routine for the staff. And if you do it every day, it is! But when this becomes obvious to your customers, you’re failing at your job. This could also be said of whoever makes those horrible sandwiches. It’s time to change it up and re-invest in something that is obviously bringing so many people in – and at 35$ a head during the week (and 42$ on the weekend and 50$ on holidays!) , a high mark up for what they are providing.
The space has so much potential. This is why I hope they can up their game and start offering an Afternoon Tea which people will remember fondly, instead of just being OK with at the time.