Mark Silver checks in at Claridges Hotel, one of the most historic hotels in the capital and wades through its sumptuous afternoon tea selection
I WAS bemused while watching a TV documentary on Claridge’s last year. It featured an American couple who stayed there regularly and, on their last visit over 16 nights, they ventured out of the hotel only twice.
Well, after staying there myself this month, I’m still bemused – I cannot understand why they bothered to leave at all!
From the moment you enter this famous London venue to the moment you check out, you are treated like royalty and I suppose that makes sense considering they have welcomed countless kings and queens down the years – including our own Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Making guests feel special is second nature to them.
I love the story in which someone rings up Claridge’s, asking: ”Can I speak to the king please?” And the telephone operator replies: ”Yes, sir… which one?”
Normally when you stay in a city, you want a nice base from where you can venture out to enjoy the surrounding sights. But despite London being second to none in that department, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel.
Apart from royalty, I was following in the footsteps of an A-list of celebrities who have enjoyed the pampering and personal touch. From Cary Grant and Bing Crosby to Joan Collins and Michael Douglas.
Joan loves the place so much she married here for the fifth time back in 2002. It must have been a good omen as the 79-year-old actress, whose father was Jewish, is still going strong with Percy Gibson!
You are quickly reminded of how British the hotel is as soon as you enter the great building in the heart of Mayfair. To the right is a picture of Her Majesty and to the left is Winston Churchill looking very content as he is about to walk in.
Claridge’s has been the scene of some fascinating events during a history that dates back to its first opening in 1856. Nearly 100 years later in 1951, the West German chancellor secretly met here with World Jewish Congress president Nahum Goldmann to begin talks on German reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
Today’s staff appeared knowledgeable on its history and traditions – not surprising considering some of them have spent much of their working life here. Irishman Michael, one of six wonderful butlers, has served guests in the hotel suites for 36 years.
And wherever you are, you are made to feel welcome – which I felt straightaway as I entered the beautiful foyer for Afternoon Tea. The Art Deco features alone are a joy to behold.
Beware that you can end up waiting six months for a table at the weekend and that’s despite three sittings on a Saturday and Sunday. You will get a table more quickly during the week, even though there are two sittings.
The patient and charming waiter probably felt he was waiting six months for my order, but I wanted to read all about the 40-odd exquisite, and in some cases rare, teas on offer.
The Pinhead Gunpowder Green Tea certainly caught my eye on page nine of the 15-page menu. This healthy Chinese brew only dates back to 618! But I wasn’t too bothered about opting for a ‘healthy’ tea.
What was the point when Mrs Silver and I were about to indulge in a delicious selection of sandwiches, pastries, and their famous raisin and apple scones with Cornish clotted cream and Marco Polo jelly.
The attention to detail even covers the jam – a brand that dates back to the 1800s and is so tasty, having been flavoured with flowers and fruits from China and Tibet.
While deciding on which tea to go for, my wife and I enjoyed the sounds from the pianist and cellist and savoured the lovely ambiance of the setting.
A decent number of guests were arriving with gifts to hand over as part of a birthday/anniversary celebration. After some 15 minutes of deliberation, we both opted for traditional Chinese teas known as Oolong – mine Lemongrass, my wife preferring pomegranate.
You are first presented with the sandwiches – the smoked salmon were an instant hit and needed to be replenished rather promptly, which, of course, is no problem.
Tea was served and then, as the waiter admitted, came the “best bit” with the scones and a selection of French pastries. “’More tea, sir” is, again, not a problem.
For a wonderful tea, with top-notch service in delightful surroundings, the basic price of £40 is not expensive in today’s world – and you may choose to pay a bit more and have some champagne. Why not?! Incidentally, you can purchase any of the teas to take home.
It’s an uplifting way to spend a couple of hours – and talking of getting a lift, the elevator at Claridge’s is the oldest manned lift in the country. It’s another very pleasant experience and I suppose they don’t want you exerting yourself by having to push a few buttons!
We just sat down on a comfortable sofa and Joao – who was featured in the documentary – engaged in pleasant conversation and took us to our required floor.
The lift is 125 years old and it felt like a trip back in time (albeit a brief one – we were only on the second floor but didn’t fancy the walk after that tea!).
Every staff member we encountered seems to take so much pride in their work and gain a real sense of pleasure in making you happy. Joal, from Portugal, works in the former smoking lounge, Fumoir, and took plenty of care in preparing our cocktails and ensuring we were pleased with them.
There again, as a mixologist, he is so much more than a normal barman as he has studied the art of mixing drinks over several years. My wife is still raving about her Claridge’s Julep, a mixture of a whiskey (17 years old, no less), raspberry preserve, fresh mint and champagne.
Considering the suave setting and the fact my wife is Russian, I opted for the James Bond in Moscow – well, it’s not difficult to get carried away at Claridge’s!
The cocktails set the scene for a memorable evening as we dined in the Reading Room, which is next to The Foyer, and, unsurprisingly, thought our Dover Soles (cooked meuniere with butter and lemon) to be the finest we have tasted.
Our only regret was that there was no room for dessert. But that was unsurprising, after the number of scones we had polished off only a few hours earlier.
If you have a few quid to spend, Claridge’s magnificent ballroom caters for barmitzvahs and weddings. Mrs Silver questioned me on why we hadn’t got married there last October (how much whiskey did you put in her cocktail, Joal?).
But if hosting a lavish function is dependent on a lottery win, then that Afternoon Tea or perhaps some drinks in Claridge’s Bar (which unlike The Fumoir is open to non-residents) won’t do serious damage to the bank balance and you’ll still get that nice feeling of being a bit special.
Charming manager Thomas was not wrong when he said: “The hotel is not just a place to sleep – it’s where dreams are being fulfilled.”
Claridges Hotel, Brook Street, London. Details: www.claridges.co.uk