For the past several years, people in this area of SE England have told me that The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne does a decent afternoon tea. Inasmuch as Ms. Eclectic and I had stayed there four years ago and enjoyed many aspects of our stay, I decided to give them a try yesterday.
Things did not start well. The telephone number on their website seemed out of service; it rang and rang, and nobody answered. I was unable to make a reservation by telephone. Also, their website did not have a ready link to make a reservation online. Eventually, however, I came across some completely different site where I could make the reservation and was able to book a table for a convenient time.
I was seated at a table in the delightful Great Hall (an area at the rear of the lobby of the hotel). There was a baby grand piano nearby with recorded piano music coming from it (a tad too loud for my tastes; I didn't really mind not having a real pianist. One would have been nice but probably too loud for my tastes). I enjoyed the lighting of the "hall" and the elegance of the thick tablecloth and serviettes. I was seated a bit too close to the only other two guests in the Great Hall; I saw no reason they and I couldn't have had more privacy. At the same time, the natural lighting where I was seated was very pleasant.
The price of the afternoon tea at The Grand Hotel is substantially less than that at the places in Mayfair and Knightsbridge, so I decided to have the champagne afternoon tea, not just the regular afternoon tea (can everyone please say "income effect"? Thank you!). The champagne was dry, and very good. At the same time I ordered the champagne, I ordered my favourite, lapsang souchong tea.
The champagne arrived promptly, and I settled in, reading my textbook on the economics of sports, determined to take my time so that I could relax and enjoy the experience.
All the sudden, whoops! Here's the three-tiered server with all the food. Not much delay; in fact it was provided far too soon. Afternoon tea is not a fast-food experience, and patrons should not be rushed. Also, the person who delivered the food offered no explanations of what was on the server. The menu does have very detailed descriptions of the sandwiches, so explanations from the server, while nice, would not really be necessary for those; however, explanations about the desserts would have been very nice. Also the server on which my food was delivered was dented on top. Tacky and silly. There was no reason to use that serving thing since there were only two tables being used at the time.
Overall, the food at The Grand Hotel was excellent. The sandwiches were served as smallish crustless triangles, and all were as good as the sandwiches at most other places. In fact, I liked the tomato addition to the egg salad more than the standard egg salad served at, say, The Ritz. Remembering how often I had eaten too fast during some of my previous afternoon-tea outings, I tried to slow myself down and was somewhat successful. There were only four small sandwiches provided: salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, chunky chicken, and egg-tomato salad.
Shortly after the three-tiered server was delivered, a waiter came by to ask if everything was alright. I pointed out that my food had arrived but my tea hadn't. He was quite apologetic and rushed off. He returned a moment later to tell me it would be served right away but that he had been waiting until I had finished my champagne before bring the tea. Yeah, sure. If so, why didn't he say so when I asked about it?
And this is where it became clear things were not quite right. First, if they were going to wait to serve my tea until after I finished the champagne, why didn't they also wait to serve the sandwiches (as indeed is the way the service is timed at The Four Seasons, the Ritz, and The Dorchester)? I felt as if the server was dissembling, which put me off.
When the tea was brought to me, it was delivered by a very polite server.
Despite the fact that the menu says to drink lapsang souchong tea without milk (as indeed I always do), she asked if I wanted milk.
And despite that fact that the menu says to drink the tea pale and not to let it steep too long (one of my major complaints about most places that do not know what they are doing when it comes to serving tea), she brought the tea in a pot with a teabag (groan) sitting in the pot. Has this place never heard of tea infusers? or tea balls? or loose tea and strainers? This type of service for the tea was both cheap and shoddy.
I quickly removed the teabag from the pot so the tea wouldn't become too strong. No one ever poured my tea for me. Not once. Not even the initial cup. Even though I removed the bag, which had had the string removed, there were far too many small leaves that escaped from the bag and made their way into the cup. And I was never offered a different cup. I.e., the servers were very deferential but were not really providing much, if any, knowledgeable service.
The menu describes lapsang souchong tea as having larger leaves, but you couldn't prove that by what was left in my cup. It amazes me that hotels like The Grand evince such ignorance about serving tea when they provide excellent information on their menus for afternoon tea.
The two plain scones were still slightly warm even though they had been brought out far too early to suit me. And they were excellent. There was both a freshness and a crispness about them that I enjoyed. The Cornish clotted cream was extremely thick, which I liked, and very good, but it was served as if it had been scooped up with an ice cream scoop, which made it look just a bit more like an ice cream parlour than an upscale hotel. The jam had far too much pectin for my tastes, but at least it was served on a separate section of the serving plate and not in little jars. For all I know the jam was cheap stuff from ASDA, but at least the presentation was much better than in some places.
The desserts were fantastic. There was a strawberry, custard, and meringue parfait, a brownie with a raspberry on it (and maybe some orange in it, which I'm not so fond of), a custard tart in a dark chocolate shell, and a nut-pastry thing.
So overall, the food was excellent. But there were never any hints that they might have even thought of providing more sandwiches or scones if I had wanted them.
At several points the server asked if I wanted my tea freshened. Bless her and them for knowing to ask. But another mistake is that the teapots at The Grand have very hot handles, and despite all the wonderful cloths around, they provided only a cheap little paper serviette to hold the handle. Other places would have wrapped a fine cloth around the handle to keep patrons (who, I remind you, are forced to pour their own tea) from burning themselves.
When it comes to tea, obsequiousness does not substitute for knowledge and proper care. While the servers tried to be deferential, their poor sense of timing and certainly their lack of knowledge about the proper serving of tea left more than just a bit to be desired.
The Grand Hotel is not in the same league as the finer places for afternoon tea in London. It was okay, especially given that its price was lower. But quite frankly I would rather pay more and have an afternoon tea done properly. If it were not for the excellent food and the pleasant ambience, afternoon tea at The Grand Hotel would likely receive an "unacceptable" rating.
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My previous reviews, ranked in order of preference:
These three were superb. Highly recommended:
- The Four Seasons, London, England
- The St. Regis Hotel, Houston, Texas
- Scolfe's Tea Room, Boreham Street, England
- The Lanesborough, London, England
- Claridge's, London, England
- The Dorchester, London, England
- The Ritz, London, England
- Brown's, London, England
Those in this large middle group ranged from very good to just okay. I would consider returning to them, but those in the upper portion of the list were significantly better than those in the lower portion of this section: