The Cafe Royal

It is the place of kings. And queens. And Oscar Wilde and David Bowie (whom one might put in either category). And Churchill.

I didn’t know most of that at the time. What I knew was that I had promised to take my friend Jane to tea while we were both in London, a fancy afternoon tea, the kind you read about. So I looked online.

I had originally thought The Dorchester. Oh, maybe a bit too expensive, but booked out anyway. Fortnum and Mason? Grocer to the Queen, but still — a bit ordinary. Harrods? Out of the way, since I didn’t want to be in South Ken on a Sunday. But of course I was drawn to Cafe Royal. They were booked for all but unreasonable hours (does one really want to drink full pots of tea at 7 pm?), but I kept checking online and something good opened, so that was it.

Cafe Royal was where Oscar Wilde fell in love with Alfred. That’s all I needed to know.

I was early, so I wanted to see where to go. I knew it was at the Hotel Cafe Royal. I saw a cafe through windows, but it looked rather ordinary. Surely that couldn’t be it? It took me a minute to realize the doorman was there to open the door for me, not to prevent me from entering, so I went in. Just a big lobby. I approached a desk with a man sporting a helpful expression. I smiled. “I’m lost”, I said. He looked sympathetic. “Aren’t we all?” he said, but eschewed philosophical discussion and pointed me toward a door, a very private-looking door except that it had a podium in front of it. The sign said “The Grill Room” so I knew that was it, and went outside to wait.

Well, not wait. It’s London, after all. One short passage and I was in the largest Waterstones bookshop I’d ever seen. Six floors of books!

Don’t worry — I just bought one book. A Julian Barnes. I’ve never read Julian Barnes.

We had the afternoon tea of our lives in the Grill Room. A host took my Marks and Spencer trench coat to the cloakroom, where I had to hunt it down later, then forgot to tip (does one tip at a place like this?). A waiter advised us throughout the meal: start with black tea and end with tisane, start at the top with the first caddy and at the bottom with the second, and would we like more of anything? A man in a hat played “Tea for Two” on the piano. I haven’t been this pampered since I was in nappies, as they say. It is amazing what money can do. What it couldn’t do, however, was make me appropriate to that room. A middle-class, chubby, underdressed, 50-something American academic just doesn’t fit in (Jane did much better — she’s always lovely). So I’ll just end with photos.

Pillars, Cafe Royal

Can you see us in the mirror(s)?

Round one

Round two

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