Afternoon tea is one of my favorite things to do that I don’t do enough of. I have had a list of afternoon-tea-go-to places for San Francisco since I moved here a couple of years ago, and it was only last week that I finally managed to experience one. It is one of those things, you know, the kind that you have to write in pen into your calendar and make a reservation for, or there will always be something more urgent that will get in the way.
So that is what we did, my long time partner-in-fun Valerie and I, we made definite plans, with reservations and a time schedule. Instead of driving in, we decided to ride the ferry into the city, and, after spending a couple of hours exploring all the goodies at the Ferry Building (more on this very soon), we walked a few blocks up Marked Street to the Palace Hotel for afternoon tea.
We arrived a little early on purpose, as I was expecting t0 spend time photographing lavish Christmas decorations. On that score I was disappointed, as decorations were down to a minimum, but I still found plenty of lavishness to photograph. The Palace hotel is quite beautiful, and the Garden Court – which is where afternoon tea is served – is glorious. So I hope you will enjoy this little tour before getting to the tea part.
After walking around the room oohing and aahing at the all the gilded glory, I noticed one of the arched upstairs windows was open and had a room on the other side. I knew I had to get myself there to take pics, so we found our way to the upper level and, well, generally nosed about until I found the right place and… barged in. Good thing the door was unlocked and no event was going on, as I found another exquisite room: The French Parlor. It was bare at the time – meaning it was not dressed up for a party – but it was still quite beautiful and, most of all, had the open window I had seen from below.
Above left: at the opposite end of the room there was another fireplace + mirror like this one, thus creating one of those endless reflection effects. I tried to capture it as best I could without getting myself in the picture. And isn’t that chandelier magnificent?
The Palace was originally established in 1875 and was San Francisco’s first premier luxury hotel, as well as the largest in the world. In 1909 it underwent its first restoration and was introduced as the new Palace. It received an award-winning restoration again in 1989, and then again just this year (2015). You can read more about its history at this page.
The image at the top of the post and the two below are the view from the upstairs window.
Even with all the exploring and my picture taking, we were still early for our 2:00 pm reservation, so we relaxed a while in this beautiful upper level lounge (image below). That is, until the fire alarm went off! I know I should not be, but after living in two condo buildings for eight years (in Honolulu) where the fire alarm would go off for no reason on a regular basis, and usually in the middle of the night, I have become a little jaded.
Without rushing, we found our way out the main entrance of the building where we witnessed the San Francisco Fire Department with all their gear in action.
As expected, everything was fine, but I am always in admiration and gratitude for the bravery of these men and women who run into dangerous situations for the safety of others. Hats off to fire departments everywhere.
It was not long after all was quiet again and we headed back to the Garden Court for our tea. A harpist sitting in the center was sending gentle music out into the room, and, as you can see in the image below left, Santa was having tea at the Palace that day. *wink*
The mise en place was elegantly simple, offsetting the opulence of the room, white amaryllis and a little pine greenery the only nod to the Holidays in the table decor. I was rather disappointed by the lack of any real decorations, but I also understand that, in a lavish ambiance like that of The Garden Court, a balance of simplicity can be refreshing.
Little jars with clotted cream, apricot jelly and a luscious looking lemon curd were waiting for us, and little bowls with a few fresh fruit bites were placed in front of us as we sat down.
We opted for The Garden Court Signature Tea, which, at $90 per person ($60 for children ages 5-12), includes a glass of Champagne (for adults).
The other option was for a Caviar Tea for Two ($325 for two people), which includes Black Pearl Farm Raised White Sturgeon Caviar and two glasses of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. I am not a caviar person, and neither is Valerie, so it this was not an option. I am not much of a champagne person either, but there was not an option without it, and for once I thought I would enjoy a glass.
On Mondays, during December only, there is also the Palace Santa Claus Tea ($95 for adults/$65 for children ages 5-12), which includes a Jeweled Crown and Candy Scepter, as well as the presence of Santa Claus. But we were there on a Thursday, so we had to do without crown and scepter. *wink*
Good thing I found myself a magic wand at the Dickens Christmas Fair!
We selected our teas from the menu, which includes a variety of black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea and herbal tea. Valerie chose the Organic Vanilla Roiboos, while I opted for the Flowery Earl Grey. Both were excellent, and the hot water was actually hot, which I very much appreciated. Though even more appreciated would have been little pot heaters to keep it hot. Not very many places provide those. So far only one that I have personally experienced, at the Lodge at Koele on Lana’i. We did get hot water refills, and we each had a clever and pretty little strainer to place over the cup when pouring.
The champagne came first, so we toasted to the Holidays with that. I forgot to ask which champagne that was, but whichever one it was it was good, but almost at room temperature instead of chilled.
Then the little savory sandwiches came. The selection included: Roasted Butternut Squash with pomegranate, ricotta salt on raisin walnut rusk; Maine Lobster Salad with winter truffle aioli, mustard greens on herb focaccia; Roulade of Salmon with dill crème fraîche, trout caviar and red vine sorrel on dark rye; Curried Chicken Banh Mi with green papaya salad and micro basil in a mini croissant; and Shaved Roast Beef with pickled fennel and boursin cheese in a brioche bun.
I do not eat much meat at all, and definitely do not eat chicken or any of its relatives. So I asked the kind server if they could substitute the chicken sandwich for a double of any of the others. In my mind I was thinking another butternut squash, lobster, or salmon sandwich. But guess which one they doubled up for me? The roast beef, of course! Oh well.
As in most places I have been, the breads were a little dry, but the sandwiches were delicious and, as usual, we were left wanting more, even if we knew desserts and scones were on their way.
The lovely mini dessert display included: Pumpkin Mousse, Cinnamon Shortbread, Pecan Pie, Raspberry Éclair, and a Chocolate-dipped Strawberry. I left my favorite for last, of course, though it was difficult to choose a favorite between the beautiful pumpkin mousse and the raspberry éclair. Valerie’s favorite was, of course, the pecan pie. All the little desserts were excellent, though I think the green of the strawberry could have been a little perkier, as in fresher. I know strawberries are out of season, but these days you can find gorgeous fresh strawberries basically all year round.
I left the scones for last, and I wished I had not done that as they turned out to be a rather a low note on which to end our afternoon tea. Granted, scones are generally not the most interesting of baked goods, which is why they are served with trimmings like cream, jam and lemon curd. But of all the excellent, good, average, so-so and crappy scones I have tasted in my life, these were among the worst. Oh, they were tender and moist all right, but blah in selection (one plain with sugar crystals on top, and one with a few raisins), and,most of all, they smelled and tasted like Bisquick. You know the pancake/waffle mix you buy in grocery stores to shortcut your way to breakfast? Yes, that one.
I have a super sensitive nose and palate, and I honestly believe that is what was used to bake those scones. If not that, than something very similar and definitely yeasty. This would be very disappointing in any situation, but especially in a place like the Palace, where, for a whooping $90 a person plus taxes and tip, you expect not just something good, but something extraordinary.
We finished our tea just as a larger group of about eight to ten people arrived at a nearby table, so we had to wait a while to get out check and pay our bill, even though the room was by no means crowded.
On our way out, we explored another section of the hotel and found the beautiful Pied Piper Bar and Restaurant, with its mosaic tile floor and rich wood paneling. The bar counter was very crowded in that moment, so I opted out of a photo, as it would have shown a lot of people instead of the beauty of the bar. I will leave that for next time, maybe including a lunch or dinner.
Now I shall leave you with another view of the magnificent ceiling of The Garden Court. Next time, I plan to experience Sunday Brunch in this beautiful room.
Do you enjoy afternoon tea? Where have you had your best one? Because I would love to hear your recommendations, wherever you are. So if you could please leave your suggestions in the comments, I would appreciate good places to add to my list.
2 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco, Ca 94105 | (415) 546-5089 | website
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