EPIC Restaurant, Fairmont Royal York Hotel
100 Front Street West
Afternoon tea service for two with all taxes and tip: $50
While I generally have a reputation with almost everyone who knows me as being a loudmouth tchoula (Spanish slang for “ballsy broad”), I’ve also got a bit of a fussy girlie side that occasionally requires doses of pink, bouquets of flowers and formal dainty things like afternoon tea.
I hadn’t been to tea at the Fairmont Royal York in almost a decade, back when it was in a little open tearoom in the west end of the hotel just outside the magnificent ballroom. The space was light and pretty, designed to evoke a Victorian garden, with trellises of flowers, a high ceiling and a little railing around the space that I always wished was a picket fence.
Due to renovations, afternoon tea is now served in the Royal York’s EPIC restaurant. I book a reservation for myself and my husband, as well as my friend and TasteTO writer Melissa. We plan to take in the “1907 Centennial Tea” and tour, which includes a visit to the hotel’s rooftop herb garden. There is only one reservation time for tea for customers taking the garden tour, so we arrive promptly at 2:30pm.
I had heard grumblings over the years that Epic was not really suited to the afternoon tea experience. The room is not unattractive, with the expected white tablecloths and both chairs and a series of grand sweeping banquettes decorated in shades of blue and gold. The carpets are lush, the painting are formal and yet the room seems to be at odds with itself. Thick giant columns are reminiscent of a 1970s grotto-style disco; the banquettes of a 1920s nightclub; and the chairs are decidedly formal and Victorian when set against the rest.
The open kitchen area, near which all of the tea patrons are seated, gives the room the air (and noise) of a slightly upscale cafeteria (think along the lines of the cafeterias that used to be in every Eaton’s store across the country). Although servers bring the food and drink to the tables, part of me is inclined to stand up, look for a plastic tray and head towards the granite counter to see what’s available – maybe there’s Jell-o behind a little glass display case.
The other worrisome aspect of the close proximity of the kitchen is that someone seems to be continually burning something. Acrid smoke wafts overhead, and we watch it thicken in the beams of the ceiling’s pot lights. Someone at our table jokes that we’re having a group epileptic seizure, so strong was the smell of burnt toast.
Our server arrives and we all order the only thing available on the afternoon tea menu, the Centennial Tea, for $19.07. This special is apparently being offered at all Fairmont Hotels, although the centennial year refers to the opening of the original Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The price is lower than the regular cost for the afternoon tea here, which I believe runs in the $25 range and also includes a dish of berries in sauce.
The centennial special includes a choice of tea, crumpet in grand Marnier honey, scone and clotted cream with jam, tea sandwiches and pastries. Still a good deal for $19.07.
We order our teas: the Centennial Blend for husband Greg, Earl Grey for Melissa and a Japanese rose (green tea with cherry and rose) for me. I am actually the only one impressed with my tea, with both Melissa and Greg indicating that theirs are good, but nothing outstanding. The lovely round art-deco-style pots hold a full three cups each, however, and staff come by a couple of times to top up our hot water. Foodwise, the crumpets and scones are pretty much what we expect.
Things get interesting when we hit the plate of tea sandwiches and realize that there are only eight sandwiches on the plate. Because how are we supposed to split eight sandwiches between three people?
I wave down our server and explain our dilemma, thinking that perhaps someone simply miscounted.
“No, eight sandwiches is the standard for three people.”
“But there are three of us, how are we supposed to divide these up evenly?”
“I don’t know, that’s the standard.”
“Okay, buuut… if I came for tea by myself, how many sandwiches would I get? Surely not two and two-thirds?”
“No, for one person, the standard is three sandwiches. You don’t get one of each kind.”
“No, I understand that,” I said, “I don’t want four sandwiches. I just want the three I’m entitled to. If the standard for one person is three sandwiches, and I can see from that deuce over there that six sandwiches is the standard for two people, explain to me why, because there’s three of us, we get less food for the same cost that these folks are paying?”
“I don’t know. It’s the hotel standard.”
“Sure, you’ve said that already. What I’m saying is that the standard is stupid. And penalizes groups of more than two. This is basic second grade multiplication.”
“I can bring you another sandwich if you’d like.”
See, now how hard was that? My argument turned out to be a lot of work for little gain, because the sandwiches were really the letdown of the meal. The bread was dry, they were sloppily cut, and the fillings were pretty generic; ham and gouda; egg salad and watercress; smoked salmon on marble rye; and that old favourite – cucumber and cream cheese on white.
When we got to the pastry plate, we encountered the same situation. Eight pastries for three people. Rather than terrorize the poor server again, who could, after all, only recite what she had been told to say in the face of greedy sandwich eaters, I performed a quick bit of surgery on the pastries so we could all try some of each. The choux swans full of cream (we got three of these) were, yeah, choux pastry full of cream. And other than the surprise raspberry at the bottom, were somewhat unremarkable. The fruitcake didn’t hold a candle to the stuff I make at home, and the strawberry cream cake was just okay. Chocolate madelines were good, but had no hint of the promised orange flavour, only the chocolate mousse cake had us swooning.
Then, our server returned – to offer us more pastries. “What?” we all exclaimed in unison, figuring that since there was such a fuss over evening out the sandwiches that extra pastries would be out of the question. “We have tons of extra pastries,” she admitted as she brought us a plate of five more. “It’s the sandwiches we’re low on.”
I’m not sure how it is that a hotel kitchen the size of an airplane hangar with a kitchen staff of over a hundred people can be low on sandwiches; there’s always bread in stock, and the effort it would take to have one person schmear some cream cheese and add some sliced cucumbers seems disproportional to the work that goes into your average choux pastry or mousse cake.
Tea wound up well before the appointed tour time of 4pm, so we spent almost a half hour in the hotel lobby remarking on how poorly dressed tourists seem to be.
At four on the dot about a dozen people gathered in front of EPIC and were met by the cheeriest, perkiest young woman I’ve ever encountered. Working as the assistant to the executive chef, she took us up to the rooftop garden via a series of elevators, stairwells and an elevator maintenance room.
The herb garden is very comprehensively laid out, although it’s considerably smaller than I had expected. It does include everything from parsley and tomatoes to more unique herbs such as perilla (shiso), and everything does get used in the hotel restaurants. Most people were more interested in the view though, and by the end, had wandered off to snap photos of the skyline. It was interesting but not quite worth the time we spent sitting around waiting for it to start.
So, unfortunately, afternoon tea was a bit of a disappointment. The extra sandwich wasn’t really worth the fight I had to put up to get it, the pacing was a bit off in terms of finishing in time to start the tour, the restaurant space really is a little odd – at least for tea, and despite the special centennial price, I could (and have) put together a better afternoon tea at home.
And at home, where I have a firm grasp of my grade two times tables calculations, no matter how many people are over for tea, we all get the same number of sandwiches.