By By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Crystal chandeliers twinkled overhead. Buttoned-up servers stood attentively on the sidelines. And a harpist perched yards away strummed angelic melodies as I sunk into a royal-blue couch fronted by a coffee table bearing scrolled feet and fresh flowers.
The plush furnishings and stately wall mouldings dominating the room put me squarely in the lobby of The Westgate Hotel, which tries in earnest to capture the courtly elan of Versailles Palace.
It is here where afternoon tea is served beginning at 2:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Docker shorts and tennis shoes will leave you feeling out of place. Smart business attire and feathered hats won’t.
Known otherwise as “low tea,” the fancy affair of drinking teas from bone china while noshing on crust-less finger sandwiches dates back to the early 1800s in England. They were the social gatherings of blue bloods and aristocratic wannabes. In many respects, they still are.
“High tea,” on the other hand, is a term born from England’s industrial class, indicating the hot beverage is consumed around dinnertime, sometimes on high pub tables, and usually without pretense.
If you’ve ever been to afternoon tea at The Savoy in London — an experience I’ll always cherish after partaking in it once — The Westgate’s charming version is the closest thing you’ll find to it locally.
Priced at $39 per person, a glass of crisp, dry Champagne is a worthwhile starter that costs $3 extra. It will carry you through the fun process of choosing from a dozen teas, all of which you’re encouraged to sniff from small containers brought to your table in a nifty box.
I was torn. The “ambrosia” white tea titillated with tropical essences of coconut and pineapple. A chocolate-truffle black tea offered deep, sexy aromas from bits of real chocolate strewn throughout, while the blueberry-acai herbal tea smelled strangely appealing with its fruity tobacco-like essence.
After gliding my nose over several others, a black tea accented with peaches and ginger stole the show. I wondered initially if the peach element might taste artificial. It didn’t. And I pretty much polished off the entire pot sans any sugar cubes, yet opting for splashes of milk along the way. (Brits prefer milk over cream in their teas, and The Westgate adheres to the custom.)
Three courses of food are included, with each served on double-tiered silver trays.
Round one featured a mini white-cheddar muffin; an equally diminutive shrimp tart with cilantro cream; and three different finger sandwiches — smoked salmon with watercress, chicken-egg salad, and prosciutto with cucumber. The latter was an obliging substitute for a goat cheese and honey sandwich due to my aversion to goat anything.
Every item tasted luxurious. The ingredients were so fresh and refined that I wanted five more bites of each. Which leads me to address a common concern most have when delving into afternoon tea on an empty stomach.
Yes, you will fill up, although not enough to throw you into a slump. Would this be my lunch of choice if laying bricks or trimming trees all day? Definitely not. But the variety of items do add up, even if they look a little lonely on their trays at times.
My second course could have passed for dessert — and appeared scant. It featured only a small glassful of mixed berries crowned with whipped cream, plus a scone that was terrifically moist inside and crusty on the outside. A best friend to tea of any kind, it was flanked by thick Devonshire cream and house-made peach jelly.
The final set of trays were better inhabited. They contained petite, detailed confections such as mango cheesecake, which was bright-tasting and creamy, and coffee-kissed opera cake that was spongy and mildly sweet. A streusel tart, macaroon, and tea-bread muffin each offered bursts of fresh berries to varying degrees.
With my pinky finger now retracted and the comfy couch seemingly demanding I take a horizontal position, I had consumed plenty. It was a fine afternoon tea that lived up to Victorian standards in terms of quality and service, and one that is undoubtedly far removed from the breezy, informal culture of San Diego.
The Westgate Hotel
1055 Second Ave.
Tea service: $39 per person, or $42 including a glass of Champagne
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.