Afternoon tea at San Francisco’s historic Fairmont Hotel takes place in its Laurel Court, a huge oval room in the center of the lobby level, with laurel trees and other Mediterranean landscapes painted on the walls. This setting features all the comforts you expect from a formal hotel tea — faux-marble columns; cushioned chairs and banquettes; a ladies’ room with a foyer made for primping and gossiping — although Marissa feels that since tea is an afternoon affair, it’s better when served in a room with windows and natural light. Hannah, whose chair faced the Laurel Court bar and its wall-mounted flat-screen, also found it distracting to take tea while staring at a baseball game.
When it comes to food, the Fairmont respects the parameters of the traditional afternoon tea experience but makes a few unusual choices within that context, starting with the very presentation of the three courses: the sandwiches arrived on the top of the étagère and the desserts on the bottom tier, rather than the other way around. As for the sandwiches, their main distinction is that the Fairmont uses “specialty” breads instead of plain white sandwich bread. We had cream-cheese-and-cucumber on sourdough, smoked salmon on rye, tomato-mozzarella on focaccia, curried chicken salad on a nutty “turmeric toast,” and crab salad with mandarin orange slices on sourdough. Generally, we gave the sandwiches high marks (we particularly liked the caprese on focaccia), though some of us felt that the sharp flavor of the sourdough bread overwhelmed the more delicate flavors of the cucumber and crab.
On the middle tier of the étagère, the Fairmont supplied two mini-scones per person (blueberry-lemon and lavender-herb), pear compote, lemon curd, and Devonshire cream. Knowing our weakness for this last condiment, we asked the server for more clotted cream as soon as the food arrived, and we were not disappointed: she came back with three heaping cups of it for the table. We didn’t even care that it arrived in disposable plastic containers, or that its texture was a bit too close to that of butter — we rejoiced in the ecstasy of finally, finally, visiting a tearoom that understands our need for surfeits of clotted cream. This counterbalanced our more minor complaints about the scone course: the lavender scone was a bit bitter, and we had to specially request strawberry jam.
We generally enjoyed the desserts as well, which had a French twist to them. Marissa was excited to be served a cherry clafoutis, her favorite rustic French dessert, but Hannah was disappointed by the focus on mousse-based sweets — the five desserts included a strawberry mousse parfait, a raspberry mousse tart, and a chocolate mousse tart with raspberry and pistachio. The fifth sweet treat on this Gallic platter was, naturally, a macaron!
In comparison to the well-executed food service, the tea at the Fairmont was disappointing. Plain white teapots made it difficult to distinguish one tea from another. They arrived at our table half-brewed, so we had to time them carefully and then pull the tea bags out, but despite our best efforts, many of the teas over-steeped. We would also have appreciated extra plates on which to put the used tea bags — we had to use our own saucers, which quickly got soggy. The creamer was not ergonomic, the packaged tubes of sugar were uninspiring, and the teaspoons did not fit into the individual honey jars. And, on top of all of that, none of the tea blends were particularly memorable or delicious! We ordered our usual variety of black, green, and herbal teas (green Jasmine Gold Dragon, black 1907 Orange Pekoe, fruit-hibiscus Flora’s Berry Garden, green and white blend Revitalize, and herbal Oregon Mint) but none stood out or really made us crave refills.
Our day at the Fairmont concluded with a stroll and a game of cornhole on its outdoor roof garden, which is free and open to the public — a well-kept secret of San Francisco. While we cannot wholeheartedly recommend this hotel’s afternoon tea service, we do recommend exploring the historic building (designed by pioneering female architect Julia Morgan) and the roof garden — which will give you all of the Nob Hill views and afternoon light that you could wish for.
Date attended: July 22, 2018
Attendees: Hannah, Ilana, Marissa, Erica & Tom
Location: 950 Mason St, San Francisco