Have your cake ...

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2006, 12:00am

There are few major landmarks in the world you can eat. There are few you can even nibble on with much pleasure. That's part of the reason the queue for afternoon tea at London's Ritz Hotel is six weeks long.

The Ritz's Palm Court at 150 Piccadilly has always been a place of pilgrimage. Its dainty, crustless cucumber and cream-cheese sandwiches, the freshly baked raisin and apple scones are as much London landmarks as St Paul's, the Tower, No10 and Buckingham Palace.

But the Ritz, in London's West End, is much more than just 'the place for tea'. It's about more than just wearing a jacket and tie or your best pearls, and paying #34 (about $460) for the world's most famous sponge fingers and other pastries, silver teapots, silver tea strainers, Limoges china and the choice of 17 teas.

The Ritz is also a hotel, and in its centenary year it's offering special packages featuring gourmet dinners, theatre tickets, the use of a chauffeured blue Rolls-Royce (above) and the chance to attend the Henley Regatta, Royal Ascot and Wimbledon.

As any guidebook will tell you, Covent Garden was originally the allotment of the Convent of St Peter of Westminster Abbey, becoming a fruit and vegetable market in 1670. London's oldest theatre is thought to be the Haymarket, on the site of a theatre dating from 1720. The Adelphi opened in 1806 as Le Sans Pareil, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1812 and the Old Vic in 1818. But nowhere epitomises Englishness or genteel exclusivity better than the Ritz. It's as aristocratic as it's possible for a commoner to be.

Cesar Ritz, the son of a Swiss shepherd, worked at the Savoy before being dismissed for fiddling his expenses. In 1898, he opened the Ritz in the Place Vendome, Paris ... and the Ritz in London eight years later. But he died before his brainchild became the institution it remains today.

His hotel has moved with the times, undergoing a #25 million refurbishment in 1995. King Zog of Albania - who reputedly paid his bills in gold bars - would be appalled. So would Sir Noel Coward and Sir Winston Churchill. The gold leaf is as bright as it was on May 24, 1906, when the hotel opened. The French-chateau style architecture, the panelled mirrors, the marble and Louis XVI furnishings all survive, as do the grey frock coats, tails and epaulettes. The Ritz still proudly boasts two members of staff to every guest room and the concierge's desk will meet any demand ... as long as it's legal.

But now the Ritz has a gym. And a casino. And a spa offering rose oil foot polishes for women and ginger and black pepper hand treatments for men.

Today's Ritz may be a modern edifice, but as soon as the commissionaire steps towards the doors you know you're stepping into the past. The Ritz will always be the Ritz ... even if they don't iron your newspaper any more.