Dropped the knife? Check. Spilled the salt? Check. Smudged newsprint all over my cheek? Check. General lack of Mitford-esque languidity and elegance? Check. Harriets Tea Rooms are a lovely, refined place but I am not lovely and I am not refined. The sleek bob, loosely crossed at the ankle long legs and air of Twenties insouciance that such a place as Harriet’s suggests is sadly lacking in this customer. And being in a place like this only makes my clutter and clumsiness worse. I stand out like a sore thumb. Or at least I feel like I do.
However rewind, rewind….we entered the portal, tall columns standing at either side of the entrance and the bustle of black and white attired wait staff just visible through the plate glass doors. An entrance to make one feel that one is going somewhere – but that somewhere first must wait to be seated, a pet hate of mine but a necessary one when a place gets very busy and booked up, especially for the afternoon teas where a pianist plays nostalgic standards, accompanied by the percussive talents of customers chinking china tea cups against saucers and the low murmur of conversation. The afternoon teas are VERY popular.
Harriet’s decor shows attention to detail- Bentwood cafe chairs in the minor Palm Court style pulled up to marble topped tables, room edged with banquettes and fronds of palms in pots softening the squareness of the room. Glass cases display Harriet’s Tearooms own range of teas, coffees, jams, chutneys and other condiments. Biscuits and cakes can be taken out, baked to order and are available for catered events.. Gluten free options, vegetarian and vegan- tick, tick, tick and ordinary faddy fussy people are no problem either. We tested their patience and flexibility by asking if a three cheese toastie with onion chutney could be made with two cheeses- “take away the West Country Brie please and we will keep the Red Leicester and the Cheddar.” “The milk shake says it is made from ice cream- how much milk is in it?” “Is it mainly ice cream and can I have the child sized one because I am trying not to look like a pig, drinking milkshake at 9 am – Oh and I don’t want squirty cream.” They managed this without the hint of an eye roll or suggestion that they thought our order was a tad odd.
Children’s menus and portions are provided and parents can warm bottles and food at the table but health and safety prohibits staff from warming brought in baby food in the kitchens. High chairs and booster seats are available too and parents bringing in babies in buggies won’t be treated as though they have just dumped a pile of toxic waste in the middle of the room although one can never guarantee the other customers won’t.
How good it is to eat a cheese toastie that actually tastes of cheese? Real rich, fruity and umami ripe cheese in proper bread, cut into triangles and with a chutney that well suited it- no acid vinegar Branston type hit in this baby. Just cooked down Balsamic onion tangles of chutney from Tiptrees of Essex and a little side salad brought up the rear although we weren’t bothered about the salad. People drinking ice cream milk shakes and eating cheese toasties at 9 am aren’t interested in rabbit food. The jig is up- we are in inappropriate food heaven, go with it.
No onslaught of piped music either- it was there, but we could ignore it and we could talk. Too much of a theme is not a good thing and nobody wants to feel they are in an Edwardian theme restaurant although to be honest, it kind of is but in a good way. Clearly Harriet’s see a gap in the market for a ‘Betty’s TeaRooms’ of the South East and they are right because people really do love this place. Like Betty’s, the cakes and food are freshly cooked to order and ingredients locally sourced. The patisserie is exquisite- topped with fruit prettily arranged onto creme patissiere filled sweet shortcrust pastry; fresh scones, muffins and crumpets; chocolate cake and almond cake; classic coffee and walnut cakes. Their teas and coffees are well regarded and they deserve to be – Earl Grey ‘Blue Lady’; Flowers of Chamomile; Special Rare Assam Loose Leaf.- they sound romantic and special and the pots of tea and coffee are brewed by staff who know how to.
Chairs and tables are well spaced meaning we couldn’t eavesdrop or nosily peer at other peoples food either. It seemed relatively easy for buggies, wheelchairs and other bulky accoutrements to get in and out although later in the day it is probably a little more challenging to push ones way through to the bathroom or outside seating- the back of the tearoom is made of glass doors which can be opened onto a few outside seats that face the thoroughfare with its pretty independent stores.
In a town that has more than its fair share of chain restaurants with outside catering and no scratch cooking on the premises, only reheating, it is great to have a place like Harriet’s. Children learn by example and a traditional tea room offers them the chance to eat in a more formal setting that is tolerant of the odd dropped knife and over loud chatter and Harriet’s make it clear that they do welcome families. We think one of their cream or trad High Teas would make a lovely gift or treat for children, something a little different maybe to mark the end of exams or as a birthday outing for rising teens.