The Plaza Afternoon Tea, Plaza Hotel, New York (£££)
Plaza Hotel, Fifth Avenue at Central Park South, Manhattan, New York 10019
Summary: This looks like a five-star afternoon tea, talks like a five-star afternoon tea, but a five-star afternoon tea it definitely isn’t. Unfortunately, afternoon tea at the Plaza couldn’t match the splendour of the Palm Court in which it is served. It was disappointing on many levels and is far from a luxury experience, in both quantity and quality. Sadly, this is a big let down for one of the top hotels in New York. Whether you are familiar with proper afternoon tea or not, save your hard-earned dollars and spend them elsewhere, because you’re not going to find the real deal here.
Value for money: 2/10
Afternoon tea is served daily between 12-4.45pm. There are two afternoon teas offered: the ‘New Yorker’, and the ‘Broadway’. They are priced at $75 and $80 respectively (without champagne), excluding taxes and service. Expect to add on another 25% to cover those in your final bill.
No refills on food (!). You can switch out tea for coffee or hot chocolate, with unlimited replenishments. Some teas have a supplementary charge (set out in the menu).
It’s all your fault, Soprano Family. Because of you I found out about afternoon tea at the Plaza and got curious. If you’re not familiar with the eponymous drama series, Mrs Soprano and Meadow Soprano are trying to work on their fractured relationship by going for afternoon tea at the Plaza, one of their mother-daughter rituals. I made a mental note, and on this visit, I finally decided to indulge myself at the Plaza. It’s one of the top five-star hotels in Manhattan, appropriately situated next to Central Park. Afternoon tea is a truly British institution, and we do it extremely well, if I might say so myself. Nevertheless, if there is one place in New York that can compete, I thought this must be the place.
Before I begin the review, let me provide my credentials. I love afternoon tea with an almost hyperbolic passion. If I could replace lunch and dinner with afternoon tea every day, I would. I love the idea of it, the ceremony of it, the indulgence of it, and the fact that sweet plays equal fiddle to savoury, and perhaps even takes precedence. I have been to a lot of afternoon teas – a lot – and have a solid catalogue of experience which covers the terrible (hair in the jam) to the sublime (one word: Claridge’s, read the review here). So please trust everything I am about to say.
What should you expect from a luxury afternoon tea?
The class and price of the Plaza Afternoon Tea ($80) easily qualifies as a luxury afternoon tea. That means that you have the right to expect the following: impeccability and abundance. You’re not just paying for the food, you’re paying for an experience: an innocent form of escapism, where you are receiving excellent, considered service, plied with delicious, well-made food and drink, and treated like minor royalty or a mid-tier diplomat.
No matter where you partake of a luxury afternoon tea, here is what you should expect:
1) Complimentary replenishments of everything
Endless replenishments of sandwiches, scones, and even pastries should be part of your tea as a given. Some places may say that pastries are time-consuming to make and therefore only available in limited quantities, but you can always ask. You are paying a lot of money for what is essentially sandwiches, tea and cake, so you can reasonably expect to arrive hungry and leave full of very well-made food. Furthermore, you should be offered refills; you should not have to ask for them.
2) Excellent quality
A luxury afternoon tea room should take pride in what they are offering you. Their job is to elevate the humble sandwich, scone, and cake to lofty levels of taste and quality. This means that your food should be thoughtfully prepared, made with good quality ingredients, be exceptionally presented, and be a pleasure to eat from start to finish.
3) Switching out beverages, and unlimited refills
Not everybody is a tea drinker. I’m not. A luxury afternoon tea should offer unlimited refills of any tea you like from the menu. They should also happily accommodate requests to swap out tea for coffee, hot chocolate, iced coffee etc. Needless to say, these should also be good quality i.e., not powdered Cadbury’s with milk or Nescafé.
Plus: If your afternoon tea host really knows their stuff, they will brew your tea fresh for each cup, and not leave the leaves to steep in the pot. I’ve only seen this done fastidiously at Claridge’s, but if they can, then everybody else can aspire to it.
4) Staged serving
Your food and drink should be fresh in every way: freshly made, and freshly served. The best way to ensure this is to serve each ‘course’ – savouries, scones, and pastries – separately. They should also provide fresh plates for each course. When you’ve had your fill of sandwiches, then you can request scones, and they should be brought fresh and warm; when you’ve had enough, then the pastries may be brought, although the scones and pastries may be served at the same time. If you’re lucky enough to have a cake trolley which comes around afterwards (à la Brown’s Hotel, London), happy days!
5) A goodie bag to take away
Don’t leave empty handed! Any food you can’t finish (because you should be absolutely stuffed and having serious conversations with yourself about whether you should have that coffee financier or not) should be boxed up for you. If you ask nicely, or if they offer (bonus points for them), they may put some more goodies in your box for you, normally scones.
With that in mind, back to the Plaza Afternoon Tea…
Booking a table for afternoon tea was a breeze. I called the hotel directly and made a reservation on the date and time of my choosing. Their website states that I can only cancel up to 72 hours before the reservation without any penalty, or face a $50 charge. However, I wasn’t asked for my credit card details when I booked, so I guess that’s a loosely applied rule.
Afternoon tea is served in the Palm Court of the Plaza, and it certainly is beautiful. Think grand entrance, twinkling chandeliers, comfy cushioned seats dotted throughout, and palm trees, all sheltered under a splendid Art Deco style glass ceiling.
I was seated at a sofa seat in a nice cosy corner – the place was almost empty, and I had my pick of tables. It might have had to do with being mid-week, but even then I was a little surprised at how quiet it was. I didn’t mind, though: it meant a more peaceful, leisurely tea. Service was pleasant and friendly from the outset.
I opted for the Broadway Afternoon Tea without champagne. This is basically their signature New Yorker tea with some minor Broadway-themed twists. I’m a chocolate and caramel fan, and preferred the selection of pastries in this menu.
Within a few minutes – possibly the quickest time I have ever received an afternoon tea – a stocked, tiered stand was brought out to me. To be honest, I was a little alarmed at how quickly it was served. I was also surprised to see that they had served the full afternoon tea in one go: sandwiches, scones, pastries, everything served at once. This violated what I think is one of the golden rules of a full-blown luxury afternoon tea: to serve it in stages, so that everything is fresh and warm. You definitely shouldn’t be serving the scones straightaway, and I suspected they would be stone cold by the time I got to them.
The Savouries, Round One…
The sandwich menu was:
Hamilton & Cheese: Parisian ham, Gruyere cheese, Bavarian mustard, pretzel ficelle [I asked for this to be swapped this out for a vegetarian option]
Barnyard Birdie Chicken Salad Sandwich: truffled chicken salad, black truffle aïoli, celery, whole grain bread
Kinky Beets Canapé: golden beets, goat’s cheese, balsamic pearls, toasted hazelnuts, savoury tartlet
The Color of Purple Mustard: violet mustard on country pâté, brioche toast [I’m not a pâté fan so asked for this to be swapped out for something else]
Taste of Saigon: roasted prime rib bahn mi, pickled daikon, carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and spicy sriracha aïoli in a mini baguette
Cossacks and Caviar: chive crème fraiche, American sturgeon caviar
It was an ominous start: he sandwiches were a wildly mixed bag, and sent strong warning signals to me that this afternoon tea was not going to meet expectations of a halfway decent afternoon tea, let alone a five-star luxury one. Here’s why:
As I requested no pork in my afternoon tea, the ‘Hamilton and Cheese’ sandwich was replaced with a vegan sandwich. It looked quite measly, and when I opened it up, I found that the ‘sandwich’ (a pretzel roll which was actually nice and soft) was actually a smear of tomato sauce with a few basil leaves thrown in. That doesn’t constitute a sandwich in my books, and was actually quite careless on the part of the kitchen (I forgot to take a photo of it for posterity because it was so disappointing).
I asked for the pâté toast to be replaced with something else, and was promptly given an avocado and tomato sandwich on pumpernickel. This looked promising and fresh, but sadly just turned out to be avocado overwhelmed by tomato paste in between two small pieces of bread.
The other sandwiches were decent, although the Kinky Beets tartlet and Cossacks and Caviar blini were tiny, one-bite wonders. That’s OK, I thought, I’ll ask for more of the sandwiches I do like and leave the others.
BUT…when I asked the waiter about refills (phrased as a question, like ‘do you refill the sandwiches?’), to my horror, the answer was NO.
This caught me off guard. So you’re telling me I’m in the process of paying $80 for a plate of mediocre sandwiches which barely satisfy my hunger, and you’re not going to replace them?
And that’s not all that was mediocre…
I had also ordered an iced coffee which looked very impressive, but unfortunately tasted pretty dismal (see further down for photo).
Scones, Round One
At this point, I was quite suspicious about the tea, and so I made an early inspection of the scones. They were, as I had feared, cold, and also rock hard and pretty flat.
Furthermore, when I tried to split one open to try it, it exploded like dusty rubble in my hands and covered the table with dry crumbs.
This was the point when I decided to talk to the manager and provide some honest feedback (all of the above), and say thanks but no thanks. This very rarely happens, but I wanted to just call it a day and leave it there.
The manager was a nice lady who apologised for the scones and my experience overall, and asked if I would give their sandwiches another try. She also promised me the Plaza scones were ‘amazing’ and said I must have got a faulty batch, so she would replace those. Regarding my point about the ‘no replenishment as standard’ policy, she said that this was their practice but if a patron did ask for more they would try to accommodate it.
That is not a good enough answer from a five-star hotel, and definitely killed any expectation of luxury and abundance from this afternoon tea. It just felt very frugal and mean, and although I reluctantly agreed to give a different set of sandwiches and scones a go, that sense of disappointment and being robbed – primarily of a special treat, but also financially because this was not cheap – tainted my entire experience of the tea.
Sandwiches, Round Two…
I was given a replacement set of sandwiches, this time from the New Yorker tea. These were:
Smoked salmon & pumpernickel Napoleon, chive and dill whipped cream cheese
English cucumber and minted goat’s cheese ‘Green Goddess’ on rye bread
Herb roasted prime rib, horseradish cream, watercress on an onion poppy brioche slider
These were much better than the first set I got, but again there were no offers of refills, and as I was finishing off my sandwiches, my replacement scones arrived.
Scones, Round Two…
These were a marked improvement on the first lot, but that’s not saying much given those could have been used in military warfare. These were warm and soft, but they were almost too soft. They didn’t have that slightly resistant, firm crust which yields gently under pressure to split and reveal a soft inside. They were fine but nothing special, and they were both fruited, rather than one fruited and one plain (which is more traditional).
The scones are served with double Devonshire cream, lemon curd and an in-house berry preserve. The berry preserve was too sharp for my liking, and the lemon curd was passable but again, nothing special. I didn’t even bother asking for refills because I just didn’t enjoy the combination on the scones.
Pastries and sweets…
Sweet Victory Cherry Pie: pistachio financier, Morello cherry with Sicilian pistachios and sweet pastry
Legally Blondie: maple and walnut blondie, goat’s milk caramel buttercream
Wickedly Good Macaron: chocolate chip peppermint macaron
Beehive Bonbon: sour green apple cotton candy
Phantom of the Opera Cake: Joconde cake layered with bittersweet chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream
Hello Lolly: strawberry cake pop dipped in red chocolate
School of Pop Rocks: decadent chocolate pop rock candy bar
Here’s where the afternoon tea started to redeem itself. Most of these were delicious, although my ‘Legally Blondie’ blondie was dry and so had to be replaced.
To my surprise, it was the non-chocolatey pastries that impressed me the most. Yes, the rich chocolate ‘School of Pops’ rock candy bar was tasty, with its crispy candy which gently fizzed and popped in my mouth. Yet my lingering positive memory is of the delicious ‘Sweet Victory Cherry Pie’, with the beautiful combination of pistachio and cherry, and the ‘Hello Lolly’, a buttery cake pop laced with strawberry without being too jammy.
This very rarely happens, but both of my drinks were terrible, so I barely drank anything during the tea. The iced coffee looked pretty impressive…
I ordered a hot chocolate afterwards – having abandoned the coffee after a few sips – and unfortunately this was also terrible. It tasted like sugary water, and I can only assume it’s because they use a substandard hot chocolate powder. I barely had a few sips but I was pretty thirsty throughout the tea.
The service was good, and my friendly and helpful waiter made this otherwise mediocre experience worthwhile. Apparently the Plaza has served afternoon tea in this format for decades. I was amazed they have been able to get away with such a poor show all this time, but as my waiter pointed out, most American and visiting patrons are not familiar with a proper afternoon tea. In other words, the Plaza seems to take advantage of general ignorance about how afternoon tea should be served.
Overall verdict of afternoon tea at the Plaza…
It may be a glamorous setting, but afternoon tea at the Plaza missed almost all of the expected standards for a luxury afternoon tea. Actually, it missed qualifying as a decent meal. This afternoon tea was not only one of the most disappointing I have ever been to, but also one of my most frustrating dining experiences in New York. I felt robbed of $80 in exchange for a pocket collection of sandwiches, scones and cakes. The whole thing smacked of cheap frugality and carelessness, from the rock hard scones and tasteless beverages to the thoughtless vegetarian substitutes for sandwiches, and the audacity of not offering replenishments for the sandwiches and scones. I couldn’t help but think of how many better and more satisfying meals I had denied myself by wasting my money and appetite here.
This may sound pretty harsh, but the Plaza boasts that it has been the ‘iconic destination for afternoon tea in New York’ for over 100 years, and certainly presents itself as a luxury, high-end afternoon tea. These were the standards against which I judged it, and it fell woefully short. If it was charging $35 then this would be a different review – but I’d still be dead against those tomato paste sandwiches and rock hard scones.
I left sad and full of regrets. Needless to say I was hungry again within a couple of hours, and ate when I got home. If that’s not a sign of a failed afternoon tea, I don’t know what is.