By Sabrina Messenger
The Empress Exterior
721 Government Street
Victoria, British Columbia
Let it be know that there are many, many wonderful tea rooms all over the Pacific Northwest from the California Border on to Northern British Columbia, Canada. However, If you should ever visit the provincial capital of Victoria, British Columbia even for a day trip, one of the questions you can be expected to be frequently asked is "Are you going to take "high tea" at the Empress?" Never mind the fact that it really is an afternoon cream tea vs the heartier "meat tea"--high tea is what it is referred to by nearly every "local" and tourist alike!
In a city that is touted as a "little bit of England" and boasts of a myriad of tea rooms, you may wonder just what makes tea at the Empress more special than other area tea rooms?
First of all, the Empress Hotel was the first public venue to serve afternoon tea in Victoira, and it has been servinga traditional afternoon tea everyday since its doors opened back in 1908! The hotel was originally owned by the Canadian Pacific railroad, but it is now part of the very upscale Fairmont chain of luxury hotels. It has hosted an array of guests that range from Royalty to celebrity.
Taking tea at the Empress is considered by some a very posh event--a definite "must do" for the tourist! Some tea enthusiasts would consider The Empress the "Beverly Hills" of tea venues! The afternoon tea served at the Fairmont Empress has been considered by hundreds of thousands of tea enthusiasts worldwide to be the penultimate tea experience!
In fact, taking tea there is so popular that if you wish to go, I would strongly recommend making a reservation up to two weeks in advance in order to avoid disappointment! However, If you do want to take you chances and just show up, the staff are gracious and they are able to put your name on on a waiting list, but they cannot guarantee you will get seated that same day. Reservations are taken directly at the hotel, by telephone or online, or you can get "vouchers" through the local cruise ships that stop there either for the day or en route to Alaska.
The cost is currently $50 CAN, that is about $39 US including a 7% goods and services tax, but it does NOT include alcohol or gratuity. If you do imbibe, there is a 10% liquor tax, and it is customary to tip at least 20% at the Empress.
Tea is served daily from 12 pm to 5pm., but if you are looking for something to do while waiting, I can recommend visiting the nearby Empress gardens, browing the various hotel shops or even taking the organized tour of the hotel itself, as it is one of Victoria's greatest architectural landmarks. All hotel tours begin promptly at 10 a.m. every morning near the tea lobby, and usually lasts approximately 1 to 1 1/2 hours. The hotel has a very fascinating history, and you can learn all sorts of interesting tid-bits about the "jewel" in the city of Victoria's crown, its archetect, the somewhat notorious Francis Rattenberry, and some of the people who have been residents, guests and/or even "ghosts" there.
The ambiance at the Empress is quite impressive. You will feel as though you had stepped into a time machine and was transported to at least 1911! The decor is beautiful with burgundy and cream, and dark woods. There are very comfortable wingback chairs, for your comfort. The hotel is still decorated in a traditional Edwardian style although most of the furniture is new thanks to a multi-million dollar remodel of the hotel a few years back. The tea china is an exquisite Royal Doulton that is now especially produced for the Empress Hotel, but actually dates back to George V. The Empress pays great attention to detail and ensures that all of the necessary accoutrements are available to facilitate taking tea in the style of a Duchess!
As you wait to be served, a pianist is playing a variety of older and newer standards on a baby grand piano. Quite relaxing if I say so myself. I found the the servers very attentive and the quality of service absolutely top notch. It was as though they could read your mind and whatever you required was offered right on the spot!
Tea at the Empress really is best shared with family or friends, as Victoria is somewhat of a couples oriented town, but if you are alone as I was, then wait staff are extra attentive and will even take a brief moment or two to chat with you. I really appreciated the fact that they didn't make me feel self-conscious for being a woman dining alone...and there are still some restaurants in that city that do exactly just that!
The Empress tea lobby does has a dress code which the staff claims over and over again is strictly enforced. One server told me that that Barbara Streisand was once turned away for not adhering to the dress code. Nearly everyone who makes an advance reservation is told of this dress code...and all of the cruise ships, ferries and local tour experts tells everyone of the famous Empress "dress code."
However, when I took tea at the Empress recently (9/5/04), I discovered that despite what the cruise ships, ferries, and tour books advise... the dress code is NOT consistently enforced! Of course, yours truly was dressed to the nines, but there were plenty of jeans, shorts, exposed midriffs and athletic shoes in evidence, and I did not see anyone get turned away! It's amazing and a bit disappointing how money has a way of making the staff forget about any dress codes.
So how should one dress for tea at The Empress? Some tea time experts recommend that one should dress in the same kind of clothing that one would wear to attend religious services...but I've seen some people who wear jeans and sweats to church! "Smart Casual" is what the Empress hotel personnel recommend i.e.; NO athletic footwear, torn jeans, shorts.
My recommendation: if you go--remember that Afternoon tea at the Empress is not Saturday night at the movies, a rock concert or a basketball game. It is a very special and lovely dining experience in a very elegant milieu--surely that much alone is worth making the effort to look your best, isn't it? Why would you want to 'dress down' for a tea that costs $50 CAN (Approx $39 USD)? So, please don't let the side down--...DO dress up for this experience....no excuses!
This particular tea, as I mentioned earlier, is somewhat expensive by either countries standards, but you definitely get your money's worth. The portions on the tea tray are quite generous for an afternoon tea.! As an aperitif, I enjoyed a lovely glass of sparkling wine garnished with a strawberry ($9 CAN) The "starter" was a lovely cut crystal bowl of very large strawberries with Chantilly Cream. Very decadent and very delicious! Next, a variety of tradional tea sandwiches were served. My personal favorites were the sandwiches made with smoked BC salmon. The currant scones were absolutely to DIE for! In my opinion, they are the best scones I had ever tasted. Hot, fresh, and very fragrant! The scones were served with Jersey Cream and strawberry preserves imported from England! The piece de resistance was the array of desserts! I feasted on fruit tarts, a genuine Sacher torte, tea cakes and "biscuits"--that's cookies to you Yanks! If you have a food allergy or intolence, the Empress is willing to accomodate you with an alternate selection if given advance notice.
I would also strongly advise you to come with an appetite! I was very surprised to noticed that there were several people around me who barely seemed to touch their tea. They left more than half of this repast on their plates! This was fairly shocking to me as a woman for whom this particular luxury would be the equivalent of a week's worth of groceries. I was truly astonished that some people could be so wasteful! The least they could've done is to ask for a doggie bag...and NO, it is not considered tacky to do so, either!
Once you've finished your tea, the servers will bring a complimentary canister of the "Empress Blend" tea for you to enjoy at home. Their special blend of tea is also for sale at the lovely shop across the way from the Empress tea room. In fact, the shop sells all manner of tea and Empress related memorabilia.
Tea at the Empress, in my opinion, is the tea of a lifetime. However, if you feel the Empress may be too 'high tone' for you, there are many places throughout Victoria that offer afternoon and "high" teas that are more relaxed in their dress code and are also considerably lower priced. You can find listings of such establishments at http://www.tourismvictoria.com
(This is an edited excerpt from a larger article I've written on tea entitled "Afternoon Tea: A Traditional and Romantic Pasttime WORTH taking up! To read the article in its entirity, please click the link to my website, Lady Cascadia's Romance Realm.)