The Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose is one of the oldest and most luxurious hotels in the Bay Area. The decorations during the Christmas holiday season are elaborate and elegant, usually including a collection of large gingerbread houses put on display in the front lobby. The Lobby Lounge, next to the reception desk and the hotel bar and a seating area with a grand piano, is where afternoon tea is served by advance reservation. Afternoon tea is available at two prices: $40 per person (including tax and tip) for the regular afternoon tea, a prix-fixe menu including a choice of tea, two scones, four savories and four desserts, or the Royal afternoon tea, which includes a glass of champagne and costs $50 per person.
The reputation of the hotel and the elegant surroundings make the Fairmont an attractive place to have tea. Some friends and I made reservations at the Fairmont for tea at 3 p.m. on a Sunday in December. We had enjoyed the Fairmont’s afternoon tea on a similar occasion several years before, when we went from afternoon tea to walk through Christmas in the Park. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it appeared that they had no record of our reservation, and we had to wait while they set up tables for us. We were seated at small round tables for two (there were 6 of us altogether), filled with plates, cutlery, and small jars of jam and honey in little wire stands.
While the china, place setting and surroundings were beautiful, four of the six teacups on our tables were literally sticky all around the rims, so that the cups stuck to the saucers! Unfortunately, our server disappeared once he had seated us and we couldn’t find him to ask about the cups. We flagged down a different server and asked that the sticky cups be taken back to the kitchen and replaced with clean ones. The other server apologized and took them back, but then she disappeared as well, and 15 to 20 minutes later, they hadn’t been replaced and we had to ask another server. They brought us more cups and saucers, but they were sticky exactly as the first cups had been. Twenty minutes after that, we finally got clean cups and saucers when our tea was brought to the table.
The tea was very tasty and we all enjoyed our choices, which included a Maple flavored black tea, a Jasmine green tea, a berry flavored herbal tisane, and the Empress blend, which was an Assam black tea. The tea was bagged instead of loose-leaf, and each person received their own teapot. Although we had waited 45 minutes for it, it had been freshly made and was still hot, but there was no sugar or milk provided with it, and we waited 10 to 15 minutes before flagging down a server to ask for it. When serving the tea, our server poured the first cup for each guest, but he served the wrong tea to two people! Luckily he had only poured each of their teas into the other person’s cup, so they just switched cups, and we poured our own tea from then on.
The scones, savories and sweets were beautifully presented and delicious. There were two 2-inch scones: cranberry-orange, which is the regular scone flavor at the Fairmont, and the special holiday flavor, pumpkin spice. The scones were still warm when they reached us, so that was good, but the flavor was a bit bland. We had the tiny jars of honey and jam on the table, and our server brought tiny jars of lemon curd and a small dish of whipped cream to eat with them. Our plates were garnished with a lovely fresh orchid.
There were four savories: cucumber and tomato on white bread, smoked salmon and caviar on a buckwheat blini, prosciutto and brie with fig jam in a wrap, and egg salad with “vegetable confetti” (chopped chives, and red and green Bell pepper) on wheat. All were delicious, the prosciutto and fig especially so. There were 4 small desserts: an eggnog custard garnished with a pistachio and served in an Asian soup spoon, a chocolate mousse square with pistachio and ganache, a fruit-topped shortbread round, and a raspberry mousse ball on sponge cake drizzled with chocolate. The chef put together a nut-free dessert plate for me and another lady with allergies, which included: the eggnog custard garnished with a tiny chocolate instead of the pistachio, chocolate ganache in a mini tart shell, and the fruit-topped shorbread and raspberry mousse on sponge cake. Everything was presented beautifully and was tasty, although I started to have an allergic reaction when I took a bite of the fruit-topped shortbread. Perhaps it was flavored with almond? I never found out for certain.
While some of the experience was to high quality that we expected at the Fairmont, the service we received was very spotty. Our initial server seemed annoyed with us from the beginning, and he also seemed very harried and not well-informed about the menu. It took over 45 minutes for him to bring us our tea (after we had ordered it) or even a glass of water, and an hour to serve our food. One of the other guests and I have nut allergies, and when we asked our server about the food, planning to simply avoid things that he said contained nuts, all he would tell us was that “we’ll take care of it.” He didn’t answer our question about which menu items had nuts, or tell us what they would do to “take care of it”! However, when we received our tea, he was accompanied by a second server, who was much better at communicating, and much faster in responding to us. She took over our service from that point on and totally redeemed the experience!
My final verdict is that afternoon tea at the Fairmont is an expensive luxury that might be better worth the money when it’s not the holiday season! While it is nice to have tea in the Lobby Lounge when it is decorated for the holidays, the staff seem way too busy during the holidays to give their customers a consistently good-quality experience, and consistent good service. Some of the staff are stellar, and really add to the experience, while others are not able to provide adequate service all the time.
UPDATE: One of the other guests in my party wrote a letter to the manager of the Fairmont, complaining about our service and the sticky cups. He wrote back with an apology, and offered to treat us to tea on another day at the Lobby Lounge, and assign a server to only attend to our needs, in order to redeem the Fairmont’s reputation. Keep your eyes on this column for an updated review when we return in January!
Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.
For more information: Fairmont San Jose Lobby Lounge
Fairmont San Jose afternoon tea web page
“Tea and San Jose’s Christmas in the Park”
“Tea can help you keep your New Year’s resolutions”
“Stay up late with tea on New Year’s Eve”
“Use tea as a holiday champagne substitute”
“Tea 101: what do we mean when we talk about tea?”
“Tea tasting 101: characteristics of a good-quality black tea”
“Chocolate and tea: the perfect match?”
“Favorite tea-time recipe from Gourmet magazine: Meyer lemon curd”
“What you need to make a good pot of hot tea”
“Tea 101: How to brew a pot of hot tea using loose tea”
“Making the most of a cup of restaurant tea”
“Cucumber and smoked salmon tea sandwich recipe”
“Review: Lisa’s Tea Treasures – Campbell location”
“Review: afternoon tea at Satori Tea Bar”
“Review: Cuthbert’s Tea Shoppe at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair”