Visiting The Shard is, in itself, a thrill. Visiting London’s most famous building for a Mary Poppins-themed afternoon tea is even more exciting and I had high hopes for a wonderful afternoon as I stepped into the building’s express elevator, ready to be whisked to the 32nd floor.
Regular readers will know that my posts are invariably positive. I prefer to write about the good experiences in life, rather than the bad; there’s enough negativity in the world without me adding to it. In this case, however, I’m going to make an exception. That isn’t to say that Lynda and I didn’t enjoy ourselves; rather, that we had what you might call a mixed bag of an experience. Here’s why…
I arrived shortly after Lynda to find that she’d been seated at a tiny table in what I can only describe as a passage way between the other tables – looking deeply uncomfortable. The restaurant was packed and it was obvious that Aqua Shard was milking this fact by placing tables in completely unsuitable locations. Having joined Lynda we sat, awkwardly, for 20 minutes while waiters fell over our bags (there was nowhere to put them), customers stopped to read our menus over our shoulders and the world & his wife bumped into our chairs trying to squeeze past.
Asked to seat us at a “proper” table, our waitress replied that the restaurant was fully-booked and that it wouldn’t be possible. We continued to press our point and eventually she offered a compromise, saying that if we could wait for another 15 minutes, she’d be able to accommodate us.
Cheered by this good news, we regained our menus from the latest passers-by to have borrowed them – and chose our teas. Delightfully, we were given a choice between ‘Mary’ and ‘Bert’, the former being a blend of Darjeeling, Ceylon and Chinese rose petals and the latter a combination of Souchon, Keemun, vanilla and cornflower. I opted for ‘Bert’ and revelled in its smokiness, that hint of gunpowder just perfect for the season.
In the meantime – and this was to become an ongoing theme – the background music had been cranked up, meaning that Lynda and I were having to bellow at each other, as well as at our waitress, to have any kind of conversation. Fine, if we’d been in a club – but in an afternoon tea setting, aimed at a family audience?
In need of something stronger than tea, we treated ourselves to a glass of Veuve Cliquot and, as if arranged by Mary Poppins herself, it arrived just as another table became free. And with a window seat, too: yay!
Towards our new table we sallied, our new waiter dropping some of our sandwiches on the floor in his haste to get us moved and out of his hair. “Not to worry”, he told us, “we’ll bring you some replacements”. Ten minutes later, said replacements hadn’t arrived and our waiter had disappeared, so we asked another staff member to assist. A further ten minutes later, we finally had a complete first course – nearly one hour into our allotted two-hour stay. Oh yes, did I mention that Aqua Shard practices table-turning?
At least the sandwiches tasted good. The Devon crab & cucumber brioche and Cackleberry farm egg & truffle sandwich were particularly nice, as were Mary Poppins’ favourite crumpets, served warm with smoked salmon and cream cheese.
By now, however, our tea was long-stewed and, unusually for an afternoon tea establishment, we hadn’t been offered fresh tea or hot water. Bracing ourselves in anticipation of becoming the restaurant’s most-hated customers, we asked for a refill – and were rewarded, I kid you not, with raised eyebrows. I mean: really? In a restaurant that attracts visitors from around the world, in a building that’s among the best-known in the world? And don’t even get me started on the prices (we’ll discuss those later).
Fresh tea did, eventually, arrive – but the afternoon was beginning to pall. If only the same could have been said about the music, which continued to pound, relentlessly. Oh well. If nothing else, it made us appreciate the stunning views over Tower Bridge even more, absorbing the scenery being less exhausting than shouting at each other.
Next: a high point. Our scones arrived – and were plucked out of a fabulous carpet bag identical to the one that Julie Andrews sports in Walt Disney’s classic musical. A nice touch, as was the Mary Poppins paper bag in which the scones resided, still piping hot, while we finished our sandwiches.
Alas, however, the restaurant had forgotten both the jam and the clotted cream. It was a further ten minutes before we were able to attract our waiter’s attention, by which time the scones were no longer piping, or even mildly, hot.
The cakes which followed the scones were beautifully presented. Look at the umbrella-topped cake stand with silver booted feet: isn’t it fabulous? My tastes have become more savoury as I’ve grown older and these days I’m more interested in the sandwiches and scones, but Lynda confirmed that the Mary Poppins ‘Hat’ (a black ‘Cherry Tree Lane’ mousse covered in dark chocolate) and the raspberry-encrusted Victoria Sponge were delicious and I enjoyed my gingerbread star, which perfectly complemented Bert’s tea.
By now, we were feeling happier, not to mention fuller, but the music continued to pound, as day transitioned into night and we watched dusk descend upon the Thames. As we sat there, rapt, another waiter presented us, with a flourish, with a tea light. A nice touch, we thought, in keeping with the ambience the restaurant was aiming for.
But no! Along came our original waitress, looking scandalised. “You weren’t supposed to have that: it’s a mistake!” she barked at us, promptly removing our tea light and placing it on the table next door to us. Baffled – and by now, almost totally deafened – Lynda and I decided to call it a day.
One final comment. On our way out, we visited the ladies’ cloakroom. Aqua Shard, if you are reading this I am all in favour of (i) sympathetic lighting, and (ii) being environmentally friendly – but when visiting “the lav” it does help to be able to see. It’s also helpful to be able to hang your coat on the back of the door, rather than having to throw it on the floor because there’s no hook to hang it on (or if there was I couldn’t see it, due to having to operate in the dark).
What, then, to make of our Aqua Shard afternoon tea experience? The food and the views were excellent, as was the Mary Poppins theming. The overall experience, however, let me slightly exhausted. It also left me distinctly poorer, having parted with £72 (£66 plus a 12.5% service charge). Without the champagne, it would have been £55 (the children’s version is, astonishingly, the same price). That’s a pretty hefty outlay and makes The Shard one of the most expensive afternoon tea destinations in London. The only other venue where I’ve paid that much money is The Langham – the difference being that there, they make you feel like the most special person in the world.
Having read through the above, I’m aware that I sound like The Grinch. Does it really matter that we were ignored for chunks of the afternoon, or that the music was so loud we couldn’t hear each other speak, or that we had to ask repeatedly for missing food, or that in the ladies’ cloakroom we had to throw our coats on to the floor? Actually, I think it does. I would think the same if we’d paid substantially less – and I think these things are even more important in a world-famous building such as The Shard. The food was great but everything else, I can’t help feeling, would have left Mary Poppins in need of a good dose of her own medicine.