The name is a give-away. Walk to the Royal Crescent Hotel from any direction in the centre of Bath and you’ll pass a spectacle of Georgian grandeur along the way. To the south and west is the refined leafiness of Royal Victoria Park (a green expanse known as the Common Fields in Georgian Times). To the north and east are elegant sweeps of 18th century honey-stone townhouses that include the Grade I-listed Circus and Assembly Rooms.
The epicentre of all this architectural brilliance, however, is the Grade I-listed Royal Crescent, an arc of 30 houses designed by John Wood the Younger, built in the 1770s and, today, one of the greatest Georgian legacies in England (besides a serious craze for gin, of course). To explore it in depth most visitors start at No. 1, now open to the public as a museum. But there is another way: taking afternoon tea at Nos. 15 & 16, the Royal Crescent Hotel.
For a true Georgian drawing room feel the hotel’s library is the best place to experience this, with its open fire, gilt-framed prints and soaring shuttered windows. Anyone wanting to do this must pay a room-hire fee, however, so most opt instead for a table in the hotel’s surprisingly large – and peaceful – garden. Or, on cooler days, at the Dower House Restaurant, a separate building accessed down a pretty garden path.
The décor at the Dower House is modern but refined, its skirted tablecloths, high-backed chairs and tastefully tassled curtains rippling through a subdued spectrum of taupe, white and Prussian blue. On a sunny autumn day we plumped for one of the window seats here and looked out at the wind picking the last leaves from the garden’s trees as we ordered.
With its Bath Buns, Sally Lunn buns and Bath Olivers Bath is a classic destination for fans of baked goods but the Royal Crescent Hotel has carved out a niche as one of the best afternoon tea stops in the city thanks to its range of five imaginative and decadent tea menus. From the classic Royal Crescent (largely sweet) to the Duke of York (largely savoury) and a vegetarian selection, most tastes are catered for. In our case this meant an Elizabeth Montagu Afternoon Tea (a fence-sitting savoury-meets-sweet array) for me and a Children’s Afternoon Tea for my 12 year-old niece, Jenna.
Like the hotel itself the afternoon tea menu isn’t a stickler for tradition, despite the grand surroundings. Yes there are starched tablecloths and the cutlery is silver but having a little paper ring attached to my teapot telling me – or, rather, my waiter – that I’d ordered Darjeeling felt more Butlins than boutique hotel. And true traditionalists would be disappointed not to have been given a separate pot of hot water to top up with.
Those niggles aside, however, the tea was all but faultless. Portions were sensible – generous but not to the extent that we felt unable to tackle the cake stand’s second tier (if you’re a real glutton, the price includes seconds of anything, free of charge, while those with smaller appetites can have any leftovers packaged up to take home).
First, the Elizabeth Montagu: a tier of finger sandwiches – coronation chicken, oak-smoked salmon with lemon and chive cream cheese, egg and cress, and beef with watercress and English mustard mayo (all fine though I’d have liked the mustard mayo to have had a slightly bigger kick) – followed by a tier of seasonal cakes – a little green pistachio cake, rather like a nutty madeleine, a violet-hued apple and blueberry macaron and a miniature plum and almond dacquoise, delicate and distinctly marzipan-ish.
The final tier, which we were sensibly advised to eat first, was a plate of four warm savouries: a lick of Melba toast with duck liver pate, chives, onion seeds and a hit of sharp sweetness courtesy of a curl of orange peel; a tiny brie and ham tartlet; a little mushroom croquette topped with mushroom ketchup, micro-herbs and parmesan; and, best of all, a Bath Chaps beignet, all exterior crunch and meaty interior richness.
This capitalising on local flavours was the element that took the Royal Crescent’s afternoon tea up a level. Bath Chaps is a local delicacy – brine-pickled pork cheek that’s boiled and coated in breadcrumbs (think cooked ham) – and this bite-sized reworking of it was a triumph.
Also good was the Royal Crescent’s perfectly sticky take on a Bath Bun (complete with ready-to-smear whipped cinnamon butter), which came on a side plate along with a scone and tasted (to Bath Bun first-timer, Jenna) similar to a hot cross bun. As was an emigré from the Royal Crescent Tea that our waiter brought out as an extra: a kaffir lime panna cotta topped with Bath Gin gel and a tiny crescent-shaped juniper biscuit.
The Children’s Tea was also a hit. Though aimed at 3 – 11 year-olds we felt it was better suited to over-8s. There can’t be many three year-olds who would appreciate the Dower House’s polished surroundings enough to want to sit through a formal tea, even if it did involve the biggest sugar rush of their year, and not many parents who would want to drag younger children out with them to disturb the peace of an expensive afternoon’s indulgence.
The tea itself is essentially a smaller, more child-friendly version of the Royal Crescent: three finger sandwiches (the simple ham, cheese and chicken fillings were all deemed acceptable but the sourdough bread divided opinion – Rhiannon liked it but Jenna would have preferred a classic white loaf), three cakes (a very sweet strawberry cupcake with dried strawberries on the top and jam inside, a tiny chocolate Viennese swirl and a pleasantly crunchy Rocky Road-like tiffin slice, with toasted marshmallows on top giving it a flavour of campfire feasts) and a dainty, doll-sized scone.
An accompanying hot chocolate was also a success: the perfect ratio of chocolate-to-milk and just enough heat to melt the marshmallows (you add your own from a little bowl on the side) without being hot enough to burn your tongue.
Star of the show: For Rhiannon this was the kaffir lime panna cotta with Bath Gin gel. It’s too distinctive, perhaps, to be a real crowd-pleaser but the creamy panna cotta matched against the bitter herbal hit of the gin made it the perfect marriage between savoury and sweet that afternoon tea is all about. For Jenna it was the scone: that classic cream and strawberry jam combo is hard to beat, especially when the slightly jelly-ish jam was this good.
Scone rating: 10/10. Our custardy scones were some of the best we’ve had – perfectly baked with just the right amount of icing sugar dusted across the top and little side pots of clotted cream and fruit-packed strawberry jam.
Price: All adult teas are £34, children’s afternoon teas £16.50. These include a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate but not Champagne, which costs an additional £8 per glass.
The Royal Crescent Hotel, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath, BA1 2LS (01225 823333, royalcrescent.co.uk)
Written by Rhiannon Batten and Jenna Davies, November 2016