Tea with Mr. Selfridge…and His Mistresses

The tea ritual: such  precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony…  —Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (part 1 of quote)

In the spring of 2013, PBS aired Mr. Selfridge, a miniseries about Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American who went to London and opened a department store on Oxford Street in 1909. It was an 8-part series with Jeremy Piven playing the title character. I watch many of the Masterpiece series, but this one I skipped. Dorene did watch the series and, after just a few episodes, decided that we would visit Selfridges during our trip to England in June.

Only the first day of our trip would be spent in London, which we had visited two years earlier. With a midday arrival, we decided to keep the first day of our vacation simple with limited sightseeing. After dropping off our suitcases at our hotel in the Lancaster Gate/Kensington Gardens area, we walked down Bayswater Road, which becomes Oxford Street right around Marble Arch. There is a Tube station near Selfridges (Bond Street), but since we were not on a tight schedule, a 30-minute walk along the edge of Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park was a welcome way to re-energize after a long flight. Speaking of walking, this is a good time to mention an important point about the Tea and Scone Hop. Because the scones, clotted cream, tea cakes, and pastries associated with afternoon tea may not represent the healthiest of choices, maintaining other healthy practices is key. We were fortunate that our vacation involved walking each day

Not long after we passed Marble Arch, Dorene caught sight of Selfridges in the distance.

Selfridges clock and statue of the Queen of Time. Photo by Dorene
Selfridges clock and statue of the Queen of Time. Photo by Dorene

The inside of Selfridges, which looks like a standard department store, does not mirror the grandeur of the outside. It nevertheless does impress, with 6 floors that total about 10 acres; large crowds of both Londoners and tourists; famous designer collections; the ever-present yellow shopping bags that advertise people’s willingness to spend lots of money there; and a surprisingly long line of people waiting just for a chance to view Prada products.

I am not a high-end shopper and would leave without a yellow bag, but I was looking forward to eating lunch at Selfridges. As we walked around, I had to reorient myself to English floor designations. What Americans call the first floor is the ground floor in England, while England’s first floor is what we would call the second floor. The store guide proved a struggle for me, so Dorene asked a salesperson if there was a restaurant that served afternoon tea. He directed us to Dolly’s on the lower ground floor (basement level) and told us, “It’s in the middle of the store.”

And it was. We had seen other restaurants along the sides, but Dolly’s is simply a section of the display floor, adjacent to an escalator, that has been gated off and turned into a small cafe. It opened in March 2011 and was named for Mr. Selfridge’s mistresses. “He had two mistresses named Dolly?” I asked when Dorene told me this. Not quite. Originally from Hungary, identical twins Jenny and Rosie became known as the Dolly Sisters for their vaudevillian act. Click here to see the menu, which includes a rather scandalous picture of the twins.

Sign at the cafe. Photo by Dorene
Sign at the cafe. Photo by Dorene

Dolly’s has an enclosed kitchen in the center and a display case of pastries on one side. This leaves limited room for tables in narrow passages on the remaining three sides of the kitchen. Our wait for a table was about 15 minutes, and one or more people seemed to be waiting at all times. Yet in the spirit of afternoon tea, the staff did not try to rush patrons in and out.

Dorene’s Assessment

Afternoon Tea for Two. Photo by Dorene
Afternoon Tea for Two. Photo by Dorene
  • Tea – an enjoyable, standard English Breakfast Tea. Dorene appreciated the strainer for the cup that captured the loose tea leaves from the teapot.  An attached tray could be moved under the strainer to catch any dripping liquid when moved to the side.
  • Finger sandwiches (4 for each of us) – smoked salmon, chicken, egg salad, and cucumber and cream cheese. The amount of filling in each sandwich was small, but they were all good.
  • Scones – one fruited and one plain. Dorene and I both prefer plain scones, but I took the fruited one since I know how much she loves her scones. Dorene thought that the scone was small and mildly sweet. She’s more accustomed to scones in the U.S., which tend to be less sweet than those in England.
  • Pastries – one lemon and one strawberry tart. We took half of each, although Dorene was too full to eat the strawberry tart.  The lemon tart had “citron” written on top in chocolate, and the amount of lemon flavor was just right. The strawberry tart had a generous amount of strawberries.
  • Service – pleasant staff. Our waitress knew that we were visiting Dolly’s for the first time, and when we were finished, she asked what we liked best. “The scones, of course,” was Dorene’s reply.
  • Atmosphere – noisy.  While there is a novelty to ordering tea while sitting in the middle of a historic department, there’s no way to escape that you are sitting in the middle of a bustling department store, next to the escalator for that matter.
  • Decor – Dolly’s is described as having an Art Deco design. Dorene is an aficionado of the Art Deco movement and did not think that there was much to say about Art Deco at Dolly’s.
  • Overall grade – B

Diane’s Thoughts

The first sandwich I ate was the cucumber and cream cheese. I was so hungry that I finished it in just a few bites – probably breaching some form of afternoon tea etiquette. I was also concerned about another etiquette issue. After spreading the strawberry jam on my scone, I dipped my knife into the clotted cream. The remnants of jam on my knife ended up spoiling the pure color of the cream in the dish, which I feared betrayed my lack of social grace. I asked Dorene whether there should have been a separate knife for the cream. She hesitated, said that there probably should have been separate knives, but clearly had never before put any thought into the issue. Later, I figured out why this was not an issue for her. Dorene spreads the clotted cream onto the scone first and then puts the jam on top. Her knife is clean when it touches the clotted cream.

Had I been eating my scones wrong?

I googled pictures of scones, and while jam on top of clotted cream seems the more common method for eating scones, there were some pictures with the cream on top of the jam. I guess I’ll stick to my way.

While afternoon tea at Dolly’s does not invoke the “serene harmony” depicted in Muriel Barbery’s quote above, there is at least the opportunity to step away from the bustle, excess, and, yes, the absurdity. As evidenced by the variety of customers we saw at Dolly’s that day, from businessmen and tourists to multigenerational families and single shoppers, there is truth to the idea of the universality of tea. The price of 28.95 pounds for Afternoon Tea for Two does not quite support the notion of “at little cost,” but given that everything in London is expensive, tea at Dolly’s was worth the experience.

Side Hop

Like a sidebar, this section of each post will include additional thoughts or information beyond our quest for tea and scones. Here are some options for learning more about the people behind Selfridges and Dolly’s:

  • For a history of the department store, visit the timeline on the Our Heritage page of Selfridges website.
  • For a brief analysis of the relationship between Mr. Selfridge and the Dolly Sisters, visit the Jazz Age Club website.
  • Gary Chapman, author of The Dolly Sisters: Icons of the Jazz Age, has a blog devoted to the sisters, dollysisters.wordpress.com.
  • The sisters were even the subject of a 1945 movie starring Betty Grable and June Haver. IMDb does not list Mr. Selfridge as one of the characters. For a synopsis of the movie, visit TCM’s website.
  • The book that was used as the basis for the miniseries is Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead.
  • For fans of the miniseries, PBS has ordered a second season, which will air in 2014. Now that I know more about Selfridges than any other store I’ve ever visited, perhaps I may get on board.

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