Apparently, having tea at the Shelbourne Hotel is one of things you have to do in Dublin. I was told as much the day after I arrived in Ireland, when I met up with the local BookCrossing group.
When Mariellen of Breathe. Dream. Go. came to town, it seemed like the perfect time to enjoy this must-do Dublin experience. Afternoon tea isn’t something I normally indulge in by myself, and Mariellen is a tea aficionado. Though, as someone who drinks the stuff approximately as often as a solar eclipse and is thus wholly ignorant of its complexities, I was mildly intimidated by the extent of her tea geekitude.
They call her the Grand Old Lady on the Green (the hotel that is, not Mariellen. No matter how zen India may have made her, I expect Mariellen would still object to being referred to as old) because she is an ornate, historic hotel overlooking St. Stephen’s Green. She’s like an elderly auntie who still knows how to dress to impress and has all kinds of wild stories to tell you if you bother to ask. “Peter O’Toole?” she’ll say. “Oh yes, he loved to bathe in Champagne.” Or maybe she’ll tell you about the time she hosted the drafting of Ireland’s Constitution if you seem interested.
The Shelbourne has so many stories that the hotel has a tiny museum in the lobby to share moments from its past. Shelves are lined with guest books filled with the names of heads of state, big names from the silver screen, corporate movers and shakers, and lesser-known but well-heeled guests of yore who have stayed at the Shelbourne, while the walls feature photographs of the property and Dublin’s streetscape through the years, as well as portraits of famous guests.
Speaking of stories, one of the most surprising and impressive amenities at the The Shelbourne is their Genealogy Concierge. Since tracing family roots is a popular reason people travel to Ireland, the service makes sense and isn’t just for the sake of novelty, but it’s still unusual and intriguing.
Once we’d flounced around the hotel a bit, and seen some of the guest rooms, (which are proactively redecorated and refurbished before they have a chance to need it) and chandeliers as big as your car, we sat down for afternoon tea in the Shelbourne’s Lord Mayor’s Lounge, which is just off the lobby as you enter the front door.
Francois is the Tea Concierge, and he helped us navigate the extensive tea menu. I realized Mariellen is a tea nerd when I caught her testing Francois with questions about the varieties of tea in specific blends listed on the menu. Later, she confessed to being a “tea snob.” Apparently my berry-infused herbal tea is not tea, but a tisane, and purists care about subtle distinctions such as this. It was tasty enough for me. I ordered it because, not being a regular tea drinker, I was concerned that I might dislike a proper cup of tea and since my face is an open book I could accidentally offend our hosts.
Since I don’t like tea, it’s logical that you might be wondering why I chose to go for afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel. Two things: the food and the atmosphere. For me, proper afternoon tea is more about the experience than the tea itself, and The Lord Mayor’s Lounge makes you feel as though you’ve taken a spin in the TARDIS and stepped into another, more elegant era.
Afternoon tea cannot be rushed, and there’s something about being faced with a towering tray of dainties that forces me to slow down and savour the moment. The Shelbourne’s head chef Garry Hughes enthusiastically takes inspiration from the hotel’s heritage and, thanks to that aforementioned museum, often refers back to menus from historic moments in the hotel’s 190-year history.
The desserts served at our tea harkened back to ones served on memorable dates in the years 1924, 1954, and 1956, while our sandwiches were a contemporary update on stereotypical tea sandwiches, each made with artisanal heritage breads. Mariellen’s gluten-free sandwiches were especially impressive. Personally, I’m quite thankful that Ireland won its rugby match against Wales in 1956 because the dessert served that day — a gold-leafed chocolate mousse with mango and passionfruit — was by far my favourite.
Disclosure and acknowledgements: Many thanks to The Shelbourne Hotel for giving us a tour and providing Afternoon Tea for the purpose of this review. Thanks also to Francois for taking the group photo above.