Our spirits needed brightening up on a cold rainy afternoon in Vienna in May. The sparkle of the chandeliers at the Hotel Imperial added the glamour we needed for our ladies’ tea outing. We arrived stressed and wet having dashed out of the office in the pouring rain. One thing I am not fussy about is getting wet. MadFrenchLady was of course properly equipped with an elegant umbrella. We took the tram. An elderly Austrian lady in the tram remonstrated with MadFrenchLady. “Madam, your umbrella is wet” she said. “And yours is dry?” I asked. “Well, no, but hers is wet.” What can you do? This is another of the joys of an expat. You never quite learn all the subtle rules. MadFrenchLady wisely stayed silent. We laughed and wondered how we should manage to keep our umbrellas dry in future. CraftyLinguist was waiting in the lobby surrounded by shopping bags from the exclusive stores nearby. It was time for tea.
Hotel Imperial has its own tea blend and a small selection of other teas. CraftyLinguist ordered their own blend, MadFrenchLady opted for green tea and I, prompted by the advice of a reader of our Palais Hansen report, took the Assam and anticipated toffee. The tea is served in a little porcelain pot, loose leaves in a bag, with a jug of hot water and a little dish for the bag. Milk was not offered. The Hotel Imperial blend is fragrant and delicate. CraftyLinguist conceded that milk would probably have spoiled it. The green tea and the Assam were both fine. So, Imperialtorte is the one to try, and CraftyLinguist ordered a teensy slice. She had skipped lunch in the hope of a full afternoon tea, but it is not on offer, so she plotted a dinner out instead. MadFrenchLady seems to like cakes built up in layers and ordered Esterhazyschnitte, which is a layered hazelnut cake with some kind of vanilla buttercream between the layers and icing on top. It turned out she was expecting something more millefeuille like. She pronounced the Esterhazyschnitte to be too rich, but ate it anyway. In general we found the cake selection to be in line with what a tourist would expect to find and probably sufficient to feed the preferences of the locals, but, all in all, nothing to get excited about.
We were welcomed by a waiter who is probably an institution in his own right. There were a couple of young men assisting. They were polite and discrete, but spoke readily and with confidence when we asked them questions about the ongoing renovation project. We stayed long enough to slide into the cocktail hour and I was tempted by a Bloody Mary, which my sort-of-nephew CocktailBanker describes as “basically just vodka with pasta sauce.” I asked the waiter if I could expect a proper Bloody Mary or the CocktailBanker version. He was not keen to declare, so I ordered it anyway and CraftyLinguist ordered a Virgin Mary. It came down more on the CocktailBanker side. The waiter returned to ask our opinion and was apologetic when we guessed that the tomato juice was the cheap supermarket brand. He promised to “pass it on to the kitchen.” Anyway, the relaxed friendly service continued and we were happy.
There’s something for everyone at the Hotel Imperial. The cafe is recently renovated and has two rooms, one of which is in the classic Viennese coffee-house style and the other is a modern interpretation of the same theme. The lobby lounge is olde worlde charm in the best tradition of the house and it was here that we took our tea. The seating is in groups of traditionally upholstered armchairs and sofas. The mirrored fireplace and the rather strange false bookshelves at the top of the walls spoil the effect of an otherwise charming room. The beautiful chandeliers are the inspiration for the Christmas lights used along Vienna’s Graben.
When we arrived, the lounge was rather empty. Four sole business men had placed themselves far apart in the cafe and were working on their ipads and laptops. In the lobby lounge a group of serious looking deal making men occupied one of the sofa groups and we chose the far corner to have a better overview of proceedings. Soon, two ladies arrived and one of them greeted us in the manner of a famous person graciously acknowledging the presence of her adoring public. None of us recognised her, but that did not seem to matter. HM the Queen stayed at the Imperial when she came to Vienna and other heads of state seem to like it too. Many of the musicians playing at the Musikverein also stay there as they can just slip out of the back door and be right at the stage door of the concert hall.
A pianist played popular classics and songs that everyone knows. As the afternoon went on, he must have decided to have some fun and as new guests arrived, he would try to guess their nationality and then play a few ditties. And so we heard some Russian, Japanese and American music. The “Russian” gentlemen headed straight for the mirrored fireplace seats.
There is renovation work on the ground floor, so the facilities are upstairs for now. The staircase is impressive and Kaiser Franz Josef stands at the top in imperial splendour. The facilities are rather modest and furnished with pieces which have been decommissioned from bedrooms. To our amazement, the standard of cleanliness was not quite as one would expect, even though MadFrenchLady had spotted a cleaning lady in action who was dressed just like a parlour maid from Upstairs Downstairs. That’s “Haus am Eaton Place” for the German speakers out there. There was dust on a ledge and behind the door of the cubicle.
What my companions thought of it
Those translations again. This time, CraftyLinguist was even more emphatic in her condemnation because, as well as the poor quality tranlations, there were inappropriate capital letters sprinkled throughout the menu and, horror of horrors, an exclamation mark. I think it is fair to say that it is never, ever right to put an exclamation mark in a menu. Or maybe there is just one exclamation mark that might have pleased her: if she had found a page with the title “Yes, we do offer afternoon tea, complete with scones and clotted cream!” MadFrenchLady declared herself unfit to evaluate tea, but when pressed, she grudgingly pronounced that it was drinkable because “at least the water did not have bleach in it, like it does in France.” She said I must visit France again and promised to show me a nice Salon de thé where the cakes and other little delicacies will compensate for the bleach drenched dust they call thé.
Our overall experience in Hotel Imperial was good. There is a relaxing atmosphere, the service is attentive but not fussy and the tea is certainly drinkable. So, again, it’s four little teapots out of a possible five.