Review: The Harlem Tea Room (closed)

*Update: Harlem Tea Room served their last cup of tea in 2008.

A member of the Uptown Flavor community recently visited The Harlem Tea Room and had a pretty lukewarm experience. He was disappointed at the lack of attentiveness from staff, the apparent inability of the establishment to know the difference between biscuits and scones and ingredients of questionable quality. In his own words:

“We paid our $10 tab and left–a little sad that what could have been such a lovely experience fell so far short because of inattentive service, a lack of readily available, authentic ingredients, and censure by a stranger hawking bedding in a restaurant. We probably won’t be back. But those biscuits are tasty…”

Click below to read his entire review. Have you been to The Harlem Tea Room? What was your experience?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reviews we receive from readers are the opinions of the authors not necessarily of the site. We welcome well-written reviews of Harlem establishments, whether they are positive or negative. (Though we do love to support our neighbors whenever possible.) Personally, I have never been to the Harlem Tea Room, but I will be going there to form my own opinion about the place.

My girlfriend and I have been anxious to try The Harlem Tea Room for the better part of a year. It’s big picture windows offer a cozy view of seemingly happy customers enjoying pots of tea and sweet treats. Every week, one of us would invariably say to the other ‘We really should stop in to the tea room.’ As is so happens, tonight was the night.

The restaurant was bustling, as it is on most nights, and the hostess was waiting by the door ready to seat us at one of the last available tables. Except that woman was not, in fact, the hostess. We only realized this after spending a minute or so waiting for a greeting which would never come–not from the mystery woman nor the restaurant staff. We asked the waiter behind the counter if we could sit, and got a unenthusiastic ‘Sure.’ Ok…thanks.

Menus were delivered by a mute waitress, and a few minutes later the waiter from the counter took our order–notepad in hand. We ordered the Cream Tea with two scones. ‘Darjeeling tea, please,’ we offered when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to ask our preference. No matter. I was particularly excited about our order because my Gran makes incredible scones and I’ve been missing them lately. Buttery pastry with clotted cream and preserves is a simple, delicious indulgence, and I was psyched about having a taste of home in Harlem.

As we waited, and waited, and waited for our tea and scones, we noticed that our table was a little wobbly. No big. However, the little things were beginning to add up and this was yet another annoyance. We decided to fix the problem ourselves and grabbed a couple of flyers laying on a cardboard box next to our table. As we were sussing out which corner was out of sync, the mystery woman appeared out of nowhere. ‘Um, those are my cards. Yeah, those are mine. Well they’re kind of useless now that their folded. They’re mine.’ So sorry. Our mistake. As it turns out, she’s there to sell the orange, lime green and yellow satin pillow cases displayed in the window, and we’d disrupted her business. Seriously. How could we have possibly overlooked an entrepreneur at work? I’d noticed the manual, 1980s credit card imprint machine on top of the cardboard box as well, but assuming I was in a tea room, not a Tunisian bazaar, I thought nothing of it. She was angry and so was I. I just wanted my tea and scone, but here came the waiter, empty handed. ‘So, the scones are coming, but what kind of tea did you order?’ Ah, how about consulting your trusty notepad? ‘Darjeeling, thanks.’ When he stopped by our table a second time with sugar, my girlfriend asked for milk which he assured us was coming. A moment later he came back with approximately 1/1000 of a cup of milk. Slightly less than a thimble full. ‘Oh, do you want enough for two?’ Yep, that’d be great. By this point, our ‘scones’ had arrived. This may not be a sticking point if you haven’t grown up with scones, but they are not biscuits. They just aren’t. Biscuits are lovely things, but you cannot claim to sell homemade scones and serve biscuits. It’s just wrong. But we tuck in, because they’re good currant biscuits. Except. Except…is that whipped cream out of a spray can instead of clotted cream? This is bad. I am not a food snob, but this is just lazy. The bad service, silent waiters, wobbly table, fake scones, and now this? Not clotted cream at all, but some synthetic mess from a tube. I’ll readily admit that any one of these relatively minor issues could have been overlooked on their own, but as they continued to mount we were more and more anxious to get out of there. It reeked of someone who’d maybe read a book about English tearooms and thought ‘I can do that…cheap.’

We paid our $10 tab and left–a little sad that what could have been such a lovely experience fell so far short because of inattentive service, a lack of readily available, authentic ingredients, and censure by a stranger hawking bedding in a restaurant. We probably won’t be back. But those biscuits are tasty…

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17 thoughts on “Review: The Harlem Tea Room (closed)

  1. I live a block and a half up from the HTR, and have eaten there on a number of occasions. Honestly, the only reason we keep going there is because it’s so convenient. While the food and tea are acceptable, they’re nothing special and the service is consistently slow and unprofessional. I smiled when I saw the comments above about the owner, because I too have observed some of that behavior.

    There’s a large condo coming up on 120th and Fifth Avenue, which I’m hoping will bring new casual restaurants to our area. The minute something better comes along that is close to our building, we’re dropping HTR like a hot potato.

  2. I just went there last week after not going there for over a year. The service is still terrible and unprofessional. My friend and I had to hear the “chef” be berated by what I would guess was a manager. They don’t carry honey or sugar in the raw. If you want to do high tea in Harlem, do HIGH TEA the way it is supposed to be done! How do you open a tea room and not have honey? I am so sick of people half-stepping when it comes to opening businesses and then we are the ‘bad guys’ for not patronizing our local black business. We are expected to put up with sub-par service for the sake of supporting the business.

    I would have posted a comment on their website or emailed them directly but their website is down.

  3. I was there on Saturday November 17th as well (I think my party sat next to #14). I won’t go in to my litany of complaints about the experience but I wanted to add my agreement to everyone’s comments.

    The contradiction between the rigorous reservation system – I was told I HAD to have an exact head count for my party and to be on time – and very poor service/attitudes indicates to me they’re trying to meet sales projections. My tab for three people getting the “high tea” was $77 – $20pp + tax +20% tip – was an absolute rip off.

    I wish I could say that Ms Clayton’s business is in jeopardy based on the above comments accept that the place was full the whole time we were there (although several people at the front seemed to be with some jewelry sellers at the front of the store).

    Getting used to bad, expensive service seems to be something we in NY (it’s not just Harlem) will probably have to deal with for the foreseeable future.

  4. I took my girlfriend to the Harlem Tea Room on Saturday, November 17, 2007 for a post birthday treat. Thank goodness she was patient and forgiving because the experience was one to forget. The wait for tea was twenty minutes and the wait for the food was about 40 minutes. We ended up leaving after an hour of waiting.

    I don’t recommend going here for the ambiance or the food. The service was terrible and even the lack of commitment to providing good service was even less.

    I believe in support Black businesses but not ones who don’t commit themselves to good service.

  5. When I go out, I want to have an experience that is greater than my daily run to Starbucks. I supported the HTR on four occasions, and I cannot say that there was anything memorable. The food was fair. The service was extremely slow (to the point where it took 20 minutes to get a carafe of iced tea).

    On one occasion, Patrice Clayton came in, and I could see that she was indifferent to both customers and staff. She looked stressed out, proceeded to refill water glasses, and completely avoided speaking to our party or even refilling our glasses. We are her contemporaries, and also happen to be black, and the only black patrons in the place at the time, so I found this completely off-putting. Is it too much to say “hello” to ALL of your customers? The place was far from crowded, with only about four tables occupied at the time.

    Yes, customer service is a huge factor for me as well, and I would not patronize the HTR again unless I hear that there is a change. Hopefully Patrice will get it together, and realize that she has a responsibility to hire professional staff, and to learn to treat her customers with more respect.

  6. I think that it’s important to understand that the concept of The Tea Room, is that a of a team room. Customer service is definitely an issue, and if the owner doesn’t send that message why should her employees do any better?

    Then business owner wonder why they don’t have customer or why they are force to close their doors. The number one cause of business failure is customer service, at the end of the day we are paying for a service and will go else where to be treated the way we want to.

  7. #7, Get a grip, the Harlem Tea Room may be in Harlem but do not forget Harlem is IN “New York”, named by the English where the spoken language is “English”, maybe the HTR can see the bigger picture and you cannot.

    God bless the Queen and all those finger sandwiches.

  8. I agree with commenter #7…Patrice doesn’t come across as warm and friendly at all and neither does her staff. That is the type of thing that makes or breaks businesses in black communities. The food can be mediocre but if a customer feels welcomed they will go to the place they feel most comfortable 9 out of 10 times. Just my 2 cents on the issue.

  9. It doesn’t look like the author is trying to be petty for the sake of it in their review. He/She has the right to their opinion on the tea room. I don’t think it would stop be going here as I love tea and scones, I just hope my experience will be a bit better.

  10. 3 visits in 2+ years, never a memorable one. Patrice Clayton(owner) is lovely, but not the best hostess, she’s never striked as relaxed and at joy while tending to her customers, etc. She always seemed to be tense and on edge or something.

    What I don’t get about the place is Harlem Tea room imposes its sense of how you should be having tea or cakes on you. This “High Tea” serving is not a thing that connects with Harlem. Harlem is a place where you want to let your hair down and order what you want, not conform to an Anglo British Cultural norm of appropriateness, proper manners, etc. At the HTR, you don’t have an option, you CANNOT have cobbler or pie or anything other than their menu in the afternoon on the weekends. It’s 2007, we do what we do, if I want a Cup of Coffee or Tea with Peach Cobbler, why can’t I order that? At the Harlem Tea Room, on the weekends, you cannot. If you make a reservation during the afternoon or during their “High Tea”, you don’t make the choice, they do, of what you are served, you are served the traditional, standard, proper, conforming, ANGLO approach to how your noon dining should be. Ridiculous. To me it’s saying you’re not refined, we are, this is what you’re being served, etc. In a nutshell, aren’t we passed adopting to the letter the cultural dining standards of Anglo culture? Their strict “High Tea finger sandwich” Menu is unwelcoming to someone who might want to order cobbler, pie, soup, a normal sandwhich, real food and not what the British instruct us to dine one (finger sandwiches and crumpets).

    I once brought in a party of 6, a 7th person came late, the Waitress of the Tea Room was appalled. They had not a single extra seat for out additional guess. I am referring to a simple fold out chair in the back or whatever, etc. I had to tell the waitress to relax, 1. I will pay the extra $12.50 per head for the High Tea serving, 2. within my party we will adjust our chairs and seating to accommodate this last minute guess who was able to make out reunion. I had to literally chill out the waitress for having the offense of having a last minute unplanned guest. And get this, for that visit? I called ahead, made a 2pm reservation, they actually called me back and asked me if my reservation could be for 1pm. I accommodated them, no biggie, whatev… Them accommodate me? You have to adhere to their thing, otherwise they make you feel that you are out of compliance, that strict protocol,etc.

    That’s the thing with the Harlem Tea room, their strict protocol is not welcoming or inviting to me. The whole place has always felt uptight. The finger sandwiches are uptight, the scones are uptight, the waitresses, and sometimes Patrice herself seems very uptight. This is countered 100% by Melba’s for example. Melba as a hostess? She makes you feel relaxed and at home. I don’t feel I am missing anything by not making the HTR a regular spot. It’s out of town friends that have asked me to take them there, the only reasons I’ve gone. Every time it seems like nothing’s changed to me.

    Again, countered with the not a tony and upscale but still nice “Society”. When I’ve gone in that place, one of the owners, the Black guy with the dreads, he’s gone out of his way time and time again to make sure I and my guess were comfortable with every aspect of being at his place.

    I don’t think the Harlem Tea room has taken well to many Harlemites either, I dine out a lot, locally. I know no one who’s ever suggested a meetup there, etc. it’s a shame. Let’s be honest, if the HTR was connecting with Harlem, it would be talked about. It’s not. Generally the High Tea sitting? Ladies from Mt. Vernon or daytrippers from some other part of Manhattan, that’s what it’s always seemed like. You can tell a lot about a place is the crowd is largely comprised of locals. Never felt or noticed that at the HTR.

    Patrice has her business model, I just feel it’s not well suited to serve local taste and their attitude is no where close to Melba’s or Society’s, etc. (welcoming). For example, that Euro Anglo High Tea I am forced to endure if I want to go there? Scrap THEY’RE cultural customs and taste. I don’t want that stupid finger sandwich! Is that Okay? Let me order a cup of tea and a slice of Sweet Potato Cheesecake. If I were able to do that in the afternoon, I would possibly visit the place,…but not, OUT OF PROTOCAL proper British High Tea. I wanted often to say, Patrice, we’re on 119th St. and Madison, this is not Picadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. You’re crumpets and this other little cookie thing ? cute, now how about a piece of Pecan Pie? at 2pm on a Saturday?

  11. A friend took me to tea at the Harlem Tea Room last year and we had a lovely experience. I had the best-brewed cup of tea I can remember. I can’t say that I can call up every detail of the day, but I do think the scones I had WERE scones.

    The owner was friendly and solicitous.

  12. I don’t know if he wrote to The Harlem Tea Room or not, but I do think we should post thoughtful, well-written reviews from readers when we can. Perhaps someone will post their equally thoughtful, positive review.

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