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Opinion

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

In a recent Guardian Blind Date, the two hapless souls ate at the Sanderson Hotel in London, which reminded me of a mortifying, excruciating experience I’d had there years ago. I didn’t have time to go into it then, as I was working on my next book, but now I do, so here is the sorry tale.

The Sanderson Hotel is in Berners Street, London, and enjoyed a period of huge popularity upon opening in 2000, when it became the go-to haunt for the era’s expensive handbag and watch-sporting celebs in their Noughties fashion, worn like a curse of things to come, with hordes of paparazzi at its entrance, snapping away at them.

By the time my friend and I came to it, in 2011, other hotels had opened, stars had waned, and any vestigial coolness was restricted to its air conditioning units. And yet it was still a destination of sorts, as places that charge too much for too little usually are. We were there for afternoon tea; we were going through one of our “phases”. We have known each other since we were around 14 and have enjoyed many a fad or obsession together: sushi was big for a few years, or our regular pilgrimage to awfulmazing champagne bars marvelling at everyone’s terrible surgery. Another phase was ridiculous afternoon teas, like we were a couple of old grandparents and not in our mid-thirties, unwittingly kissing goodbye to our prime. We’d had them all – Connaught was a particular favourite, we went loads – and decided to try the Sanderson’s one as it had made a few write-ups in the nationals. It was, I remember, Alice in Wonderland-themed, which was a little bit cringey, but reviewers had eulogised it to such a degree, we thought it might be worth a look, so one Sunday in September, we took ourselves along. We were living our lives to the fullest – her father was dying of cancer and she was staying far from home, abroad, for her work. The weekends she returned were crammed with lifetimes’ worth of fun. I’ll write about it all one day, but let’s get back to the Sanderson.

I just found my original complaint email and, I’ll be honest, it’s officious as hell, albeit polite and direct, but it did bring it all flooding back. They lost my booking and they told me they needed 24 hours’ notice to serve afternoon tea, the waiter was so rude and imperious it was almost admirable, and the food itself was, frankly, deeply unlovely and stale. My favourite line in the complaint is the ludicrous “We moved onto the scones and encountered another disaster” – seriously why am I like this? What a tool – and it must’ve been good because it got a response from a member of the management apologising profusely and offering us a complimentary afternoon at the hotel, including a bottle of Champagne! Perfect! I thanked them for their generosity and, as luck would have it, my friend was back in London that very weekend; could we come then? I confirmed the booking three times, just to be sure.

Aaron Spelling Productions/ABC

When we arrived, the maitre d’ couldn’t find our booking at first, and the manager I’d spoken to wasn’t there, but eventually our details were located and we were shown to our table, in the hotel’s restaurant, which was very glitzy – think Tanya Turner from Footballers’ Wives marrying a lottery winner and you’re just about there. We pored over the menu, our eyes bulging at the cost of everything. Were they sure about this?! Nevertheless, we ordered starters, main courses and, of course, that bottle of Champagne. The service was swift and gracious – we assumed they knew we’d complained previously and were ramping it up a little – and the meal was delicious. We winked at one another as we clinked glasses, rejoicing that our horrible experience had been mind-wiped and replaced with this amazing, glamorous one. Here’s to us! And London! And l’amour! And being free on a Friday so we can do this!

As we dabbed at the corners of our mouths with napkins, to liberate the past crumbs of our marvellous, moneyed puddings, we wondered what to do next. Cocktails! We threw them back like they were Listerine and not twenty quid’s worth of elite grog, our shy, appreciative smiles becoming contagious giggles. And then… well, it was over, so we sat there for a while, wondering what to do. It was free, so, like, do we ask for the bill? Do we just… leave? We began to get nervous. No managers had been over to check everything was OK, we realised; did the waiters know we weren’t paying? We sat, panic rising, for a good 45 minutes, going through every scenario. Catastrophising, rationalising. We decided to ask for the bill, assuming we would maybe have to pay for the cocktails, which was fair enough, but that everything else would be cancelled out or put through as a special offer or something. Then the bill arrived.

So many numbers to the left of the decimal point. I can’t remember how much now, but it was untold sums that would make even Jeff Bezos shift uncomfortably in his seat. Nothing was free. If anything, everything seemed five times as expensive. The service charge alone was the GDP of a developing nation. And thus began the mortification, each stage like being gutted with a breadknife over and over. We had been exposed, found out as fakes who couldn’t afford to be there, chancers who didn’t belong with the rest of the gold card-waving, clumpy-nostrilled gang. We explained to the waiter, who looked at us like we were diagnosing him with a terminal illness and made us repeat what we were saying countless times – possibly because he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He knew nothing about it. Nobody did. Managers were summoned, each one more baffled and distrusting than the last. The final one crouched down at our table like he was telling off two toddlers, and asked me to explain again, really slowly. I got my phone out to show him the email – from the “director of food and beverage” no less – and he scrutinised it, scrolling this way and that, eyes aflame with incredulity. Some parts he read out loud, as if trying to convince himself, but it was there in black and white: “I would like to invite you and a guest to enjoy a complimentary afternoon as well a bottle of our Champagne” (sic). At last his eyes flicked from the screen and back to us, his expression one of leaden defeat. “Fine,” he whispered sharply. “You can go.” Then he scurried away in fury, clutching the small silver plate and the unfurled bill, leaving us sitting there terrified and ashamed. It was, looking back, fantastic. A true moment. We left in silence, trembling, before the liberation the comes with a sky without ceiling made us erupt into laughter – awkward and stifled at first, as the embarrassment kept hold, but soon developing into loud, raucous screeches. Why did this stuff always happen to us, we cried. Which gods did we anger? And what would the karmic payback be for this stroke of luck?

It wasn’t until later I realised there was a reason our freebie had caused such a stink. The email from the hotel, this very senior member of staff, had been missing one key word: “tea”. We’d been invited back for afternoon tea, not “an afternoon” and that happened in a completely different restaurant, and would’ve been hundreds of pounds cheaper. Oops. Sorry, Sanderson.

For the sake of my mental health, I have not been back to the Sanderson since.

2 Comments

  1. VERY funny. But surely you must have realised at the time that when you complained about a tea party, you would be offered an afternoon tea?! Seemed obvious to me. But of course then you couldn’t have gotten a glorious free meal – so you HAD to misunderstand the poor guy. Anyway, hat was great fun to read.

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