High tea at the Westcliff Hotel

by Jeanne on August 23, 2007

in Restaurants - South Africa

20070623_westcliffteamenu As I have mentioned, I recently went home to sunny South Africa for my father’s birthday.  Never one to miss out on dining opportunities, I had also arranged to stay in Johannesburg for a night on the way down so that I could see some friends and (with a bit of luck) try out some local eating and drinking venues.  As the more observant among you have already guessed from the title – we went to high tea at the Westcliff Hotel. This is one of those iconic Things To Do in Joburg that I somehow never got round to doing in all my trips up there while I lived in SA, kind of like people who live by the sea never going to the beach.  But when I made plans to spend a day to spend in Joburg, this is the first thing that leapt to mind. 

The Westcliff Hotel has become something of a Johannesburg institution.  It certainly occupies one of the prime viewsites in the northern suburbs, cascading down a hillside above the Johannesburg Zoo.  The site was originally occupied by the Westcliff Flats, a gabled building later renamed Murray Gordon Mansions which became an old age home.  However, neglect led to the building being vacated and demolished in 1975, after which the site stood vacant for years.  In 1993 the land was acquired by developers who planned 8 upmarket cluster houses.  BUt they misjudged the market  and the completed homes stood empty for two years before being acquired by the Orient Express Group, which converted the property into the Westcliff Hotel.  Why am I telling you all this?  Because otherwise, when you arrive, you will think that the place is bonkers – which is exactly what I did.  It looks nothing like a hotel, apart from the pith-helmeted staff who come to greet you at the gate.  Once through the gate, you are basically at the foot of a hill in what looks like a townhouse complex. Which now, having read the history of the place, makes perfect sense! 

After being whisked up the winding road through the hotel’s buildings (each cluster house seems to have been divided up into a number of suites) you finally arrive at the top of the hill at the restaurants.  We were seated in the conservatory off the Polo Lounge, overlooking the pool terrace.  Sadly, the pool had been drained for repairs, but you still had that glorious view over zoo and some of Johannesburg’s most expensive real estate.  Perfect.  The service was very professional and it was only a matter of minutes before our charming waiter had brought us menus – which we didn’t really need as we all knew we were going all out for the full high tea experience.  And what did this include, I hear you ask?

20070623_westcliffteacakes 20070623_westcliffteacremebrulee Well, where shall we start?  The price includes unlimited warm beverages (various teas, coffees and hot chocolate) and a gorgeous little tiered silver stand of edible goodies between two people.  On the day we visited, we had:

  • mini cucumber sandwich
  • mini tuna sandwich
  • mini chicken mayo sandwich (all sandwiches were excellent but this was my favourite)
  • a mini custard-filled choux bun (lovely and light, but I’m not a fan of eclairy stuff)
  • a practically flourless square of brownie-like biscuit (sinfully, bitter-chocolate delicious)
  • a scone with cream and a selection of jams (fresh, fluffy and excellent)
  • a little mini custard tart topped with three boozy cherries (hands-down my favourite thing.  Sublime pastry, creamy custard and mmmm, those cherries…)
  • a skewer of fresh strawberries with a little ramekins of dark and white chocolate to dip it in (what a fab idea!  Although the white chocolate was a little sweet for my taste)
  • a ramekin of coffe-flavoured creme brulee (oh my word.  Fabulous – also a hot contender for favourite of the day)

I also managed a few excellent cappucinos while I was there, although given the exuberant mood of the party I do wish there had actually been an option to have a glass of champagne with your tea for a small surcharge ;-)  Four of us spent two very happy (and sometimes rather raucous!) hours catching up, and for the pleasure of these cosseted surroundings, excellent beverages, attentive service and some rather wonderful nibbles, we paid R95,00 each.  Given current restaurant prices in SA, I suspect you could pay a lot more for a lot less.  And if you are paying in foreign currency it is ridiculously cheap (£6.40 or $12.70!).

But the best thing is that you fly into Africa, with visions of mayhem beamed into your subconscious by the media and family members, and then and in a place that is so sumptuously first-world – yet at the same time very obviously in Africa.  Now that makes my heart sing.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Pille August 23, 2007 at 11:54 am

Sounds absolutely wonderful! I’ve been to high tea just once – with Johanna at the Brown’s Hotel in London, and really enjoyed that. I hope I’ll have another high tea opportunity soon:)

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kat August 23, 2007 at 12:33 pm

i love high tea at the westcliff! when i was working in jo’burg i usually went there with friends who had come home from the uk for their annual summer visit – as you did. (my favourite thing then was the smoked salmon – usually presented on little crumpets!)
now that i am working overseas, your evocative post has reminded me of this, and the next time i’m home, it will be high tea at the westcliff along with a big catch up with friends.
ps – next time try the cocktails poolside. nothing like a maitai as the red sun goes down behind the westcliff ridge, with that view over the vanishing edge pool towards the fab new lion enclosure at the zoo to really remind you of the quirky beauty of contemporary africa.

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Kit August 23, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Sounds great and so decadent! It sounds a lot more delicious than the teas I sampled once or twice at the smart London hotels. Cape Town’s equivalent I guess is the Mount Nelson, except we went for the breakfast there. Tables and tables of everyuthing from freshfruits of all description, cereals and yoghurts, pastries, breads and preserves and of course a cooked breakfast counter, where they cooked your eggs to your precise requirements in front of you. I haven’t been since our trip here from the UK for our wedding, it’s not something you do so much when you’re living here!

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Belinda August 23, 2007 at 10:09 pm

Those little tarts with three cherries on top look fabulous! I just discovered your blog, and I am going to slowly read all of the archived posts…I am fascinated by South Africa, having lived in Cape Town for three years as a child…lucky you to be able to call it home and have your family living there as well. :-) What an astoundingly beautiful country, to say the least!

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beenz August 24, 2007 at 6:32 am

I love Kat’s phrase ‘contemporary Africa’, that sums it up beautifully. Being met by men in pith helmets is so colonial, and yet theres no apology made for that anymore. People are through making apologies and the country surges forward as the cultures meet and bring out the best in each other. And what a multitude of vibrant cultures we have!
I shall definitely ‘do tea’ at the Westcliff the next time I am in Jo’burg!

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Pia August 26, 2007 at 5:49 pm

Sounds absolutely delightful! The best, by far, afternoon tea experience I’ve had was in ZA but in Cape Town, at the Mount Nelson Hotel. Extremely well-made, so very delicious and lovely in every single way!
The one at Reid’s Palace, Funchal, Madeira wasn’t half bad either, with a gorgeous view overlooking the cliffs and the Atlantic ocean:)

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The White House For Tea Inc September 10, 2007 at 8:54 pm

The White House For Tea Inc

Hmmmm, not sure if this improves the taste of the tea or what. The person who li

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Shaleen McLaren April 27, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Please could you confirm that your High Tea is R95 per head. I would like a booking for 22 ladies on the 16th May.
Look forward to hearing from you.
With Kind Greetings,
Shaleen McLaren
0828801799

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Maru October 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Hi, been there a few days ago but was a bit disappointed by the service and taste of cakes and sandwiches which I found quite common for such a place. When we arrived we had to wait quite some time at our table (10-15 min) before someone explained to us what was the afternoon tea.
I had an other experience at the Mount Nelson in CPT which was much more upmarket than the Westcliff: professional & fast service, piano music, beautiful afternoon tea in the garden.

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