A review by a renowned food critic mocked Bettys for its clever marketing. Walk past the horrendous queues snaking around the square, listen to the mix of languages among its diners and you might walk straight back out in search of something more authentically local.
Bettys was founded by a Swiss man and is insanely popular with foreigners, but it’s very much a local, Yorkshire institution.
I grew up with Bettys. For me, it’s a place of celebration, condolence and comfort.
It’s where I celebrated end of year report cards in my youth, a driving test pass in my twenties and the arrival of my two sons the decade after. It’s where my father took me for each of my driving tests failures (four afternoon teas for a pass) and to lift my spirits when my second child was sick. It’s a place to mend broken hearts and to make them – I’ve sobbed into my green tea over rubbish boyfriends and was proposed to by my husband with Champagne.
It’s a place for pretending that all is right in the world. No wonder World War II airmen were fans.
Christmas would not be Christmas without Bettys in our family. As children my brother and I would run ruddy cheeked through York’s medieval streets, chasing each other round the giant Christmas tree until our mother beckoned to us to join the queue. We’d tear off our duffel coats and hug steaming mugs of hot chocolate under our little red noses until the chill melted from our toes. If we’d been good we’d find a gold Guinea coin in our coat pockets when we left. If we were naughty, we’d leave with empty bellies.
It’s on my bucket list when I visit home from abroad. An English Sunday newspaper, a walk in the country and tea at Bettys, with a goodie bag of ‘Fat Rascal’ tea cakes to take back to my expat home. Their mail order service is my homesickness remedy by post.
The York tea room has grown over the years, with extra seating upstairs and reservations for afternoon tea now possible, as well as events, including talks by Jo Malone, Molton Brown and the like. Nevertheless its spirit remains the same. Bettys has grown to six tea rooms across Yorkshire, but it would feel wrong to call it a chain.
Perhaps like Disney, Bettys’ magic lies in its efficiency. Word on the Yorkshire block is that staff are trained to the minutiae. When waiters are instructed at which angle to place a teaspoon, there’s no room for things to go wrong.
You might grumble that your fruit cake is a little dry (my father does), that the chicken is a little overcooked (my mother’s complaint), or that the wine menu is not that extensive (that’s me), but I challenge you to fault the service. Thankfully, the Champagne and prosecco are decent and in any case, despite any minor issues with the menu, we all adore Bettys.
Most importantly, and a crucial issue that the food critic overlooked: the tea. I come from a long line of tea snobs and like all locals Yorkshire tea runs in my veins. Let it go on the record: in the 25 years I have been frequenting Bettys, I have never been served a bad pot of tea. Pi Lo Chun Green Tea when I’m a tired, Golden Valley Darjeeling with cake and Tea Room Blend when I’m just glad to be home.
Enough of the hyperbole. Let me reassure you that Bettys is not just for special occasions, but very a part of our everyday lives. To this day if you call at my father’s tailors you will be served Bettys Tea Room Blend tea. If you’re from out of town he’ll understand if you ask for coffee, but you will still be offered tea.
The food critic’s talk of marketing schemes makes me sad. It’s like stubbing the magic out of my childhood as a stupid folly. It’s like claiming Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
Perhaps I’ve fallen for a marketing ploy, perhaps I’m living a fantasy.
Or perhaps sometimes it’s good to believe. And judging by all the pressed up noses along Bettys shiny window displays, I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
To reserve afternoon tea upstairs in the Belmont Room book online or call 01904 659142. For more choice from the à la carte menu, it’s a good idea to arrive early or enjoy another British pastime, queuing. Address: 6-8 St. Helen’s Square, York, YO1 8QP