Tuesday 24 March 2015

tea in the afternoon

As somebody who actively enjoys eating cucumber sandwiches (white bread, no crusts, decent butter, semi salted) and drinks enough daily cuppas to bathe in, it may come as no surprise that afternoon tea floats my boat. I can think of nothing better than whiling the best part of the day away, the quintessentially British way; over a smorgasbord of sandwiches and dainty treats, the chink of china and the idle flow of chitchat. Real decadence with a hint of bygone times. Although it can be a little girly and twee, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in recent years afternoon tea has been thrust firmly into modern times with eclectic twists on the stalwart ingredients and a healthy addition of booze. Ahh booze. Prosecco and champagne, or cocktail themed teas, get the party started in ways the early 19th century society gal could only imagine. Something one of my best friends knows only too well, as she recently treated me to an awesome tipsy gin fuelled tea as a birthday treat (see Mr. Fogg's below).

It’s fair to say that London certainly has no shortage of afternoon tea hotspots to suit all tastes and budgets – from the famously deluxe opulence of the Ritz, to Time Out and Groupon’s seemingly continuous stream of deals and 241’s, luring in punters desperate for something last minute to appease Mum on her birthday. But be warned, no two teas are the same! The variety is certainly broad but so is the quality. Trust me, cucumber sandwiches can be made so wrong. And there is nothing worse than forking out for stale sarnies and substandard sponge... Price is also something to take into consideration. You can certainly get some good offers, but if you want a filling tea it's sometimes better to pay a bit more and plump for the continuously refreshed option, such as at the Ritz or the St. Pancras Ren, where you can stuff yourself silly.
To avoid potential tea pitfalls, I have pulled together some of my tried and tested favourites, perfect for a range of tea partners, scenarios and pockets. Chin chin.

Something diff: Mr. Fogg’s Tipsy Tea

I think the key to quirk is to highlight one particular theme or ingredient. If you go too mental, you run the risk of turning afternoon tea into something else altogether, or even worse, a weird version of lunch. In that case, you may as well just go for lunch in the first place. There seems to be some awful bastardised 'lads' tea out there involving pork pies and doorstep sandwiches. I like a pork based snack product as much as the next bloke, but there's a time and a place people.

No, stick to the traditional parameters of afternoon tea (sandwiches, cake, liquid) but with a fresh spin and you can't go far wrong. Like at Mr Fogg's house, an elegant time traveller's drinking den tucked away down an inconspicuous side street in Mayfair, where teapots of gin or champagne infused tea cocktails accompany dainty towers of treats in novel surroundings. Watched over by an array of accoutrements from taxidermy to vintage maps (supposedly sourced by Phileas Fogg on his travels), whilst a pianist tickled the ivories, we opted for the 'bottomless' choice (£58 pp) which got us through three generously sized teapots each of a range of super sweet gin based drinkypoos. Our favourite was the Woburn Abbey, a refreshing mix of English breakfast tea-infused Tanqueray No. TEN with crème de bergamot, lemon juice and bee pollen sugar. The combo of the booze plus the custard and chocolate rich cakes and pastries made for an intense sugar hit, that was almost too much to handle and certainly left me craving the sandwiches more than the sweets. I think next time I would opt for the single teapot option (£38 pp) and perhaps pick a more savoury drink to have afterwards, like a G&T, so I could eat more cake! Best for drinking buddies with tons to catch up, this tea will certainly leave you tipsy by the time you come rolling out...

More to try: Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea at the Sanderson (from £38 pp), Prêt-à-Portea at the Berkeley (from £41), High Chai at Cinnamon Soho (from £20)

 Pure decadence: The Wolseley

For a great British afternoon tea in the old tradition with a touch of class, you can't go far wrong with the luxurious setting of The Wolseley, resplendent in it's black and gold art deco finery. The atmosphere is refined yet lively, service snappy and special yet you don't need to worry too much about smart attire or speaking too loudly; just relax and soak up the experience. Aaaaahhh. Ideal for nattering and people watching, you're also bound to catch a celeb or two in there, especially if you go during the week. Last time we saw Billie Piper and Laurence Fox with kids in tow (impeccable table manners FYI). Tea is served daily from 3pm, and it's a traditional affair with a lovely selection of perfectly turned out sandwiches, scones, cakes and teas, which keep getting replenished, and all at a very affordable £23.75 pp. A memorable special treat for any best mate, mum, gran or other half. Prepare to get your brownie points well and truly doubled with the Wolseley option.

More to try: The Ritz (from £55 pp), Claridge's (from £55), The Dorchester (from £49), The Goring (from £42.50)

 Cutesy: Betty Blythe

Chintz, cupcakes and a voluminous vintage dress up box; you can't get sweeter than Betty Blythe's in Hammersmith. Available to hire for large parties, as a group of eight ladies we had the Twenties themed basement boudoir, replete with retro photo frames, feather boas, long gloves and beaded headdresses all to ourselves for a few flippin' great hours... The food is tasty, simple, home baking done well. Think cucumber, cheese and ham sandwiches, dinky brownies and bitesize cupcakes with Earl Grey tea in prettily patterned cups and saucers. Betty Blythe's caters for all palates and ages, and is a great spot for baby showers, hen do's and children's parties - and at £22 pp for a traditional afternoon tea you'll leave feeling like a flapper on wings.

More to try: Stoke Newington Tea Rooms (from £23 pp), Bea’s of Bloomsbury (from £24.50), Bake-a-Boo (from £18.50)

 Shopaholic's delight: Liberty's

Afternoon tea bookended by shopping. Feminists look away now! However there are surely worse things in life, and if you do want to punctuate trawling the streets of the big smoke for glad rags with a creamed scone or three, then why not rest in the welcoming, and rather jazzily patterned, embrace of Liberty’s of London. Good for a pit stop, the buzzy café housed within the iconic black timbered Liberty's department store, serves a gutsy afternoon tea to keep you sustained throughout your day. Hearty scones, generous sarnies and a range of thirst quenching teas. On our visit we found some clingfilm in our smoked salmon, but even that didn't dent the mood. At £36.95 for two people, we each got a large, floor standing tier of goodies to ourselves (really enough for three) so certainly didn't feel short changed. The good news with shop or attraction cafes is that they often don’t get booked up far in advance, and tables get turned quickly - so your chances of walking in and securing a table for afternoon tea are high. Just be prepared to go up a dress size afterwards.

More to try: Fortnum & Mason (from £40 pp), National Portrait Gallery (from £24.50), Selfridge’s (from £21.95)

 The modern classic: St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Sometimes you find a place that just ticks all the boxes. The St Pancras Ren is such a place. Beautifully designed, with a calm and restful ambiance where time appears to stand still, afternoon tea is taken in the Hansom Lounge where we decide to treat Mum for a special Mother's Day. It's a large, spacious, light area with high backed comfortable armchairs that manage to give a feel of privacy to your table. This is a good looking tea, no doubt about it. Sandwiches were things of beauty, designed in different shapes and featuring yummy artisan beetroot bread, brioche and cranberry bread. Continuously refreshed, I can't imagine how many I ploughed through, but it was a lot. Fresh sumptuous scones with cream and jam and a huge variety of patisserie; this is definitely a tea you could bring a real man to, and he would leave feeling full and in no way emasculated. The service was always attentive and friendly and we felt in no way rushed or pushed. We could have sat there all day and night - and nearly did!
Classic tea is around £35 pp and there's also a tea inspired cocktail selection if you want to up the alcoholic ante. Our teatime easily spilled into early evening time and as darkness fell outside and the lights came up inside, we felt blissfully happy and ready to start on the pre-dinner drinks... A tea to remember.


More to try: Dean Street Townhouse (from £19.50 pp), The Modern Pantry (from £22.50), The Orangery (from £26)