I love London, and make a couple of forays into the big city each year on the pretext of taking in some culture, seeing the latest exhibition at the British Museum, and walking the pavements in shoes that look the part but give me blisters. Or that’s what I tell people. Really I’m just there for the afternoon tea! Sometimes I even go twice in one weekend, to different venues with different people so I don’t get rumbled. Hubbie would have a fit if he knew in a single weekend I could easily spend £70 on mini cucumber sandwiches, delicately iced cupcakes and quirky aromatic flowering teas. He’d gasp…
But you don’t even like tea?!!
And I’d sheepishly implore…
But it had a flower in it and was called Dancing Dragon!
I guess it’s a girl thing, a world of doilies and fancy trifles, no place for a man. Just as well I have a good collection of girlies to persuade they fancy an outing, not that they need asking twice!
There are literally hundreds of places offering afternoon tea in the capital, so just how do you choose between them? Obviously there’s the high end, historically elegant haunts such as the Ritz and the Dorchester, which are perfect if you have money to burn and like your dainty china tea-cups. These usually start at over £40 per person, and that’s before you decide you want the traditional glass of champagne. Personally I find these spots a little too staid for my tastes, and prefer something a little more contemporary, with luxuriously huge comfy chairs and a fun theme to the afternoon tea menu.
Then there’s the cheaper end of the spectrum at around £20 – £25 per person, which will get you a decent if unadventurous spread in cafes and restaurants all over the city. Perfectly edible, but let’s face it, not particularly exciting.
So I usually go for mid-range and unique tea experiences at some of the top hotels, and haven’t been failed yet! Usually these average at about £35 without champagne (not a problem, I don’t actually like champers, wot wot?!). I love a themed spread as it ties together all the tasty morsels and gives a bit more meaning to it the experience. Some have seasonal menus whilst others are on to such a good thing they remain the same each year. So let me spill the beans on some of my favourites:
Sanderson Hotel – off Oxford Street
The Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea has to be one of my favourites, it’s just so much fun and delectable as well! As the name suggests, it’s based on the bizarre and otherworldly tale of Alice in Wonderland, and guests are invited to ‘tumble down the rabbit hole’ to enjoy their surreal world of afternoon tea.
Arrive early and indulge in one of their colourful cocktails at the impressive ‘Long Bar’ – I can recommend the Scarlet Martini with its fresh strawberries, cucumber, honey water and pomegranate juice. Not forgetting the vodka of course. The Pear and Elderflower bellini wasn’t too shoddy either, or the Orange Velvet Daiquiri, or…
After being seated guests are presented with a secret menu, hidden away inside a vintage book, as well as napkins wrapped up with a paper riddle to solve. And so begins the entertainment.
First up were the infusions, delightfully presented in little glass bottles akin to perfume decanters in a ladies boudoir. Not being a tea lover, for me this part of the experience is always incidental rather than central, but the Sanderson teas are simply the best. I actually enjoyed it and even wondered if I could buy some of it to take home! I chose the rhubard and custard infusion, which is about as far away from a tea flavour as you can get, but it smelled, and tasted just as it’s name suggested. For those with a sweet tooth, sugar cubes are tucked away in a genuine music box complete with ballerina on top dancing to the tune of ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ when opened.
Each eccentric morsel of food is somehow related to the fairy tale. There are whimsical sweets such as marshmallow mushrooms, a carrot meringue, a ‘tick tock’ Victoria sponge, green tea and chocolate mousse served in a chocolate tea cup, and a mango cheesecake slathered in rainbow-decorated white chocolate. There was even a little bottle with a label on saying ‘drink me’. So we did. Still not sure what it was! I loved that the sandwiches came rolled up like catherine wheels instead of the traditional finger soldiers. I’m sure it makes them even more tasty! As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a ‘Jelly Wonderland’ trolley, with an impressive collection of fruit jellies made in Victorian jelly moulds. I can’t stand jelly so gave that a miss, but my fellow tea-goers gave it the thumbs up.
This afternoon tea is so popular (and rightly so) that the menu doesn’t change (although sometimes new seasonal flavours are incorporated). That of course means you won’t miss out if you can’t make it this season! How long do I have to respectfully leave it before visiting again?
One Aldwych – Covent Garden
Ok, so I initially chose this stylish Strand hotel last summer because it had pink battenburg on the menu. That’s gonna do it every time! I was a little dubious about it being served in the lobby, but upon arrival realised it was a rather swish and artistic space, perfect for a couple of hours trying to delicately stuff our faces.
One thing I loved about One Aldwych was that they did iced fruit infusions, perfect for cooling down from the city summer heat outside, and for those of us who actually aren’t keen on tea.
Their menu changes seasonally (this year it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the location of hubbie’s very first afternoon tea!), and each time it’s just as good as the last. Good job I don’t live in London otherwise I’d be making a monthly pilgrimage here!
Another of my favourites, the Chesterfield is a more traditionally English affair, with a lovely garden conservatory and classical music gently serenading diners in the background. A great place to take your mum! This is where I first discovered the delights of flowering tea, and I’m back again this year to see if it was as good as I remember.
It was, and I have to say the lovely Lydia gave us the best service I’ve ever experienced at a London afternoon tea. Nothing was too much trouble, and she even convinced mum to try one of the teas (she likes tea even less than me) and much to her surprise found she actually quite liked it.
This year the theme is ‘Afternoon Bee’ inspired by the 60,000 bees from the hives on the rooftops of the hotel. The platter is laden with honey and flower themed treats like carrot cupcake topped with ginger and honey cream and dusted with pollen, and Rosemary honey macaroons with chocolate ganache.
What I love about the Chesterfield is that they do refills, not only of tea, but also of the food which is unusual for afternoon tea, and although really quite unneccesary, it’s hard to resist just another sandwich or three! They even offered us a doggy bag but we managed to resist, we’re pretending to be posh after all.
Blakes – South Kensington
When you’ve had more quintessential afternoon tea than is needed, it’s good to try somewhere a little less traditional or eccentric. Blakes is a great little underground bolt hole lavishly decorated in red and black, with an oriental theme and quiet cosy corners in which to hide away from the world. The grub was good, even if less adventurous than other places, and presented on plates rather than a 3-tier tray. It was very relaxing not being surrounded by other giggling girls.
Athenaeum – Mayfair
I’ve always wondered what was behind the foliage-draped walls of the iconic Athenaeum hotel, and now I do! Nearly didn’t due to a slight miscalculation on the part of Google Maps but thankfully a couple of cheerful cockney cabbies soon put us right.
I loved the décor and furnishings here, elegant yet supremely comfy, with each table set back behind drapes and alcoves affording more privacy than most places. The tea menu was rather fun, a wooden board showcasing the actual tea to help you choose, and as well as a table laden with all the usual delicacies, they have a sweet trolley making the rounds with even more mouth watering cakes and desserts. At this point I’m wishing I was a cow so I’d have 4 stomachs and could therefore do justice to it all.
Hubbie never comes with me to London. I think the bright lights scare him and he lives in fear of being subjected to afternoons of finger food and posh ladies in hats. But I think I’ve found the answer…the gentleman’s afternoon tea at the Athenaeum complete with mini steak and ale pie, wild boar sausage roll, crispy bacon scones and whiskey fruit cake. Next time there will be no excuses!