London: Afternoon tea with a twist

Science afternoon tea at the Ampersand © The Ampersand Hotel

Science afternoon tea at the Ampersand © The Ampersand Hotel

Afternoon tea is a British institution, but it can sometimes feel a little stuffy. There’s only so many cucumber sandwiches you can take, after all. Fortunately in London there’s no shortage of ingenious reinventions, so we’ve rounded up a selection of the capital’s most original tea-time treats for your perusal…

The London Edition: Scandal Water

Scandal Water afternoon tea at The London Edition © 2017 EDITION Hotels

Scandal Water at The London EDITION © 2017 EDITION Hotels

Since opening to great fanfare in late 2013, the London Edition has established itself as Fitzrovia’s swankiest address, thanks to the unmistakable fingerprints of hotelier and Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager. Behind its imposing Georgian façade is arguably the most impressive hotel lobby in London; a cavernous space somehow made to feel clubby and warm, despite its lofty proportions. Equally dramatic is the modern British Berners Tavern restaurant, whose every last inch of wall space is covered in gilt-framed paintings, creating a glamorous, gallery-style atmosphere.

It’s all a far cry from the venue for Scandal Water, an innovative take on traditional afternoon tea. At the back of the hotel, the oak panelled Punch Room offers a library-like vibe in which to savour the flavours of this tea-focused alternative, which features five meticulous pairings of food, punch, and fine teas, chosen by founder of the Rare Tea Co. Henrietta Lovell and Berners Tavern executive chef, Phil Carmichael.

Punch Room © Nikolas Koenig / London EDITION

Punch Room © Nikolas Koenig / 2017 EDITION Hotels

The term ‘scandal water’ was 19th century slang for tea, supposedly because it helped fuel an afternoon’s gossiping session among the upper classes, who needed something to fill their long, employment-free days. Now the ritual has been revived with a contemporary slant, featuring a small-plates spread fit for any high society powwow. Three of the five pairings can be selected per person, so you can easily experience all five if there are two of you or more.

Savoury choices include the smoked ham hock with green tea jelly and cornichon, served with Cold Ruby punch and pale gold Emerald green tea. On the sweeter side, there’s an almond, lemon and rosewater cake matched with Toledo Punch and a robust English peppermint tea, or pineapple tatin with clotted cream paired with Meriton Latroon’s Bantam Punch and rich Keemun tea from Anhui Province in China, which is roasted over charcoal using traditional methods. The menu is tastefully restrained and you’ll leave your table sated rather than stuffed to the brim, but if you’re looking for an out-of-the-ordinary culinary distraction, it doesn’t get more civilised than this.

Scandal Water is available every Friday, Saturday and Sunday with seatings between 3pm and 4pm, at £35 for the choice of three pairings.

Punch Room at The London EDITION, 10 Berners Street, London, W1T 3NP

Taj 51 Buckingham Gate: Sherlock Holmes afternoon tea

Sherlock Holmes-themed afternoon tea © Taj 51 Buckingham Gate

Sherlock Holmes-themed afternoon tea © Taj 51 Buckingham Gate

Across the capital, single-minded sleuths have ample opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes. If you’re a fan of the enduring Conan Doyle character, start with a pilgrimage to Baker Street. The famous house at 221b can actually be found between no.s 237 and 247 and is now a museum filled with authentic furnishings and period knick-knacks. Follow up with a pint at the Sherlock Holmes pub, with its recreation of Holmes and Watson’s study, then drop in for dinner at Simpson’s in the Strand; Sherlock’s favourite restaurant.

But only at the luxe Westminster all-suites hotel Taj 51 Buckingham Gate can you partake in a Sherlock Holmes-themed afternoon tea. It’s a refined, gentlemanly affair at this heritage property, and something the erstwhile Victorian detective would surely approve of. The experience begins with an optional whiskey cocktail from Taj’s Classic Cocktails Reinvented Series, followed by a range of booze-infused treats inspired by Sherlock’s perplexing mysteries. Highlights include the Watson’s Moustache Stout cupcake and a 221b macaroon imbued with 25 year-old Scotch, as well as a pile of freshly baked scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam. The savoury choices takes their cue from the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, and come with finger sandwiches and a Baker Street chicken breast and ale gravy pie, all accompanied by endless cups of Lapsang Souchong or another classic tea of your choice.

Sherlock Holmes afternoon tea

Sherlock Holmes afternoon tea © Taj 51 Buckingham Gate

Despite the culinary creativity, it’s the attentive service and thoughtful details that really lift this afternoon tea above the ordinary. Tables are adorned with Victorian accoutrements, and the deerstalker tea cosy and magnifying glass serving ‘spoons’ add a touch of whimsy to proceedings. Add to this an exclusive location close to St. James’s Park, and you’ll find no finer London address in which to sit back and polish your Holmesian powers of deduction. Elementary, we say.

The Sherlock Holmes Afternoon Tea costs £35 per person and must be booked 24 hours in advance.

Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites & Residences, 51 Buckingham Gate, Westminster, London SW1E 6AF

St. Ermin’s Hotel: The Mini Gardener afternoon tea

From distinguished detectives to the British Secret Service: our next afternoon tea venue is the venerable St. Ermin’s Hotel. Opposite New Scotland Yard, this glorious former mansion block lies moments from government offices in Whitehall and just across the river from MI6. During the Second World War, the Secret Intelligence Service used the top two floors of St. Ermin’s as their headquarters, and there’s even rumoured to be a secret tunnel connecting the hotel to the Houses of Parliament.

Stately St. Ermin's, a hotel steeped in history

Stately St. Ermin’s, a hotel steeped in history

But while history seeps from every doorway, this luxury Victorian property is by no means stuck in the past. Today, St. Ermin’s is firmly focused on sustainability and wildlife, providing a second ‘hotel’ for more than 300,000 Buckfast honey bees on a third floor terrace, and fresh produce for its restaurants from a rooftop kitchen garden.

Taking inspiration from the latter is the new children’s Mini Gardener afternoon tea, served on a summery, white-picket-fenced ‘lawn’. Like its classic grown-up counterpart, it comes with a variety of seasonal sweet treats including a chocolate and caramel ‘flower pot’ and a perfectly formed apple mousse, as well as a vanilla sponge St. Ermin’s tomato and a chocolate teddy bear. Add to this a Mud & Bloom gardening pack with organic seeds to take away, and you have the perfect afternoon treat for the green-fingered little ones in your life.

The St. Ermin's Mini Gardener afternoon tea

The St. Ermin’s Mini Gardener afternoon tea

The Mini Gardener afternoon tea costs £15 and must be booked alongside an adult’s tea. It’s served in St. Ermin’s Tea Lounge or al fresco on the summer terrace overlooking the hotel’s courtyard, and is available every weekend and during school holidays, between midday and 6pm.

St. Ermin’s, Caxton Street, London SW1H 0QW  

The Ampersand: Science afternoon tea

Science afternoon tea at the Ampersand © Amy Murrell / The Ampersand Hotel

Science afternoon tea at the Ampersand Hotel © Amy Murrell / The Ampersand Hotel

A few minutes’ stroll from the Natural History Museum and the V&A, the elegant Ampersand sits in the heart of London’s cultural zone, making it the ideal spot for a post-museum pick me up. The hotel comes with impeccable Victorian credentials, and takes its design cues from the highbrow themes of botany, music, geometry, ornithology and astronomy. But it’s the nearby Science Museum which inspires its most popular experience: a slightly bonkers science-themed afternoon tea now firmly established as a kids’ favourite.

The ritual takes place in the rather dashing Anglo-French-style drawing rooms, lavishly decked out in a sea of cherry reds and peacock blues. It’s an uplifting space, with light flooding in through large bay windows and a giant marble table loaded with cloche-covered cakes – just the spot for one of the capital’s most eccentric tea-time experiences.

Ampersand © Amy Murrell

Brush away the chocolate soil to reveal your mini dinosaur shortbread and a milk chocolate fossil © Amy Murrell / The Ampersand

As for the food, it’s a part-trad, part-futuristic affair, with nods to several different branches of scientific discovery. The usual suspects are there of course – finger sandwiches and homemade scones – but its the sheer inventiveness of the pastries that take the (mini dinosaur shortbread) biscuit. Think test tubes of freeze dried toppings, squeezy tubes of honey toffee, petri dishes, dry ice, and a mocktail served in a laboratory-style beaker, and you’ll get the idea. There are chocolate spacemen and spherical cakes with planetary rings, as well as a milk chocolate fossil which must be excavated from its box by brushing away a sprinkling of chocolate “soil”. Budding archaeologists and chemists will be in their element, and those accompanying them will be equally enchanted.

Science afternoon tea at the Ampersand is served from 2.30–5.30pm and costs £37.50 per person. A vegetarian option is also available.

The Ampersand Hotel, 10 Harrington Rd, Kensington, London SW7 3ER

La Suite West: Vegan afternoon tea

Vegan afternoon tea at La Suite West © La Suite West

Vegan afternoon tea at La Suite West © 2017 La Suite West

A stone’s throw from Hyde Park, La Suite West occupies a white stucco terrace in a neighbourhood famous for its elaborate 19th century architecture. But despite the traditional exterior, fussy Victoriana this is not. The Anouska Hempel-designed boutique hotel is a temple to monochrome minimalism, and its Japanese-influenced interiors are an antidote to the area’s constant buzz.

As a backdrop to the hotel’s wellness theme, the pared-back tone is spot on. La Suite West is home to top contemporary vegan restaurant, Nosh Garden Kitchen, where every meal contains no preservatives, additives or dairy products, and more than 90% of the menu is raw and gluten-free. An all-day dining menu features a line-up of vitamin-packed ‘bowls’, but it’s the vegan afternoon tea that draws those in search of a delicious-yet-healthy treat.

Served in the dining room or on the smart garden terrace, this wholesome version of the British tradition is as pretty as any of its rivals, despite the more modern presentation and lack of gimmicks. Flatbread sandwiches are well balanced – BBQ tempeh and rocket salad, cashew nut cream cheese and sundried tomato – and warm fluffy scones come with a pile of fresh strawberries and coconut ‘cream’. The platter of vegan cakes are a particular triumph, especially the raw chocolate brownie, and in lieu of Champagne are a couple of fruity mocktails to choose from as the hotel has a no alcohol policy. And if that’s all too virtuous, never fear – there’s strong Italian coffee for those of us who still have some vices.

La Suite West

Garden Terrace at La Suite West © 2017 La Suite West

The vegan afternoon tea is available for £29 per person, plus optional £6 mocktails.

La Suite West, 41-51 Inverness Terrace, London W2 3JN

Best of the rest

Still need ideas? There are plenty more options for an original afternoon tea across the capital. Wizardry fans will love the magical Potion Room downstairs at Soho bakery Cutter & Squidge, whose secretive School of Wizarding Alchemy is currently offering a delicious afternoon tea wrapped in mystery – you’ll have to book the two-and-a-half-hour experience for yourself to find out more. The glamorous LaLit near London Bridge serves High Chai at renowned pan-Indian restaurant Baluchi. Como Halkin in Belgravia offers an inspired Basque afternoon tea featuring savoury tapas and chilled Spanish Cava. And a long-running London fave is the Mad Hatters afternoon tea at Sanderson off Oxford Street, which which includes a host of Alice-themed delights.

Visit our new London destination guide for more things to see and do in the capital.

About Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.
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