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
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.
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
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.
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
Cutter & Squidge: The Genie’s Cave afternoon tea
Formerly the ‘secret garden’ for its popular Hello Kitty afternoon tea, all-natural London bakery Cutter & Squidge has transformed its subterranean dining room into a dazzling Genie’s Cave, complete with colourful stalactites and glittery rock walls encrusted with gold coins, marbles and jewels. The Brewer Street store launched its latest themed tea earlier this year, and it’s proved so popular the planned run has been extended until the beginning of 2018.
Founded by a pair of entrepreneurial sisters, Annabel and Emily Lui, the bakery has built a reputation on the back of its signature ‘biskie’, which they originally sold at London markets before supplying to the likes of Selfridges and Harrods. The handmade desserts – a combination of biscuit, cookie and cake sandwiched with buttercream and other fillings – now line the counter of their standalone shop, which has provided the pair with scope to broaden their baking ambitions.
Afternoon tea is a case in point, with the diminutive venue providing a more intimate setting than other nearby options. The Genie’s Cave experience begins the moment you walk down the stairs, where an overflowing treasure chest marks the entrance to the purple-lit space. Once seated, the magic starts in earnest. Freshly brewed tea is served in burnished genie-lamp-style teapots, and a meringue-topped glass reveals a swirl of raspberry, mint and pomegranate, finished with imported Iranian candy floss known as Pashmak. Savoury scones are filled with roasted peppers and feta cheese, while the eye-popping range of sugary treats includes a raspberry and rose tart sprinkled with pistachio ’emeralds’. It’s all quite exquisite, but the best is yet to come: an amazingly light vanilla sponge with strawberry filling and orange glaze, and a showstopping Golden Treasure chocolate biskie, covered in 24 carat gold. Indulgent, yes. But all of it is baked with reduced fat and sugar, relying only on natural ingredients for maximum flavour.
The Genie’s Cave afternoon tea runs until 31 January 2018 and costs £29.50 per person.
Cutter & Squidge, 20 Brewer Street, Soho, London W1F 0SJ
The Ampersand: Science afternoon tea
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 boasts 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.
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
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.
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. Chocolate fiends will love the Charles at the Chesterfield afternoon tea in Mayfair (until 20 November 2017), which includes a specially blended chocolate tea and a selection of colourful confections, while 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 will be adapting its menu to bring a few Christmas-themed treats to the table.
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