A new take on tea

Emma Vuletic
Thursday, September 18, 2008
High tea at the Haymarket

That old British tradition is undergoing the most delicious transformation this side of 18th-century Versailles.

Henry James got it right. "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." In London, that agreeable hour has recently undergone a beguiling transformation with hotels, bars and restaurants shining up their teaspoons and getting creative with their cakes. After a week of intensive research, (six high teas in seven days left a certain writer reeling) we bring you the freshest afternoon teas in the English capital, from the luxe to the laid-back.

The Haymarket Hotel

Opened late last year, the Haymarket Hotel has a traditional afternoon tea in anything but traditional settings. Kit and Tim Kemp's tea chest of treasures, the latest in their empire of Firmdale hotels, offers no shortage of aesthetic surprises. Here, William Morris-inspired prints and wallpapers sit cheek-by-jowl alongside bold contemporary art. With some of the best scones in London, this is the most dynamic place to slurp back a traditional brew.

If you're feeling aquatic, or just plain daring, then sit by the neon-illuminated designer pool complete with a pewter bar. Prefer to hide? Then sink into the comfy armchairs in the guest-only library where you'll find a rather charming honesty bar stocked with charming wines. For 40 pounds ($90), you'll enjoy a range of freshly baked morsels, delightful cocktail sandwiches and a glass of champagne.

Champagne Bar, St Pancras

Weary travellers fresh off the Eurostar will do well to take stock at the world's longest champagne bar at the newly transformed St Pancras train station. Suspended above the rail tracks and looking down on the hoi polloi, the bar's champagne tea is a most delightful way to say hello to London. Beneath the 19th century William Barlow-designed dome you'll enjoy tea, sandwiches, cakes and a glass of Pommery Rose NV for 19.50 pounds ($45). If you really want to shell out, then a bottle of $4000 Bollinger will do the trick.

The Dorchester

It always helps to know what rules you're breaking, so a trip to the Dorchester is a must for those serious about teatime transgressions. Instead of afternoon tea in the Grand Promenade, head to The Bar for the chicer, later tea. Introduced late last year and proving rather popular, the 33-pound ($75) affair will have you sipping along with Russian tycoons and bowtie-suited gentlemen. Heavenly pastries — peach clafoutis; fennel brulee with raspberry — exquisite Dorchester-branded champagne or an espresso cocktail will calm even the most harried of nerves.

The Berkeley Hotel

Go on. Have a fashion moment while you sip tea. The whole of London society seems to be doing just that at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge. Naomi Campbell's favourite digs, and winner of Travel and Leisure's Best Service 2008, the Berk does an exquisite Prêt-à-Portea – roughly translating as a fashionista's psychedelic trip (except replace the psychedelics with the wildest cakes this side of 18th century Versailles). While the Christian Dior pink chocolate bikini biscuit seemed a tad pornographic, the Victor and Rolf pink grapefruit mousse with violin accompaniment (all edible) was music to the tastebuds. At 43 pounds ($97) and up, this is one tea you'll want to enjoy gateau by gateau.

Mandeville Hotel

At the Mandeville Hotel, afternoon tea has become a masculine affair. In short, ladies aren't allowed … and no apologies at that. Served each day between 3pm and 5.30pm, this men's afternoon tea includes crab and shrimp sandwiches, double-chocolate brownies and a choice of whiskies to ensure a most gentlemanly experience. Starting from 22 pounds ($50), ladies may be tempted to dress up in disguise.

Maison Bertaux

If you want to go where the hipsters take tea, then head to Soho's Maison Bertaux, (or Maison Boho) a charming shabby-chic French teahouse with recently expanded tearooms. Fresh pastries, éclairs and croissants made daily decorate the front window, while artists, fashion designers and writers go about the ritualistic ceremony of waiting, pouring and straining. Check out the just-opened Shop at Maison Bertaux downstairs, filled with such follies as Sonia Rykiel and APC. Tea and fashion — you may even conjure the spirit of Marie Antoinette.

Capital Hotel

With the recent opening of the Levin Hotel right next door to the much-loved Capital, guests can now enjoy a lower-room rate, shopping at Harrods' (only 100 metres away) and a first-class tea. With a dedicated tearoom right next door to the Michelin star-winning Capital restaurant, you can pick and choose from a charming range of cakes, scones and sandwiches delicately set out on a silver stand.

Where's your top spot for teatime?

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