Afternoon tea. Tricky thing isn’t it? Not so much the actual consumption because that, after years of full on, fine china training, I’m quite au fait with. Tiny sandwiches, petite cakes, warm scones and teacups pillaged from Downton? Yep. Totally on board with all of that.
No, the tricky thing is finding good afternoon tea, something that’s worthy of your hard earned pennies & treasured free time. A brisk Googling of ‘afternoon tea in London’ will see nearly 25 million hits pop up faster than you can ask ‘one lump or two?’ so when my gorgeous sister V and I were looking for somewhere suitably fabulous but not completely wallet draining to celebrate my birthday, the choice was vast and the word ‘overwhelming’ used on more than one occasion.
Luckily, I can report back that there is indeed a place out there that will treat you like a queen and cater to every one of your champagne tastes but on your lemonade budget…the Soho Hotel. Centrally located off Dean Street, this hotel is one of eight in the Firmdale’s London family and while it’s a mere tiptoe away from the relentless Soho hustle, stepping inside feels like entering the sanctuary you didn’t know you needed until that very minute.
If your idea of heaven is patisserie on a plate, get ready to enter the promised land…
The sun was shining, the skies were blue and an appetite for the most lengthy & ladylike of lunches was about to be sated. The first surprisingly lovely thing was to discover that we had an entire drawing room to ourselves…
While the restaurant was pleasantly buzzing with the usual crowd of immaculately-groomed-but-looking-like-they-woke-up-that-way Soho media suspects, a gorgeous space had been set aside just for us two ladies to drink fizz and clear a cakestand in.
Unexpected? Yes. A lovely start? Yes.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no illusions that this was a result of a) exceptionally kind & thoughtful staff and b) the advantage of doing things mid-week as opposed to on the weekend when the whole world is out and looking for a good time but it was still a pretty delightful way to start the afternoon, even if I did have to restrain myself from taking a spin round the room on the library ladder a la David Tomlinson in ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’…
Service from the first gracious hello to the final sincere goodbye was outstanding.
Not just good, not merely acceptable but really first-class.
After the costs, which in London for a cup of tea, a dainty sandwich & a scone you might need a magnifying glass to see can verge from ‘so-so’ to ‘say-what?!’, the second potential pitfall of afternoon tea is that there are so many and they are all set menus & prices so sometimes you can be made to feel a little like a second-class citizen.
You’re not going a la carte, you’re not there to spend the paycheck you’ve not yet received and ahem, already earmarked for new shoes, you’re just there for nice food & a catch up with friends but the unfortunate & outdated sniffy snootiness of some places means that you’re often made to feel as though you don’t really matter, well not while there are deeper pocketed people to fawn obsequiously over anyway.
The Soho Hotel can breathe a sigh of relief because that’s not a problem we saw here. Genuine, respectful and with a real willingness to do everything in their power to ensure we enjoyed our afternoon without ever lurking awkwardly at the door or encroaching on our space, the staff were utterly charming when explaining the menu, suggesting favourite teas and most importantly of all, bringing tall flutes of cold champagne to us thirsty dames.
Apart from being excellent value, especially given its bulls-eye location, at £19.50 for classic afternoon tea or £24.50 for champagne afternoon tea, the other main reason we chose the Soho was the menu. Can we just be honest for a minute because I want to ask you a question and I want you to answer truthfully…
Do you like cucumber sandwiches? No? Me neither!
Honestly, does anyone like them?! I love cucumber when it’s ribboned in salads or diced in with wholegrains but in flimsy, translucent slices that simper all over your bread turning it to mush? Nope, sorry. Not on my watch.
So now that the cucumbers of the world are either sobbing quietly in the corner or plotting my demise the next time I’m in the market, let’s turn our attention to what was on offer here instead.
A still warm & squidgy, bread-crumbed goats cheese & sun-dried tomato lollipop, a slider-sized brioche bun filled with wafer thin, horseradish dabbed rare roast beef, a slice of spicy, meaty, flaky-pastried chorizo sausage roll & the eponymous but more-than-acceptable finger sandwich with pieces of soft smoked salmon inside..the savoury layer of this tea was a million miles away from the sad limp crustless visions of your nightmares and if it had been a tea full of nothing but these scrumptious morsels washed down with pale gold bubbles, I’d have been one happy birthday girl.
Fat and crumb flecked yes, but oh so happy.
Scones were served wrapped in a snowy linen cloth to keep them warm as they too were fresh from the oven. Two plain and two generously studded with juicy raisins, all were crumbly and well sized. They weren’t so big that you couldn’t face the other desserts – she types snorting to herself that THAT could ever happen – but they also weren’t gone in a single mouthful and they came with pots of glossy raspberry and plump strawberry jams as well as richly yellow clotted cream. You don’t want to be slayed by an afternoon tea made for giants but you also don’t want it to be over in 15 minutes because let’s face it, it’s as much about the experience as anything else.
Sweet delights included a tiny tiered, cream cheese frosted & walnut sprinkled carrot cake, a square of blissfully silken centred & strawberry topped brownie, a glass pot of classically summery Eton Mess and that most vintage of teatime treats, a cupcake adorned with swirls of vanilla buttercream, fat blueberries & a single, gleaming blackberry.
Elegant, stylish & fun, this was a menu that more than matched its surroundings…I mean come on, look how happy tiny treats make us?
The ultimate way to make anyone feel extra special is to do something a little unexpected and out of the ordinary so when this plate was presented at the end of our tea, it was the most charming of touches. Cocoa macarons, plump clouds of marshmallow and the crispest of cream filled, berry topped meringues were presented with grace and sincerity making me extra glad we’d picked the Soho and particularly happy I’d not worn anything without an inch or six of extra give at the waistband.
I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate people I adore on their special occasions with afternoon tea in some of the world’s most captivating locations and I know that when all you want to do is relish a little time away from the outside world with folk you love, spending a lot of time and money isn’t always what you want or can afford.
The Soho Hotel proves that actually, you don’t need to leave a kidney/child/pedigree pooch as part payment and you don’t have to have blue blood to be treated like you do. All you need is a setting that frees your inner Lady Crawley, staff who actually want you to enjoy yourself and company that makes your shoulders drop and the tension of life leave you.
Oh and cakes. Always cakes.