It is a Sunday afternoon in December: teatime, to be precise. Nimble waitresses pour tea into porcelain cups, bubbles dance in champagne flutes, and a well-dressed clientele nibbles on finger sandwiches, agonising over whether jam or clotted cream should take precedence on warm scones. The air of conviviality is heightened by the gentle tinkle of a grand piano.
Then, neglecting neither trill nor glissando, the beautiful blonde at the piano deftly removes most of her clothes. As she reaches her grand finale, little is left to the imagination, and the sandwich eating – especially among the male members of the audience – becomes decidedly distracted.
This is Voluptéa, a unique fusion of American-style burlesque and the quintessentially British notion of afternoon tea. Held weekly in a subterranean venue near Chancery Lane, Voluptéa (£42) is a pioneer of the “new wave” of afternoon teas now held in venues all over London. It is a far cry from the genteel meal beloved of tourists and foot-weary shoppers; and, although the scones and sandwiches are impeccable, some of the teapots actually contain cocktails: one is a heady blend of lapsang souchong and dark rum.
Co-founder Denise Farrell admits to some difficulties at the start, especially persuading men to turn up. “The guys were petrified: they didn’t understand burlesque at all. In the end, I went and offered them huge discounts to come along.” Nowadays, at least a third of her customers are men.
For the connoisseur of afternoon tea, London’s hotels and restaurants now offer more choice than ever. You might try the Mad Hatter’s Tea (£35) in the courtyard of the Sanderson hotel, where guests are invited to “tumble down the rabbit hole” and enjoy exotic potions labelled “Drink Me”. Or there’s the tea and crumpets menu at Hix in Soho (from £6.75), where choices include a Welsh rarebit fondue and crumpets topped with cream and raspberry jam. Or you might fancy what the St John Hotel quaintly describes as a “Little Bun Moment” (£10): three buns, one with anchovy butter, one with prunes and one chocolate, paired with a special blend of tea. But what all these teas have in common is that they are aimed at a young, fun crowd: take your partner, not your maiden aunt.
According to Henrietta Lovell, evangelist for proper tea and owner of The Rare Tea Company (motto: “Debagging Britain”), the new style of afternoon tea in London is partly a throwback to the original way that we drank tea. “In Georgian times,” she explains, “tea was very expensive and was treated with great reverence. It would be kept in a locked box, used very sparingly and brewed twice. The food was paired with the tea, not the other way around, and it was often quite simple: bread and butter, for example. In Japan, that is still how tea is enjoyed: nobody drinks matcha – finely milled green tea – without a small sweet to balance the bitterness.
“Even when we started to import cheaper teas from India and Africa, scones and clotted cream would be eaten with a strong black tea. The ‘dairy overload’ style of afternoon tea is quite recent: managers at some of London’s top hotels have told me that people often cancel dinner after they’ve had it.”
Why, though, has the new style of afternoon tea become so popular? Lovell thinks that we are rediscovering a lost art. “Tea is a perfect, intimate way to meet somebody. And you get to go somewhere beautiful without the time it takes to have lunch or dinner.”
For restaurants, there is another imperative. High overheads mean the all-day offering – breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner – is more widespread: put simply, bums on seats at all times of day are vital to a restaurant’s health.
It is not, however, simply a case of knocking out cucumber sandwiches, microwaving scones and trying to “upsell” champagne: afternoon tea is a highly competitive business. Customers are becoming more knowledgeable about tea, too: like coffee and chocolate, it is recognised as an artisanal product that deserves more respect than simply dunking a bag in hot water. Single estate, hand-picked teas now feature on many restaurant menus, supplied by specialist companies who train staff to brew and serve them correctly, and several restaurants and hotels – Corinthia, The Lanesborough, The Langham – even employ tea sommeliers.
And, while many tea aficionados might be happy with Earl Grey, there are other, rather grown-up, drinks on offer, too: specifically, tea cocktails. At Hix, cocktail guru Nick Strangeway has devised a range of drinks that include specialist teas from The Rare Tea Company: one blends Hedonism grain whisky with Lillet Blanc (a French apéritif) and an infusion of black tea. He serves it with thinly sliced buttered toast and marmalade.
Strangeway also combines tequila with jasmine tea, “with a little lime juice and a dash of agave syrup. It’s like a long lemonade: very refreshing, and perfect on a spring afternoon.” He sees tea as “a great weapon in the barman’s armoury, and it’s very traditional, too: early versions of punch were often topped up with tea.
“The trick is not to over-infuse it. With green tea, I just pour hot water over the leaves to open them out, then top it up with cold water and leave it in the fridge overnight: that way you trap all the floral aromas but you don’t extract too many of the tannins.”
In the beautifully restored bar at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, The Gilbert Scott serves splendid tea cocktails – one blends white tea with pear eau de vie, caraway-scented kümmel and orange zest – alongside Mrs Beeton’s cheese butterflies, miniature Eccles cakes and peanut caramel choc ices in a little silver bowl (£29): remarkably, it is becoming increasingly popular with French guests en route to the Eurostar.
At The Mandeville Hotel, just north of Oxford Street, fashionistas can indulge in Zandra Rhodes’s Iconic Afternoon Tea (£26.50), served on her fine-bone-china designs for Royal Doulton, with meringues the same shade as her shocking-pink hair. Her memories of afternoon tea, though, are rather different. “I grew up in Chatham in Kent, and we used to have a fish tea on Sundays, with winkles and bread and butter. We’d toast crumpets in front of the fire and eat them with Marmite, and when I came up to town with my mother, we’d go to the Lyons Corner House for tea.
“It’s so quintessentially British, afternoon tea: the Americans can’t make tea at all. My favourite companion for tea was Barry Humphries, dressed up as Dame Edna. And Divine used to love tea, too, and would complain that I didn’t have enough time for it.”
Rhodes – whose favourite tea, by the way, is “a nice cup of lapsang souchong, with milk” – is not the only designer to have been inspired this tradition. At The Langham Hotel, where afternoon tea has been served in its Palm Court for more than a century, their latest offering (from £49) has pastries themed around jewellery designer Stephen Webster’s latest femme fatale-inpsired collection, Murder She Wrote. Katie Benson, managing director of The Langham, likes to keep ahead of the game. “Afternoon tea is so firmly embedded in London’s dining culture it has never really gone out of fashion,” she says, “but the recent resurgence can largely be put down to the creative twists on offer.”
Afternoon tea may be frightfully British, but that has not deterred restaurateur Mourad Mazouz from serving it at Momo, his Moroccan restaurant in Mayfair (£22). There are scones and clotted cream, strawberry jam and fig jam, but also cheese-stuffed briouats (crisp pastries), rosewater macaroons and Berber-style crêpes, filled with nuts and honey. And, of course, there is tea: sweet mint tea, Moroccan style, if you want it, and plenty of other types. “In Morocco,” says Mazouz, “tea is really an all-day thing: there are always cakes and tea on the table. The Momo tea is really a fusion of that idea.”
Back at Voluptéa, the tea drinkers and scone eaters are enthralled by a woman performing acrobatics in a giant hoop suspended from the ceiling; the waitresses, unperturbed, top up the pots and brush away the cake crumbs. There is something very surreal about the scene, and, like all the other new wave afternoon teas on offer in London, there is something wonderfully, eccentrically British about it, too. The sun may finally have set on the Empire, but at least, when the clock strikes four, everything still stops for tea.