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Mari Vanna is a curious piece of old-world Russia on Knightsbridge, a place where regulars pore over newspapers from home and sip black tea from tall glass tankards away from the traffic jams outside. Not one inch has been left unadorned: there are painted tables and cane-backed chairs, ornate dressers displaying Russian dolls and fine china, and old photographs on the patterned wallpaper.
Afternoon tea consists of tasty pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings), vareniki (the vegetarian version, slightly sweet, with cabbage and onion), salted herring and beetroot on rye bread, smoked salmon rolls and, of course, caviar. For pudding there is “Napoleon” cake (layer upon layer of puff pastry and custard cream) and a sweet medovik honey cake served with blackberries and blueberries. While such rich food is not to everyone’s taste, you can’t fault Mari Vanna for authenticity. (£32 per person)
116 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7PJ; marivanna.ru/london/
Champagne + Fromage
This is one for cheese lovers and homesick French people. Our cake stand arrived heaving with rich Roquefort, sweet Comté, blue goat’s cheese, Gouda with cumin seeds and some of the most delicious Brillat-Savarin I’ve ever tried. The top tier had biscuit rose de Reims and a rainbow array of macaroons: pistachio, raspberry, coffee, lemon and hazelnut. The pomegranate white tea is subtle and refreshing; for something richer, try the spicy vanilla chai.
Champagne + Fromage’s small Covent Garden bistro has a laid-back, rustic feel with just six wooden tables, a deli counter and crates of champagne lining the walls – all sourced from small French producers. The afternoon tea comes with a glass of excellent Philippe Dechelle. There is another branch in Brixton Village Market, south London. (£27)
22 Wellington Street, London WC2E; frenchbubbles.co.uk/Champagne-Fromage
Oscar Wilde Bar at Café Royal
Opened in 1865 and more recently named after its most famous patron, the Oscar Wilde Bar has huge gilt mirrors for walls, a rococo-style painted ceiling and a grand piano in the middle of the room. To coincide with a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Harold Pinter Theatre, the chefs have created a new menu “inspired by” the play.
The cucumber sandwiches, I’m told, refer to those Algernon Moncrieff orders for his aunt Lady Bracknell, then eats before she arrives for tea; she herself is namechecked in the “Lady Bracknell lollipop” (chocolate and pale ale flavour). And Wilde’s fondness for absinthe is there in the surprisingly tasty absinthe-flavoured macaroons. But if the menu evokes anything, it’s an old-fashioned Englishness, with a wild boar, crackling and pickled apple bun, a venison and chutney sandwich and scones, lemon drizzle cake and carrot cake – all of which are done to perfection. (£42 or £55 with a glass of Veuve Clicquot)
68 Regent Street, London W1B 4DY; hotelcaferoyal.com
The Modern Pantry
This popular Clerkenwell restaurant does an excellent line in adventurous fusion food and the afternoon tea is no exception. Small, neatly crafted portions are stuffed with unusual flavours, such as the lotus root crisp topped with spicy sweet potato, spinach and hijiki, or the smoked salmon sandwich with avocado and yuzu mayonnaise. This is food to discuss while you eat.
We chose an aromatic Darjeeling and a Nepalese Hile from the “seasonal tea library”. Puddings include a delicious chilli and liquorice chocolate mousse. And with such dainty portions you don’t – unlike after most afternoon teas – leave regretting eating so much. That said, in the same way that the tea library is really a list of teas, the promised “open sandwich” of quail egg, miso and wasabi cream cheese and macadamia nut dukkah is, in fact, the size of a blini canapé. (£19.50 or £24.50 with a glass of prosecco)
47-48 St John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ; themodernpantry.co.uk
Shangri-La at the Shard
This is one of the most generous afternoon teas – never-ending, in fact, as attentive waiters bring more of whatever you have finished.
Opt for the Asian afternoon tea and your cake stands come laden with creamy crabmeat rolls, sticky steamed prawn dumplings and rice paper rolls filled with sweet, crunchy vegetables. The scones are chamomile-flavoured and delicious with mango jam, and the Ginseng Oolong tea is sweet but subtle.
But the main reason to take tea on the 35th floor of the Shard is, of course, the view. We sat at a table looking over Tower Bridge, past Anish Kapoor’s “Orbit” observation tower in the Olympic Park and out to the flatlands of the Thames estuary beyond. (£54, or £62 with a glass of champagne)
31 St Thomas Street, London, SE1 9QU; shangri-la.com/london
More (alternative) tea …
At Mark Hix’s chicken-and-beef redoubt, Tramshed, afternoon tea consists of a “cock or bull” sandwich, a slice of cake and a Dalston Iced Tea. (2pm-5 pm, £14.50)
The Sanctum Hotel in Soho divides tea along gender lines, with a Gent’s Afternoon Tea boasting a spread of oysters, steak, pasties, whisky and even a cigar. (£50)
BRGR.CO in Soho is liberally doused with calories: sliders, fries and doughnuts, washed down by iced tea. (£17)
For tradition mixed with tourism, you can board an old Routemaster for BB Bakery’s classic afternoon tea taking in the sights. (£45)
The Magazine Restaurant in Kensington Gardens has just launched a Japanese-style tea of lobster and yuzu mayo brioche, sake and more. (from £25)
London’s Afternoon Tea Week, August 11-17; afternoontea.co.uk
Photographs: Daniel Jones