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Hush 

Whilst 2016 was the year of brunches, 2017 is set to be the year of afternoon tea. Don’t worry though, there’s still plenty of brunching to be had and reported. But to whet your appetite…

Afternoon tea is an odd custom – originating amongst the English wealthy classes in the 1840s… i.e. people who had nothing better to do. Sweet little cakes, sandwiches with the crusts cut away, and absolutely no biscuits.

Nowadays afternoon tea is taken to mark a special occassion, usually at an upmarket hotel, rather than an every day observance. And there’s plenty on offer across London. To celebrate a friend’s birthday, we decided to try an afternoon tea with a ginny twist at Hush Mayfair.

Served in the bright and airy yet sumptuous upper dining room, upon arrival you’ll be served with a gin cocktail involving berries, and you’ll be brought the teas to choose from. There were 5 or 6 on offer, all sourced because they go well with gin. There are non-alcoholic options on offer, but you’re paying for the gin really.

Shortly after you’ve polished off the gin cocktail, the food and tea itself arrives – a tea stand packed with sandwiches (smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise, cucumber, and chicken open sandwich on ciabatta bread), plain and fruit scones, several different types of jam and macarons. It’s not too heavy but equally you probably won’t need dinner afterwards.

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And finally, your gin cocktail of choice arrives – these look small but, believe me, they are potent. All named after characters from children’s literature – harking back to the tea parties a small girl might host with her teddy bears and Barbie dolls – I went for the Tinkerbell… I can’t resist absinthe. And we all left full of tea, full of cake, and decidedly ginny. An afternoon well spent.

(Girls: don’t miss the ladies’ bathroom – it’s an incredible powder puff pink experience…)

Bill’s Christmas Lunch

I’m not one of these people who thinks chain restaurants are a stain on society. I actually think they are pretty useful – sometimes you just want a quick bite somewhere easy where you don’t have to book a table. Some are obviously better than others, and after having a brief stint of working in Cafe Rouge during a summer between university, you’d have to pull a fast one to get me in there. But Bill’s is definitely one of the best. Bill’s began in Brighton and due to its phenomenal success (down in the most part to an eclectic and reliable menu) it’s now expanding all over the country. When I lived on Hoxton Square, I always passed on the queue at the Breakfast Club in favour of a cheaper and equally satisfying full English brekkie at Bill’s!

Christmas lunches are notoriously difficult to organise – you want to go somewhere with good food, a nice atmosphere and where you won’t be too rushed so you can linger over champagne and exchange gifts. Last year, my friends went for something different and enjoyed champagne afternoon tea at The Marylebone Hotel, which was delightful. This year, we wanted to have a more traditional turkey dinner, and after weeks of research we settled on Bill’s at Clink Street for its central location and relatively low cost three course menu. We gave our meal choices in advance several weeks before (luckily the Chief Organiser Eve, kept a list of what we all chose because we had forgotten by the time the meal came around! I definitely suggest other Christmas Meal planners do the same! The Bill’s team even took a photocopy of it so they could make sure everyone got the right food.)

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Throughout the afternoon, the Bills staff were cheery and attentive. To start, I opted for the soup which I thought would be the smallest option, but actually it was amazingly thick and filling pumpkin soup with two pieces of toasted sourdough. That would have about done me for lunch!

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However, no matter how full I was from the soup, I absolutely had to make room for my first turkey dinner of the season, complete with all the trimmings! The turkey was rich and tasty, and rather than cut into strips (which can sometimes make it a bit stringy) it was in parcels wrapped with bacon – a delicious variation on a traditional Christmas dinner. I’m pleased to report the food was hot! There’s nothing more disappointing that a lukewarm roast dinner which is warmed up with the gravy.

And finally for dessert, I went a bit rogue and ordered the cheese plate. I’ve been half-heartedly trying to cut down on my sugar intake. Sadly I failed to factor in the fact that I would only like one of the cheeses, and it didn’t come with any crackers which was a bit disappointing.

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But that was the only negative for the whole day – my glass was always full of wine and we had a lovely time sharing stories and presents. I’ve eaten at Bill’s plenty of times now and it’s one of those restaurants you can always have up your sleeve, but this Christmas lunch has firmly cemented it in my list of go-to good meals. Thank you Bill’s.

Vista

Post-birthday brunch at Kopapa, I had made the mistake of assuming the English summer weather would hold out for me and I could watch the afternoon go by sipping sangria on a rooftop somewhere overlooking London. On this particular Sunday, all the trains were running like clockwork, and I guess it was too much to ask that the weather stay sunny and glorious for us too (although, annoyingly, it had been beautiful all week whilst I’d been stuck at the office).

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Vista at The Trafalgar was my chosen rooftop. Trafalgar Square has always been special to me (see my previous post), and I’d wanted to go to Vista since seeing it on a certain staged-reality TV show which shall not be named (mainly for my reputation’s sake… it was several years ago, in my defence).

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The Vista rooftop is quite large, with some more private sections as well as a bigger communal deck. The edges of the deck which directly overlook Trafalgar Square and offer panoramic views of Horseguard’s Parade to Westminster are lined with high stools so you can sit and watch the hustle and bustle below whilst enjoying a drink. There are also larger tables with comfortable cushioned chairs, which is where we were placed. Myself and 6 friends opted to share the sangria – the drinks are expensive here, but I guess you can’t expect anything less at such a prime location.

IMG_4976Rain rain go away, come again another day…

We had a good few hours sipping sangria and pretending the sky wasn’t so ominously grey, but eventually the heavens opened and, despite persisting under umbrellas, we were asked to move to the ground level bar (bye bye views) when the rain didn’t ease up. The lifts are a psychadelic experience with rainbow-spectrum neon lights and patterned mirrors on all surfaces. We were given a nice table in the middle of the bar downstairs (although I don’t know what would have happened had it been busier) and proceeded to get raucously drunk for a Sunday. The perfect end to a wonderful birthday celebration… and even if I can’t remember the last couple of hours, it was pretty exciting to get up close and personal with Lord Nelly!

IMG_4986Photo credit: Amy O’Donnell

Claridges

Sometimes it’s nice to feel special. To do something which has the sense of the unobtainable – like you’re punching above your weight in life. London is full of grand old hotels and houses and restaurants; places where the lookyloos are kept at bay and the lucky few can pass some time away from it all. For many people, including a large selection of my non-native friends, this is everything they hate about London. It’s selective and it’s exclusive and it looks down its nose at you.

Indeed, the exclusiveness and high profile of some of these places has been their downfall, in that their not seen as “cool”. If your Nan went there when she was your age, why would you want to go there now? There’s a hipster bar in Shoreditch calling your name. But, it’s my personal opinion that this sense of continuity and heritage is very important in a place like London. London embraces change far more quickly than other metropolises, but somewhere like Claridges barely changes. The gilded revolving door (which you actually have to push), the sweeping staircase, the great vases and cushioned armchairs – how long these fixtures been here? How many people have pushed that door, and what awaited them on the other side? A mysterious rendezvous, a meeting of old friends, a secret?

That’s what Claridges is to London – a fixture. A constant. And part of me wanted to go there just to say I had! Yes the cocktails are expensive but the devoted service is second to none, and you’re made to feel important. It’s perfect if you want to give your evening a sense of occasion, which is lovely when you consider how commoditised and everyday dining and drinking out can feel nowadays.

Champagne at ClaridgesChampagne cocktails and cheese straws. Credit: Emily O’Connor

When we arrived there were no tables available in the bar (Claridges has two bars and we selected the lighter and more casual of them), so we were seated on plush high stools and doted on as the barman prepared our champagne cocktails. To our delight, when a table did become available we were informed and swiftly moved, with no prompting on our part – it was such a nice feeling to be remembered by the host and moved. I’m not saying it’s not expensive – don’t go here if you’re after a cheap tipple – but I have no doubt they used the best champagne, the most premium raspberries, and the cleanest vodka that money can buy in making it. And it was delightful. Make sure you don’t miss out on the cheese straw nibbles on the tables as well – they are so moreish and flaky… definitely the best cheese straws I have ever had.

Ham Yard Hotel

Ham Yard conservatoryThe Ham Yard Hotel

Perhaps I just have a thing about non-traditional meal times. I have structured my life around breakfast, lunch and dinner (plus the occasional midnight booze-fuelled binge) so eating a meal – not just a tide-me-over snack – at some other time of day feels like I’m breaking the rules. Ooh, you rebel, you. And, since moving back to London after university, I’ve discovered the indulgent pleasure of afternoon tea.

The Ham Yard sounds like some kind of butcher’s market. You don’t really hear the word “yard” used that often in British English for an open space – it’s a measurement of length. So, surfacing from Piccadilly tube station into the throng of tourists and traffic, I wondered what might await me at the Ham Yard. Piccadilly is one of the busiest places in London – the circus is quite small and yet it’s a tourist attraction in itself. London’s somewhat meagre answer to Times Square and where the royals meet shopping meet theatre land. I have to say it’s one of the few places in central London where I don’t like to dally – it’s too busy. But it is a very useful meeting place and jumping off point for Soho.

Ham Yard barChoose  your poison at the Ham Yard bar

Ham Yard was bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II and only recently refurbished by the Firmdale Hotel operator. It appears to be a bit of a theme in Soho to cause the visitor to actually forget that they are in Soho, and the Ham Yard is no different. If you enter the courtyard of Denham Street, you suddenly leave behind the gritty back alley feel and then step into clean, glossy restaurant where a well-stocked bar and dapper hosts greet you. The restaurant has several “zones” – we were seated in a plush booth in the main room with high ceilings and dark wood tables, but there’s also the glassy bar area and the cosy conservatory, where you can enjoy your afternoon tea lounging on large sofas as the sunshine streams in through the glass ceiling.

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The basic afternoon tea is £19.50 and provides a phenomenal amount of food. For savouries, we had a selection a sandwiches, a cheese and onion tart, ham hock, and (my favourite) poached salmon on rye bread. And then, the sweets! This tier of the tower was piled with macaroons, posh bakewell tarts, a pistachio cream slice, and then 3 speciality cakes which you can either share or each pick your favourite. I had the cupcake, which was filled with toffee and topped with frosting and edible flowers. I love edible flowers!

Ham Yardafternoon tea

And finally the scones – you get three each – what?!? – one currant, one plain and one raisin, paired with clotted cream, raspberry jam and strawberry jam. It was an absolute mountain of food, and we were all stuffed! You could also add some extras to your package – the crushed tomatoes on toast, smashed avocado on rye and the chorizo sausage roll caught my eye but I don’t know how you could possibly have room.

smilesandteaSmiles and tea! Credit: Emily O’Connor

We weren’t rushed to finish – which is a good job since we needed half an hour rest between the sweets and the scones and jam. We had champagne with our tea which was dutifully topped up by a bubbly waitress – although all the wines and champagne were quite expensive; a mid-price bottle would be a good addition to the selection. My only negative comment on the whole experience would be the lack of choice on the tea menu – only an English breakfast, a Darjeeling or an Earl Grey are included in the price of the afternoon tea package, and if you want anything more interesting there’s an additional charge of £2.50. I’ve been for afternoon teas before with a much larger selection, and even been allowed to switch my tea choice half way through. You need a good mint tea to settle after all that food! However, everything was delicious and, since we were there to celebrate an upcoming wedding, the beautiful chic surroundings but complete lack of haughtiness made it an ideal choice.

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