Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Toast and tea

I've just realised that I'm acquiring one of the signs of old age. No, not greying hair (although a few are sprouting in my beard), but I find that, when I'm out shopping, I have to stop somewhere for a breather. It's one of those things I never understood as a child or teenager: when shopping in the 'big city' with my parents, about 3.30pm we would begin the obligatory search for a cup of tea, usually in a grand department store. Now, older, possibly wiser, but with feet that definitely want to rest up once in a while, I understand.

Maybe it is just nostalgia, but I still like nice cafes in big stores. They somehow seem less frenetic and more of a treat than Starbuck's (and, in any case, we're looking for tea, here). They are something of a dying breed, of course - both the stores, and their cafes. Many of those which have survived have become plastic and soulless, but there are some exceptions: the 'Top Floor' restaurant at Peter Jones still does an afternoon tea, with great views over this part of Chelsea as an added bonus. If you're in Piccadilly and you've money to burn, there's the Parlour Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, serving famously sumptuous cakes and ice-creams. (If you've serious money to burn, there's always tea at the Ritz, of course, but I'm getting carried away here). If your budget is more modest, then Patisserie Valerie may be a better bet, and the cakes are still creamy and tempting.

There are also nice tea-shops still around if you know where to look. One of my favourite experiences was at The Louis Patisserie in Hampstead. This wonderful Hungarian tea-shop (such cakes!) is a real institution, and the perfect place to rest tired feet after a long winter's walk on the Heath, or after some select shopping in Hampstead's maze of lanes. We went in after looking for mushrooms on the Heath, and we entered carrying a fair collection (most of which were not edible, but it still looked impressive), much to the astonishment of some of the other patrons. I guess the sight of raw, wild mushrooms doesn't really go with pastries and Earl Grey.

If you're in Brighton, the wonderfully-named Mock Turtle comes highly recommended. It's lost a little of its old-world charm after a recent re-fit, but the quirky service, chintzy surroundings, toasted tea-cakes and all the paraphernalia of proper tea (no tea-bags) are still there, and make it a great favourite. If you're desperate for another cuppa on arrival back at Victoria, the Thistle Hotel has the Grosvenor Lounge for tea and cakes, and the adjacent Club Bar if Southern have been playing up and you need something stronger...

It's almost worth going shopping just to have an excuse...

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