Forget staid scones. Go to the right London spot, and you're more likely to be served green-tea-infused scones or tea-smoked salmon squares with Japanese yuzu mayonnaise.
It's a sign of the tea times in London, where a new tribe of modern teahouses adapts menus to the supply of seasonal produce and the city's international culinary influences. Perhaps the most dramatic change is the address.
Previously, afternoon tea meant a journey to Piccadilly Street in London's West End for a table at The Ritz, but popular central and east London spots are taking the caffeinated tradition to new realms.
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In London's foodie enclave, Soho, Dean Street Townhouse has pioneered the modern tea experience, available from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Pastry chefs present refined versions of typical English fare like sausage rolls and Morecambe Bay potted shrimps with sweet grainy breads. It's a treat just to sit in the dining room, whose original 18th-century woodwork gets a bold kick from furnishings in saturated color -- a cardinal-red leather booth here, a soft seafoam-green high-back chair there. An established tea spot, The Wolseley, got a funkier sister restaurant over in Covent Garden, with the opening of the Art Deco Delaunay in 2011 -- bringing afternoon tea culture to a neighborhood that badly needed it. Legions of sparkling glassware glow beneath low lighting in a room furnished with deep banquettes, mahogany wood, and antique wall clocks.
The Delaunay champagne tea ($46) persuades many locals to splurge. Daily service is from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., and highlights include house-made strawberry jams and clotted cream, served with an icy flute of Pommery Brut Royal NV.
But the biggest splash comes from Modern Pantry, whose head chef, Anna Hanson, trained under culinary stars like London's Fergus Henderson and Peter Gordon. Her light and simple afternoon tea menu, offered between 3 and 5 p.m., features not only a retinue of organic teas, but also inventive cocktails like tamarillo caipirinhas and galangal-infused vodka with apple lemonade. Crustless cheese sandwiches are replaced with roasted tomato and herb-marinated feta squares.
In the summer months, a young and stylish clientele occupies a sprinkling of tables and chairs outside Modern Pantry that look on to London's quiet St. John's Square. Why not drop in for a round of tea?