Do you ever find yourself in that situation where you discover something and wonder how you hadn't known about it before? That's what happened to me a couple of weeks ago when my friend M had a stopover in town on her way from Tokyo to Düsseldorf. I was wracking my brains trying to think of somewhere to take her when I decided to do a bit of Googling for inspiration. Narrowing my parameters to Soho, Covent Garden and Piccadilly (nobody wants to spend a stopover trekking around town) I saw a couple of references to Soho's Secret Tea Room. At first I ignored them not realising this was the actual name of the place and then I did a little bit more digging. Here, apparently, was an old-fashioned tearoom in a hidden room above one of Soho's most traditional pubs. Why had I not heard of it before? How long had it been there? Was it any good?
With so many questions there was only one thing to do: book a table and bloomin' well go and do some hands-on research. My hope before arriving was that I could show my friend a proper English afternoon tea. Not the kind of thing you get in big fancy hotels and department stores where she was more likely to be surrounded by her fellow Japanese countrywomen than ordinary London folk, but the kind of afternoon tea that real Brits enjoy; the kind of repast you remember having at your grandma's or your great-aunt's when you were a kid. In short, my holy grail of afternoon teas.
At first I wasn't sure I'd made the right choice. As we went into the old boozer with its selection of colourful Soho drinkers I was a little worried this may be a slightly-too-authentic experience for her. My feelings weren't assuaged as we were shown behind the bar and up the stairs. Having grown up in pubs this brought back all sorts of memories for me but I could tell that M was wondering where exactly I had brought her. But as we entered the tearoom all my worries evaporated. A beautiful old room with bare floorboards, dark wooden tables covered with lace tablecloths, cream walls with chimney-breasts painted a rich inky green, old fireplaces and sash windows with billowing lace curtains - it was just perfect. It really felt like sitting in your aunt Nellie's parlour - but not a posh aunt Nellie; this would have been the kind of room that was kept for best and used only on an occasional Sunday. It was exactly what I was hoping for. The abundance of cakes set out in the room and the languid 1930s jazz playing over the stereo only helped to give the place a truly lovely atmosphere.
We both decided to plump for the Traditional Afternoon Tea for £14 which included sandwiches, scones, a slice of cake and cupcake of our choice, accompanied by a pot of tea made with proper leaves. It was all choices, choices, choices so we decided to spread our bets and go for different things so we could try as much as possible. The sandwiches were egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon and cream cheese and, of course, cucumber. I have to admit to being a little bit disappointed by them. We were the first people there, having to have our afternoon tea at lunchtime as M wasn't in town for long, but already some of the sandwiches were feeling a bit soggy. The fillings were tasty but really quite meagre and in the case of the egg mayonnaise seemed scarcely thicker than a good spread of butter. I know these kind of very delicate sandwiches are in keeping with the "austerity Britain" feeling of the tearoom but I do think you can take these themes a bit too far. Having said that the smoked salmon sandwiches were really delicious and at the very least these savouries served as a bed on which to lay the linen of the sweet-stuff to come.
By this stage we were really reaching sugar saturation point. Thank goodness we had a big pot of tea each to help wash it all down. I went for a Russian Caravan, as is my wont, and M went for the more traditional English Breakfast tea. Both were excellent and our friendly, white-aproned waitress was very forthcoming in her offers to top up our pots with hot water. I managed to drink the contents of two large teapots which might sound like a lot but we spent a good three hours gorging ourselves that afternoon and in the scheme of things that felt entirely reasonable.
What a wonderful afternoon we had. A truly lovely space, which I discovered is also the setting for Private Eye's infamous long-lunches, and some really great cakes, scones and tea. I'm not entirely sure I would opt for sandwiches again but for tea and cake I honestly can't think of a nicer place. It's taken me a while to write this review because I almost don't want it to become swamped and impossible to get into. But in the spirit of Afternoon Tea sisterhood I realised I couldn't hold back any longer. If you find yourself in central London and want to be transported to a little piece of tea heaven, head across to Greek Street and wallow in the loveliness of Soho's Secret Tea Room.