Afternoon tea in London can be an odd affair; with either the strict yet touristy feel of the Ritz, or a more tea oriented yet still stifling Fortnum & Mason. However there is an alternative.
I recently went for an afternoon tea in sketch. Despite living in London for 15 years, I’d only ever heard of it in passing, like one of many ‘in-the-know’ places in London. Located on Conduit Street it’s far from hidden, in fact for a tea lover its hard to miss, it’s right next to the East India Company, a fantastic pre or post tea visit. However, having finally taken the plunge to high tea there, I realised I’d been a fool for never going before.
You start by walking though a rather nondescript door, into a dark corridor, filled with super modern art, like pain on stairs, and linen moving on a weird machine. You start to think that maybe this wasn’t what you wanted, where was the pomp?
However, down a small flight of stairs your ushered into a small room, where you can wait, or tea if you’re a ‘drop-in’. This room gives you an idea about what sketch truly is. Its floor is covered in moss, its walls are painted with trees, it ceiling holds up a mass of live flowers, greenery or branches (dependent on the season), and the tables and chairs feel like they reach up from the ground. All whilst a bright pink piano gently plays classical music in the cover.
You don’t have long to wait though, as the tables are orchestrated perfectly so when you arrive, your table will be ready, by hook or by crook. You pass through some doors that almost appear from nowhere (almost every door in sketch is hidden without signs) and you’ve reached your place for the evening. A converted masonic hall, square and painted in a pastel pink. You’re shown to your table which is always a booth, although some have chairs as well. These are all in keeping with the pink theme, puffy and structured like lady fingers. A trio of highly accomplished sting instrument musicians play in the corner, playing an almost personal performance to you and 30 or so other people in the room.
You don’t sit at your table long before someone introduces themselves as your personal waitress for the evening (each waitress has 5 tables), they talk you through the menu and what to expect before advising they’ll return with the tea expert. You sit back and admire the surroundings as you suddenly realise the walls are plastered with funny doodles (some more risky than others).
As the evening goes on the trio of strings are replaced with soothing classical from hidden speakers, at a low level to promote conversation. I personally went in summer and so got an artificially altered sense of time, it was still blaring with sun light at 6 when I left.
Whilst the story carries on below, there is one remark I’d love to make. At a point in the evening a time will call you to push through a pair of hidden doors in the corner of the room, and from the outset you think you’ve made a wrong turn. In front of you is a sunken pod, with a small bar inside, with stairs curving up around it. You walk up and see a dozen 8 foot white eggs in a room filled with multi colors from the stained glass ceiling. You feel somewhat in a sci-fi movie, but you’ve simply make it to the loo. One of the best in London, this room was actually used as a film set on many occasions. A small addition to the male half (left) is a dark black room, about 6 foot by 3, with water gently dripping down the walls. It feels mesmerizing and you can’t help but stand their in awe as you suddenly realise this is the urinal; despite feeling like a walk in water feature.
One main point about afternoon tea in sketch is the tea. It’s far from an after thought. In fact, its very creation was thanks to French tea lovers wanting to reinvent the traditional British afternoon tea. A tea expert greets you at the table and asks what you like, before offering some tea to smell and select. Initially you get one of 15 fantastic Jing teas, however from the outset there is something different. Choice. Our review of the Thornton & Mason afternoon tea showed they had far more choice when it came to blends, however in sketch they want to you keep coming back for a different brew. They suggest one tea for opening, light and refreshing, then another for sandwich, another for cake, another for scones, and a different one to re-energize before you leave.
In addition the knowledge is insurmountable, even questions from myself, a self titled tea expert, they handled they with ease, understanding my level of knowledge and adding their own stories and tasting notes.
If you’re particularly interested in tea (as I assume you are reading a tea blog) then I implore you to speak to the tea master. After my 4th tea and the night started to slow down I started trading tasting notes with the expert, and they produced a series of ‘off menu’ teas which I could try, such as Pu’erh mini cakes and a smoky white oolong.
Their menu constantly changes with seasons and supply
Where would any afternoon tea be without great food? sketch is no different, and as a Michelin stared kitchen, you can expect nothing but the best. You start with egg and soldiers (in Michelin stared style of course), where a ‘caviar man’ comes to offer you some of the most expensive caviar you’re likely to lay eyes on. Whilst many in the party had tried some before and turned their nose up, after trying it, they soon changed their minds; it truly is worth it, even if an extra 5g spoon would cost £30.
This is followed by the usual sandwiches, scones and petis gateaux, however with unusual textures, tastes and mixes it makes for a very moorish menu.
To add to the quirky atmosphere, all servers are dressed in irregular outfits. Grey boiler suits for the men, strait out of an even henchman’s lair, and Bollywood inspired polka dot short dresses for the ladies makes spotting them rather easy against the puffy pink backdrop. However, don’t let this fool you as there is someone constantly to take you ever whim, but it more tea, more cake (its truly never ending) or asking to take some cake away (which they do free of charge). They all know their stuff too, with perfect tea pairing notes by all. Their snappy service, polite manner and knowledgeable offerings are somewhat expected with afternoon teas in London, however sketch is different in one specific way; they talk to you. If you start a conversation, they’ll talk back. In the Ritz it feels they’re scared to talk to you, as if they should only be seen and not heard, but in sketch they talk about London, tea, food, the art on the walls; part of the service is face time, and they’re happy to give it to you, with almost as many servers as there are guests.
Price is always a concern when it comes to anything in London, but especially a known tourist trap of afternoon tea. I’m very glad to see however that sketch is one of the cheapest out there ranging from £34 to £78 per person. This, combined with fantastic tea, Michelin star food, perfect service and a very quirky atmosphere have to make it by far the most lavish tea in London, so the low price makes it even more enticing.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with sketch, however having done, I know, that without a doubt, its the best afternoon tea in London. A title it should hold strongly, as there is massive competition.