Afternoon Tea at The Landmark

Afternoon tea in the Winter Garden at The Landmark hotel in London is a spectacular event. Like many of London’s Victorian railway hotels, originally built during the 19th century to celebrate the golden age of steam, The Landmark was refurbished, redecorated and rebranded in the 20th century to attract and meet the demands of the modern traveller. In 1995 The Lancaster Landmark Hotel Company acquired what was formerly known as The Great Central Hotel and created the biggest and most opulent place to stay in Marylebone.

I confess insider knowledge in that The Landmark is my husband’s favourite corporate meeting place and hotel, a stone’s throw from his office. He comes to have lunch with clients, his employers host corporate events here and, when his work takes him long into the night and past his commuter train timetable, he sleeps here. So I know a great deal, with envy, by proxy. The very first time I came here myself was when I had arranged to meet and interview Elizabeth Carter, Editor of The Good Food Guide, and Jane Wilson, her marketing manager. I could not have picked two more esteemed companions for afternoon tea, as they manage Britain’s bestselling guide to the most highly recommended places to eat and drink.

It is incredible to think that when Sir John Blundell Maple, chairman of the furniture company, purchased the building in 1895 (for the then equivalent of 4.5 pence per square foot), the room in which the winter gardens now sits used to be the central carriage courtyard. Guests were deposited in this huge enclave when their horse drawn carriages pulled into the privacy of the hotel. He furnished the hotel with his own mahogany furniture.

Later, in the 1920s, the inner courtyard became a dance floor. As cars became the most popular form of transport, the golden era of the great railway hotels began to dwindle. During the Second World War many of these hotels were requisitioned by the British army as injured and homeless soldiers were repatriated from battlegrounds abroad.

For the next half century the railway hotels of London fell into seediness and dereliction – for who would want to sleep next to a busy railway station, with tannoy announcements and rolling carriages rumbling their way morning, noon and night? It was only the confluence of the economic resurgence, the boom in property, the increase in international travel and the establishment of London as one of the world’s leading tourist attractions that led to the restoration of many railway hotels, such as the Renaissance at St.Pancras, The Great Northern at King’s Cross, the Charing Cross Hotel and The Hilton Paddington.

Nikolaus Pevsner wrote about number 222 Marylebone Road in the London edition of “Buildings of England” {published by Penguin}: “For long maltreated as offices, but in 1989 rehabilitated for hotel use by “S” International Architects and Geoffrey Reid Associates, with internal court converted to winter garden”.

The Landmark is a highly ornate building, built in Gothic red brick with steep gables and a tower. There is a fine marble staircase, coffered ceiling, cornices and huge palm trees, the apogee Victorian status symbols, brought back from temperate climes by intrepid plant hunters. A very clever lady plays the piano without a music sheet, one piece after another, whilst the gentle clatter of tea cups and the hum of conversation fill the enormous glass space. Despite modern carpets and double glazing, you can still feel the echoing grandeur of the soaring elevation and as you stand and look up to the sky you will feel small and insignificant inside a room that is meant to inspire awe and draw wonder. Small and understated it is not: The Landmark has 300 of the largest guest rooms in London, 51 suites, three restaurants and bars and a Spa and Health Club with its own 15 metre pool.

Afternoon tea at is taken seriously here, its menu arriving in a weighty eau de nil leather covered booklet with its own embossed “Winter Garden” logo. Although the hotel has not frequently featured in the glossy magazines’ top rankings for places to go for tea in London I believe that is because its fare is traditional and its stance simple and authentic. Unlike many fine dining establishments that stretch the definition to its outmost limit of Michelin starred flamboyance, the stance here has been to look back at the historical significance of afternoon tea and its place in British culture.

During the Georgian era the upper classes in Britain would eat their dinner after 8.00pm at night, and so the gap between lunch (which was traditionally light) and dinner spanned an enormous seven hours. The Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857) was the Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria and during one of her trips to Belvoir Castle in the 1840’s, while visiting the Duke of Rutland, she called upon one of the servants to bring her Darjeeling tea, sliced sandwiches and cakes in the afternoon. At first she took this simple snack alone in her room, but soon began to invite friends to partake of the refreshments. Soon it became the custom amongst the nobility to take afternoon tea, and like most ripple effects, the fashion trickled down the class system, and by the beginning of the twentieth century taking afternoon tea had become widespread across Britain and its colonies abroad.

And colonial is exactly how you feel at The Landmark. Gold coloured furniture, giant orchids, Sansevierias in pots, black and white botanical prints, Royal Doulton white china and starched table cloths set the scene as uniformed staff in garnet coloured waistcoats walk around with tiered cake stands and champagne flutes filled with Taittinger. The hurling traffic and modern day madness of Marylebone Road outside is all but forgotten, as the tinkling ivories play on.

The winter garden is an ideal place to have a business meeting as the spacing between the tables is generous, the service discreet and efficient and the abundance of upholstered armchairs or squashy sofas takes the edge away from stiff formality. Even on the greyest day the room is filled with light.

The quality benchmark of a good afternoon tea always resides within the excellence of the patisserie section of the kitchen brigade, and I think that its Chef at The Landmark has opted for a mix of geographic repertoires as well as evoking the spirit of British baking. So alongside Opera Gateau, Chocolate Tiramisu, orange macaron and ganache, you will also see lemon tart, carrot cake and pear and honey creams. The apple and raisin scones are particularly well made, soft and fluffy, with a good crumb and an egg yolk wash giving them a bright yellow crisp finish on the surface. They sit wrapped tightly in a napkin to keep them warm. A great deal of thought and care has gone into each morsel.

It is difficult to assess, once all crusts are removed and the slice cut into lengths, whether the bread for the finger sandwiches has been baked in-house or bought in, but the fillings are rich, fresh and plentiful. The selection ranges from egg mayonnaise and mustard cress, free range chicken with tarragon crème fraiche, oak smoked Scottish salmon and cucumber and butter.

Thankfully there are no unseasonal creams, gels, foams, drizzles, novelty cakes in the shape of handbags or designer shoes, exploding sherbet bombs, neon coloured whoopie pies with glitter or other unmentionables that one too frequently finds in establishments eager to court attention and food blog ranking. It is good to note that there is also a gluten free selection for those that are allergic to wheat, consisting of much the same menu but using gluten free flour. On the Menu are pure black teas, black tea blends, flavoured teas, green teas, oolong tea, white tea, rooibos tea and six types of herbal infusions.

The whole meal will set you back £40 or £45 including Champagne and that is standard and equal to other establishments of similar quality. The size of the portions and the fact that the waiter comes to top your teapot up several times means that, in fact, this could actually be the main meal of your day. I would challenge anyone to eat dinner after it or indeed a big lunch or breakfast before it.

You are within walking distance of the wonderful shops of Marylebone High Street and its lanes. Make the most of it: it will do you good to take advantage of the location to walk off all those extra calories.

Contact Details

The Landmark:

Twitter: @landmarklondon1

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