In the foyer of the Brighton Grand Hotel, I spied details of their afternoon tea, served in their rather pretty Victorian terrace lounge overlooking the prom. Twenty types of loose-leaf teas, they promised, and scones, freshly baked. I peered at the rain outside, I looked at my watch and found myself hovering by the reservations desk. We all need an emotional pick-up right now; especially ones we can have mid-afternoon, to be safely off home before the 10pm Covid fairy looms. Perhaps, these days, afternoon tea is actually where it’s at.
The sedate terrace with its bottle-green velvet chairs, offsetting a tropical mural, was peopled by small tables of jolly, chattering over-60s refusing to be kept indoors and a group of five girlfriends arranging helium balloons, waiting for their final, main guest. Life on the terrace felt gloriously adrift from the unfolding news cycle. Yes, all the usual plans are in place, but it was upbeat and normal, almost. Ten minutes prior to sitting down, I’d liaised with a shadowy figure – a mobile medic working for a TV company – in an alleyway, to do nose and throat swabs, in order to tick insurance forms so I could taste-test mince pies with Phillip Schofield days later. Nothing is normal right now.
I judge afternoon tea with completely different parameters to dinner or lunch, but rest assured, I am judgmental. In fact, if you seek to find yourself down a conversational cul-de-sac with me, from which your only escape is to feign death, merely ask about my various quests to take my mother for a “nice birthday tea”. Be aware: it is a litany of opaque booking systems, sullen staff, dry scones, leaky teapots, miserly jam and bills for £75. I shall not forgive The Sharrow Bay Hotel in the Lakes snootily stuffing us in a chintzy room littered with dead and dying flies, nor a tearoom on the Lizard peninsula, where service took so long I had to cut my fringe between the sandwiches and sweet treats.
Perhaps bad afternoon teas rankle me more than poor dinners or lunches because I need them so badly to be good. Few people pre-book a three-tier cake stand served in a bay window casually. No, the afternoon tea is often for special circumstances. It’s something we book for Gran who doesn’t leave the house a lot, or our very pregnant friend for her last hurrah, or someone with a birthday who isn’t quite up to dinner, but eyes nevertheless light up at the thought of a mid-afternoon sugarfest. Afternoon tea is a curious event – more of a ritual than a meal – full of decadent titbits and pots of extra hot water and perplexing tea strainers. It should feel olde worlde, elegant yet never off-puttingly posh. It should send you off feeling stuffed in an ever-so-slightly nauseous manner, but overall as if you did yourself a favour.
The Grand are doing lots of little things right. Service was prompt and chipper. We were not treated – and this happens a lot with afternoon teas – as if this shift was a chore for the staff that the hotel’s financial bods insist on to rake in cash. One server, spotting we’d asked for no pork, quickly checked without prompt on the gelatin content of the cakes. This rarely happens even in Michelin-starred joints.
The enormous, nerdy tea selection is a lovely touch, too. The Blue Lady loose tea by the Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Company is magical. It’s sort of turbo earl grey with sweet citrus notes. I ordered boxes of the stuff afterwards. The Grand’s full afternoon tea consisted of a tiny, delicate individual goat’s cheese tart the size of a coat button (totally forgettable, serve a slice or don’t bother) and then a plate of nothing-to-write-home-about, crusts-off “finger sandwiches” of poached salmon, egg and, of course, cucumber. Nobody of sane mind has ever longed for a cucumber sandwich, yet between 2pm and 4pm, it is de rigueur.
Talking of sanity, I ate the delicious, warm scones with the clotted cream slathered on first, before jam, because cream is most akin to butter, so therefore makes a good base for something sticky. There were two scones per person, but, having noted the Grand’s excellent policy of dishing out pretty takeaway boxes, I saved one for the car home.
Cakes verged more on the side of the stonking “get them across your chest” variety – chocolate brownies, white chocolate profiteroles, moist pistachio cake – than those painfully fancy, “designer” limited edition creations one finds in London tea rooms. Gosh, I loathe a gimmicky afternoon tea “collaboration” conjured up by a fashion designer and served without conviction by the bemused staff. The Grand does not do this: the piece de resistance was a whopping slice of glorious world-class orange-infused polenta cake, which I ate in bed when I got home, out of the box – laptop on knees, The Haunting of Hill House on the go, wearing a new pair of pyjama bottoms I bought to celebrate London going into tier 2.
I’ll take my joy where I can get it. And my afternoon tea right up until bedtime.
• The Grand, 97-99 King’s Road, Brighton, BN1. 01273 224 300. Afternoon tea Mon-Thu 2pm and 4pm, £24.95. Fri to Sun, 12pm, 2pm, 4pm, £29.95