If you’re looking for a unique setting for afternoon tea in London, what better venue than the Houses of Parliament?
Ever since I’d heard you could partake in tea and cake in these hallowed halls, (well, just alongside them in a riverside room in the Houses of Commons), I’d been eager to visit, so I was very excited to finally take the family along on this special day out.
In order to have afternoon tea at the Houses of Parliament you also need to book on, and pay for a tour, so this was also a part of trip. However, with food always at the forefront of my mind, I decided we should start with the afternoon tea and take the tour after. This way, I thought, appetites would be sated, and we’d be free to take our time exploring once we’d eaten.
Getting into the houses of Parliament – be there early
Visiting the Houses of Parliament is a very disciplined affair; you’re advised to arrive 15 minutes early in order to make your way through security, which in the current climate is understandably tight. In an odd way this makes the whole experience more of an event: you know you’re visiting somewhere particularly important if you have to pass through airport-style security scanners and nod politely to members of armed police before you’ve even made it to the front doors.
A first glimpse of the Palace of Westminster
And once you do, you can’t help but be in awe of the building. You enter into Westminster Hall, the oldest building on the parliamentary estate, which dates back as far as the 11th century. Its size is impressive, so much so that I wasn’t surprised to hear that its beautiful hammer-beam roof is the largest medieval timber roof in Northern Europe (it’s 68 x 240 feet, fact fans!).
Perhaps it may have been better to take the tour first, as we had to wander along a large part of the route before breaking off towards the area restricted to tea-taking guests. But even though we’d caught some impressive glimpses of what the tour had to offer, it didn’t detract from our experience later, when we returned to the Hall and began our audio tour.
VIPs coming through!
But I transgress – back to the afternoon tea. Met by a finely dressed maître d’, we were guided past ‘Do not enter’ signs and down an elegant staircase carpeted in a rich red fabric and looked over by a giant painting clearly hundreds of years old. I have to admit you begin to feel like a bit of a VIP!
We travelled along a maze of old corridors before being directed through a set of double doors and into our final destination – the Terrace Pavilion.
The Terrace Pavilion
This long, heated marquee overlooks the river Thames, with panoramic glass doors that lead out onto the terrace proper. Sadly the British summertime gave us the usual drizzle, so we stayed inside, but even with grey skies, the view was impressive.
We were seated by a window and introduced to our waiter, a smartly dressed gentleman who always had a smile on his face. After leaving us to peruse our menus, we quickly turned our eyes to the embossed cutlery and crockery, oohing and ahhing over forks stamped with the crowned portcullis emblem (yes, little things excite me).
I did feel that the afternoon tea was in some ways sadly limited. For example, the choice of teas was quite small, with eight to choose from, made up of black, green and fruit options. In addition, as the food was pre-made there was no option to request alterations for those picky eater types (that’s me included). Unable to see the menu beforehand, I therefore had no idea what would be on offer until I arrived.
On the plus side however, gluten free and vegetarian options are available if booked ahead, and I liked that they offered a kids version, which looked pretty enticing to little folk!
When the afternoon teas were brought to the table, the food was beautifully displayed on a stylish stand, with fruit scones wrapped up in a napkin and the millionaires shots brought out on their own wooden tray.
We delved straight into the sandwiches, which were made up of minted pickled cucumber and cream cheese on rye bread, salt beef with mustard and watercress in a brioche bun, salmon gravadlax with horseradish cream and lemon gel on rye bread, and grilled Cajun aubergine, vegan pesto and oven dried tomatoes on tomato bread.
All of these had good, strong flavours, although I have to say that pickled cucumber may not be to everyone’s taste. I liked that each had a different type of bread, so there was a great variety, but my personal favourites were the beef and pesto; although I have to admit they were a bit too big to be eaten elegantly!
I prefer plain scones so was disappointed that these weren’t on the menu, but after rather uncouthly picking out those dreaded raisins, the scones themselves were quite tasty.
It wasn’t long before we moved onto the final course, mainly because we were eager to try out the millionaires shots, which we’d all agreed to save until last. I particularly enjoyed the chocolate macarons, which had just the right balance of gooey and crunch and a real depth of flavour. I passed on the passion fruit, strawberry and pistachio tart, but was told by the others that it was fine, albeit very gooey.
Finally we’d arrived at the shots, and could enjoy the small glasses filled with salted caramel, crisp white chocolate, chocolate mousse, shortbread and chocolate thins. Before I began I thought they were tiny, but after just a few small spoonfuls I understood why. Delicious but amazingly rich, just a little is enough. The flavours were great and I loved the textures too. A sickly but wonderful end to our afternoon tea at the Houses of Parliament.
Afternoon tea at the Houses of Parliament
Afternoon tea is available in the Terrace Pavilion from Tuesday to Saturday, but availability is subject to change as parliamentary business requires. Weekday sittings are at 3.45pm, with two sittings during the weekend: 2pm and 3.45pm.
The cost of afternoon tea is £29 per adult and £14.50 for children 12 or under, but all visitors must also pay for either a guided or audio tour.
Regarding service, I found all of the servers were all smartly dressed, polite and kind, but I did feel the service was ‘ok’, rather than exceptional. Perhaps because of the setting I expected the staff to go above and beyond. For example, tea top ups were never offered, although when we asked they were happy enough to bring us more hot water.
However, when they did check on us they were always polite and friendly, more than happy to answer any of our questions and have a little laugh with us.
Overall, I would definitely recommend afternoon tea at the Houses of Parliament. The food is good rather than great, but it is the setting that takes it to a whole new level. Can you think of any other venue so rich with history? I know I can’t!
Our tours and afternoon teas at the Houses of Parliament were complimentary for the purposes of review but as ever, all views are my own.