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Unreality on a silver platter

WINTER GARDEN, THE REGENT LONDON HOTEL; 222 Marylebone Road, London NW1 6JQ. Tel: 0171 6318000. Open 7 days a week for teas from 3-6pm. All-inclusive teas, pounds 11-pounds 18. A la carte m enu with minimum charge of pounds 6.50 per person. All major credit cards accepted
AT THE point where the A40 from Oxford meets London and the Marylebone Road there's a weird but strangely magnificent place to take tea. The area suggests a slightly seedy twilight world, with huge grimy buildings lining groaning traffic jams and a hinterland of dingy mansion blocks peopled, you imagine, by solitary figures with tiny dogs under their arms. This is the site of the former Grand Central Hotel, vast, redbrick and scarily Victorian, reopened in 1993 as The Regent. At one stage it was British Rail's headquarters, when it was reputed to have an entire cycle track hidden in the roof. When it was refurbished they failed to find the cycle track, but stumbled, instead, upon a full-size volley-ball pitch.

Once through the foyer we found ourselves in the Winter Garden, a huge palm-filled atrium with a tinkling piano, violinist and a raised tea area surrounded by an iron fence. The inner walls rise through eight storeys to a glass roof held up by iron pillars. Looking up at palm fronds against the sand-coloured walls and clear blue sky you could for all the world be in Cairo, or Alexandria. This is an exciting feeling when you're on the Marylebone Road, particularly when the distressed gold chairs and oriental waitresses indicate you could just as easily be in the Far East. But then again the heavy iron lampposts with modern uplighters perched on top suggest nothing so much as Victorian London with a hint of Habitat - and a dash of Ancient Greece with the plantpots. But that's modern hotel style for you.

We glided up the marble steps and settled ourselves at a little table by the fence. "If John Major came here he would say, 'This is nice'," remarked my friend. We were presented with a menu offering a range of pricey five-course options: Marylebone Tea at pounds 11, Regent Tea at pounds l3.50 and Strawberry Tea at pounds 18, including a glass of Pol Roger champagne, plus rather more affordable a la carte items, with pots of tea at pounds 2.75 and cakes and sandwich from pounds 4.

It's hard to imagine who, in this day and age, would have the time or the appetite to fill the space between lunch and dinner by ploughing through two scones with clotted cream, followed by four sandwiches, two slices of cake, a couple of crumpets and a gateau, but the tea area was full to bursting. It felt like being in an intriguing slipstream of society. There were several ladies of a certain age with crispy hair and far too much pink lipstick, one of them dressed from top to toe in a strong shade of park-railing green. Beside us was an enormous Mystic Meg figure with a very, very thin man, who was transferring a large pile of papers from one torn Versace carrier bag to another; and below us in the foyer two plump East European creatures with bright pink cheeks and hair trussed up with bows and flowers slumped in their chairs like string puppets.

Our waitress brought us a side table and placed upon it two beautiful, three-tier silver stands bearing our cakes and sandwiches. Tea was served in delicate china, with silver strainers. The scones, part of my Regent Tea, were warm and delicious, nestling a little silver dome. In their place my friend, who had plumped for the Strawberry Tea, had a plate of fresh strawberries and a flute of champagne.

We were just agreeing that this was the sort of place where people might come to have an affair in total anonymity, a place totally free of trendies or media types, when a man we recognised from Channel Four strode across the back of the tea room in a determined manner. Five minutes later he did it again. At the next moment, a man in a suit scurried through the tables in hot pursuit of a pair of toddlers, saying, "I do apologise... I do apologise" in the tone of a recorded telephone message.

It all contributed to a delicious air of unreality. After guzzling the scones we moved on to our finger sandwiches, which were tiny and dainty and all very well, though I thought there was too much butter and the bread wasn't soft enough. You can't really go far wrong with a crumpet, apart from burning it, serving it cold, or forgetting to toast it. But ours were piping hot, crisp and deliciously soggy inside.

There is a definite threshold when you are eating too much. Once you cross it, almost anything becomes possible. My companion's tea had rather dried up now, but I steamed ahead, munching through two excellent pieces of madeira cake. Pastries were to follow, but the waitress allowed me to choose a slice of cake instead from a table made out of an array of gold-sprayed twigs with a glass top. I chose a chocolate truffle cake, expecting the sort of hotel cake whichlooks wonderful and tastes like something in a packet from ASDA. Instead it was a dream of a gateau, with oozing truffle, a thrillingly expensive chocolate aftertaste, and an exquisite base that tasted exactly like the crispy hazelnut chocolate with loops on you find in Rowntree's Dairy Box.

"Would you like to keep the stand?" asked our waitress as I slumped bloated in the chair. "Ooh, yes please," we said, thinking it was some crazily generous going-home present, till we realised she was coaxing us into stuffing down the leftovers. A walk was called for, round an upper level lined with mock shop windows selling a mad array of items: teddies dressed in Harris tweed or wearing pearl earrings the size of tennis balls, a "secondhand diamond ring" for pounds 5,250, another diamond ring miraculously reduced from pounds 890 to pounds 445.

When we finally emerged, blinking, into the roar of the rush hour traffic, we both agreed it had been a weird but delightful afternoon, the sort of perfect escape from reali-tea you don't expect to find in London. !