A Sweet Slice of the City – Afternoon Tea in London
Snowy white napkins, cucumber sandwiches, a piano tinkling in the background – yes, afternoon tea in London is pretty well a ‘must’ any culinary tour of the capital. And, perhaps because of the recent revival of interest in baking in Britain, it’s a treat that now appeals as much to locals as to visitors.
While afternoon tea in the countryside is associated with quaint tea-rooms and generous slices of Victoria sponge, afternoon tea in London is generally a far more formal affair. Think dainty pastries and Darjeeling, taken in luxury hotels like the Lanesborough, accompanied by the chink of fine china – and the sound of jaws dropping when the unwary ask the price. Yes, afternoon tea in London is anything but a cheap treat, so choose carefully before you book: prices for the top teas start at around £28 per person and you can add about £10 to that if you have a glass of champagne. And remember that you’ll need to be organised if you want to go to one of the plushest venues like the Ritz or the Savoy – they get booked up months ahead, even on weekdays.
Smoked Salmon Sandwiches
So what should you expect from a good afternoon tea in London? Well, there are the sandwiches for a start – there should be a mix of fresh white and brown bread (crusts cut off!) and a good selection of fillings: smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, ham with mustard or perhaps roast beef with horseradish – that sort of thing. No soggy cheese and tomato sarnies. If you’re vegetarian or on a special diet, do make sure you request suitable fillings in advance – there’s no point paying for sandwiches you can’t eat.
Some Clotted Cream M'am?
Then there are the scones. These should be freshly made that day – ones that have been frozen just don’t taste the same, or have the required slightly springy texture. Fruit or plain scones are acceptable – a mix of the two is ideal. They should be served with a good quality jam - traditionally strawberry and ideally homemade – or at least a good brand. And then there’s the cream, which should always be Cornish (or Devonshire) clotted cream – thick, golden and gloriously rich, it’s a vital ingredient for any afternoon tea. Squirty cream is not an acceptable alternative. Ever. The jam goes on the scone first, followed by a layer of cream (except in Devon where for some reason they do it the other way round). No butter.
Finally, for an afternoon tea in London, you should expect a selection of tempting cakes and pastries. These might include éclairs, fruit tarts and slices of fruit cake all displayed on a tiered cake stand. Some chefs also offer pretty jellies or trifles with this course. It’s worth checking beforehand if the venue is happy to parcel up any cakes you can’t finish, so you can take them home. Some are perfectly happy to do this.
Of course, you’ll require tea too – ideally tea leaves, not bags, and served in a pretty teapot, accompanied by extra water (so you can top-up the pot), and a dainty jug of fresh milk. Classic tea choices include Darjeeling, Assam, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong but you can generally expect a far wider selection, with both white and green teas, as well as black teas on the menu – in fact some hotels even have tea sommeliers to help you choose your brew.
The setting is a vital element too: there should be fine china, crisp white linen, friendly and efficient service, beautiful surroundings and – perhaps most elusive - a relaxed atmosphere. There’s such demand for afternoon teas in London these days that the top venues have several sittings, so while tea is traditionally taken around 4pm, these days some hotels offer it from lunchtime onwards - and they won’t want you to hang around all afternoon. Do remember to check the dress code in advance, as many places have a ‘no jeans’ policy, or may require that men wear jackets.
Top Hotels for Afternoon Tea
Here are just some of the top places for afternoon tea in London.
Their ‘Evergreen tea’ won the Tea Guild’s 2012 award for best afternoon tea in London. It’s taken in their Garden Room (which is indoors).
How much: £28 pp (or £35 if you have a glass of ‘rose petal’ champagne)
When: Served daily with sittings at 12.30 (that’s lunch, surely!), 3pm and 5.30pm.
They also offer a ‘Honey Tea’ which costs £39 pp and includes a mysterious glass of ‘honey fizz’.
Genteel Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair knows a thing or two about what makes a good afternoon tea in London. It’s taken in their wood panelled English Tea Room, to the sounds of a baby grand piano.
How much: £39.50 pp for their classic afternoon tea, and £49.50 with a glass of champagne. This represents good value as they’ll replenish the goodies as required – what style.
When: Served between 3pm and 6pm weekdays, and at 1pm and 6pm at weekends.
Smoked salmon sandwiches on granary bread, and chicken and mustard on basil bread are just two of the sandwich fillings you can expect at The Dorchester. They offer afternoon tea in The Promenade, essentially the grand foyer which should offer great people watching potential, or at The Spatisserie – which won’t have the same sense of theatre, as it’s the spa dining area so you might find people sitting in their bath robes at the next table.
How much: £39 pp, or £49 if you have a glass of champagne.
When: They pack ‘em in here, with sittings at 1.15, 2.30, 3.15, 4.45 and 5.15pm.
Tea at the Ritz is suitably glitzy, taken as it is in the Palm Court to the sounds of a piano and cheery clinking china. Inventive fillings for the sandwiches include chicken with horseradish, and egg mayonnaise with chopped shallots and watercress; scones are apple and raisin. Gents have to wear a jacket and tie, and there’s a ‘no jeans or sports shoes’ policy.
How much: It’s £42 pp, or £53 if it’s a special occasion and you’d like a cake; £64 for the cake plus a glass of champagne.
When: The first sitting is at 11.30am (you want clotted cream in the morning?), with more at 1.30, 3.30, 5.30 and 7.30pm. You’ll need to book about 12 weeks in advance for afternoon tea in London at the Ritz.
Chicken with mango chutney? Ham with apple-cider mustard? Both sandwich fillings are on the afternoon tea menu at the Savoy. Taken in the Thames Foyer, while a pianist plays, you’ll also find pastries such as vanilla lavender éclairs, raspberry macaroons and Chairman Mao’s favourite tea – Imperial Mountain Silver Needle apparently.
How much: £40 pp, or £62.50 pp if you go for the Sunday afternoon Art Decadent tea, which includes cocktails and is served in the Beaufort Bar.
When: Between 1.30 and 5.45 daily, Art Decadent Sundays only 2.30-6.30pm
If a tipple is your cup of tea then the St Ermin's new Hendricks' gin offering might be to your taste. Taken in the Library, you'll start with a choice of cocktails featuring Hendricks' gin: choose from gin coupled with elderflower, cranberry juice and cucumber caviar pearls (?) or Earl Grey infused gin with rosewater. Then tuck in to a selection of scones and savouries - a lobster quiche is promised; sandwiches - think cucumber, crab and avocado or mint with creme fraiche, followed by pastries.
How much: £39 p. p. for the Hendricks tea; £29 if you go for the non-alcohol option.
When: Served daily between 1pm and 5pm.