From the Savoy to Fortnum & Mason, Claridge’s to The Lanesborough, we pick the best places for afternoon tea in the capital
Drinking tea was popularised in England during the 1660s by King Charles II, but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that people started having afternoon tea. It was introduced by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who would get peckish at 4pm. Lunch was light and the evening meal wasn’t served until 8pm so this was a way to fill the gap. The Duchess requested tea, bread and butter – and cake. Soon she asked friends to join her, and the trend grew. Upper-class women would wear long gowns, gloves and hats for tea, which was served in the drawing room between 4pm and 5pm. Typical afternoon tea comprises small sandwiches, scones and pastries. Tea is poured from silver teapots into bone-china cups. Today, it is much more casual, at least at home – although these five places still offer the traditional experience.
As the most famous hotel in the world, it’s little surprise that the tea here is breathtaking. Tea is served in the Thames Foyer – a pillared and chandeliered fantasy of gold and contentment. In a central birdcage-like structure, a pianist plays lustrous jazz. The menu is fairly traditional, with finger sandwiches (cucumber and mint, Scottish salmon, Wiltshire ham), bijou cakes, pastries and scones. Champagne is a speciality, and practically compulsory.
Read more: Step into another era at the Savoy
Fortnum & Mason is the official grocer to the royal household and has been selling its wares since 1707. Take the wood-panelled elevator up to the fourth floor where doors open out on to the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. Here you’ll find crisp white linen tablecloths, eau de nil china and tinky-tonky piano music. Immaculately turned-out staff go to and fro with cake stands full of cucumber sandwiches, scones and exquisitely executed pâtisserie. They visit each table with the ‘cake carriage’ – a tray packed with tarts, cakes, éclairs and fancies. Specialist ‘tearistas’ will talk you through some of the 150 single-estate teas and blends from across the world. Booking is advised.
This grande dame of London’s luxury hotel scene is well practised in the finer details. Afternoon tea takes place in the serene, Art Deco surrounds of the bloom-filled Foyer, whose thick-pile carpets and high ceiling absorb any noise – apart from the pleasant piano. The goodies arrive on a silver stand (exquisite sandwiches, fresh scones, and fanciful pastries such as a picture-perfect éclair filled with strawberry-and-peach crème pâtissière) and discreet staff are always there to serve your needs. There’s even a children’s afternoon tea, with dainty fairy cakes and a menu which doubles up as a colouring book. The seamless set-up has been honed during Claridge’s 150-year reign.
There are few hotel entrances as grand as that of The Lanesborough, from the top-hatted doormen to the Regency styling of the lobby. The lobby leads to the Céleste – the glass-roofed restaurant – which is bedecked in sky blue and gold with cornicing and chandeliers the size of tractor tyres. The afternoon tea menu features gluten– and dairy-free options (although they need to be booked in advance). The prestige option gets you truffle on your egg sandwich, caviar on your salmon and a glass of Champagne. The hotel is currently offering a Frida Kahlo-inspired Tea, celebrating the exhibition dedicated to the artist at the Victoria & Albert Museum this summer.
The afternoon tea at this Mayfair venue is thoroughly good fun. All the classic elements have been given a twist, creating a more modern take on the tradition. The room is decorated with David Shrigley illustrations, and a finger sandwich comes with caviar and a quail egg. It’s all terribly cool. The icing on the cake? The Gallery, with its pink booths and domed ceiling, that makes you feel like you’re inside a giant fondant fancy.
This is an edited extract from Café London – Brunch, Lunch, Coffee and Afternoon Tea, edited by Zena Alkayat and published by Frances Lincoln, RRP £9.99. www.frances-lincoln.com