With neatly sliced sandwiches, tempting cakes and pastries, and magnificent pageantry, afternoon tea is an enchanting experience for all ages. Who could turn down a golden scone slathered with fresh jam as they stir their tea to the soft sounds of a string quartet? Our Guide to the Best Afternoon Tea in London will help introduce you to your perfect tea experience.
History of Afternoon Tea
The tradition of afternoon tea began in 1840. With such a long wait between her afternoon and evening meals, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, complained of profound “hunger pangs.” To tide her over until dinner, she asked for a tray of tea with buttered bread to be delivered to her room. This became her tradition, and after a while she invited others to join her.
By the 1880s, afternoon tea was a full-blown aristocratic social event. Women in elegant gowns sipped from china cups in the drawing room while musicians played softly in the background. Crustless cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and a selection of cakes and pastries accompanied silver pots of Ceylon tea. Before long, the tradition expanded from the confines of private salons and into hotel restaurants and other public spaces.
Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea
Though often referred to interchangeably by those unfamiliar with tea culture, afternoon tea and high tea are separate traditions. Afternoon tea, historically an aristocratic affair, is usually taken between 3pm and 4pm and involves sweet and savory snacks to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. High tea, on the other hand, originated with the lower classes and was meant to satiate the hunger of workers after returning home from a long day. It generally consists of heavier fare like meats, cheeses, and savory pies.
Best Afternoon Tea in London
Now that you know the history of this beloved English tradition, here are some of the best places in London to experience it for yourself:
Cozy armchairs, delicate floral china, and original wood paneling from 1837 make afternoon tea in The Drawing Room at Brown’s Hotel a feast for all senses. Nibble on your smoked salmon sandwich with cream cheese and poppyseeds as you warm yourself in the glow of the fireplace. Savor a salted caramel and Tahitian vanilla tart amidst the dulcet notes of the baby grand piano. Seeking a slightly less indulgent tea experience? The hotel offers a Tea-Tox afternoon tea with such offerings as mushroom, truffle, and buckwheat tartlets followed by coconut yogurt topped with raspberry compote.
A quintessential afternoon tea destination for over 150 years, Claridge’s provides an elegant dining atmosphere complete with classical musicians and Dale Chihuly glass chandelier. We recommend nabbing a table in the coveted Foyer, inspired by the art deco designs of the 1930s. (However, the more secluded Reading Room offers a unique, intimate experience all its own.) Teas are sourced from small producers around the world and include Waikato Black from New Zealand and Wild Rooibos from the Cedarberg Mountains of South Africa. And to eat: smoked salmon on rye with brown shrimp and horseradish, followed by a refreshingly sweet rose and grapefruit macaron. There’s also a children’s menu, as well as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, or nut-free options.
The Corinthia takes its afternoon tea so seriously, it employs a dedicated Tea Sommelier to weigh and infuse every blend to absolute perfection. The shimmering Crystal Moon Lounge creates an enchanting combination of comfort and courtliness, with pillowed armchairs to encourage relaxation and crystal champagne flutes to make you feel like royalty. Light-as-air scones arrive on your table nestled inside a wooden box. (There’s clotted cream and rhubarb and tonka bean jam to slather inside.) After a scrumptious lineup of sandwiches, including tandoori chicken with green apple, it’s time for dessert. Waiters wheel silver trolleys filled with such sweet treats as pear and cinnamon eclairs and orange blossom marshmallows. You’re free to choose what you’d like.
Fortnum & Mason
With its soft pastel colors and eggshell blue china cups and saucers, Fortnum & Mason creates the definition of a dreamy afternoon tea in its Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. Jars of raspberry, strawberry, and wild blueberry jams cozy up alongside pillowy fruit scones. Cured ham sandwiches with English mustard tickle your taste buds, while vegetarians can wallow in the delight of a cheddar sandwich with fig and fennel chutney. A chocolate mousse tart (and other delectable patisseries) completes the heavenly tea experience.
Hotel Café Royal
Cheshire cheese and asparagus tarts. Curried chicken with golden sultanas. Chocolate choux buns with salted caramel cream. Hosted in the gilded Oscar Wilde Lounge that opened its doors in 1865, Hotel Café Royal’s award-winning tea experience is certainly one for the ages. With an extravagant selection of sandwiches, cakes, and scones and more than 30 varieties of tea, this is afternoon tea as it’s meant to be taken.
If you’re looking for a quintessentially luxurious English tea experience, look no further than The Ritz. Tea is served in the oh-so-lavish Palm Court, complete with palm trees and exquisite birdcage chandeliers. Spread a dollop of Cornish clotted cream onto your still-warm scone as you listen to the music of the pianist or string quartet. Savor your cheddar with chutney on tomato bread and breathe in the fragrant curls of steam rising up from your cup of chocolate mint rooibos or Earl Grey Imperial. This really is the life.
Afternoon tea has been a staple at The Savoy since the hotel’s opening on the Strand in 1889. Today, it’s one of the most stately, polished tea experiences in the city. In fact, it won the high honor of Best Traditional Afternoon Tea at the Afternoon Tea Awards 2019. A high glass dome floods the room with natural light. Herb-roasted prime sirloin sandwiches entice the meat eaters, while vegetarians can feast on butternut squash sandwiches with cumin honey. And for dessert? How about some Amalfi lemon shortbread with caramelized meringue, or an Iranian pistachio praline madeleine?
Tea with a Twist
Vegans, never fear! By Chloe offers an afternoon tea experience just for you. Goodbye salmon, hello vegan “salmon” sandwiches made with marinated beefsteak tomatoes, dill, and cashew mozzarella on beet bread. If English cucumber basil in more your style, By Chloe makes theirs with sliced cucumber, cashew mozzarella, and avocado on basil bread. And for dessert: chocolate whoopie pie, carrot cake, red velvet cupcakes, and more! This experience may be a bit informal (tea is served in paper cups and you can color on the tablecloth with crayons) but the flavors and creativity are certainly worth a visit.
The LaLIT’s domed cobalt blue ceiling and glistening chandeliers set the stage for a one-of-a-kind tea experience. This Indian-themed High Chai features such fragrant delicacies as paneer kathi rolls and Punjabi samosas with tamarind chutney. Glasses of mango lassi and platters of Indian desserts (including sweet carrot pudding, milk fudge, and biscuits) are accompanied by steaming cups of chai tea.
Prêt-à-Portea at The Berkeley
Iced Manolo Blahnik gingersnap stilettos. Victoria sponge Valentino bags. Miniature cakes in the shape of a Miss Dior perfume bottle. Fashion becomes food at The Berkeley’s Prêt-à-Portea, named the Best Themed Afternoon Tea at the Afternoon Tea Awards 2019. Each month, the restaurant’s fashion-themed pastry menu features the designs of a different style maven. Where else can you find a Molly Goddard evening gown that’s actually a cinnamon financier filled with apple mousse?
Consistently ranked among the best contemporary teas in London, the Rosewood presents a luxurious spread that speaks to the art lover in all of us. The hotel’s Art Afternoon Tea features pastries inspired by the works of such artists as Picasso, Kandinsky, and Pollock—and even iconic British street artist Bansky. Sample such tantalizing sandwiches as Iberian ham and tomato or saffron marinated chicken on paprika bread. For dessert, enjoy an edible interpretation of Picasso’s The Dream made from chocolate mousse, orange almond génoise sponge, and mango passionfruit jelly.
- Place your napkin on your lap.
- Stir your tea gently and don’t splash.
- Avoid clinking your cups or licking your fingers.
- Exercise restraint and don’t let yourself eat everything in front of you.
- Contrary to what you might believe, keeping your pinky out draws attention—and not in a good way.
- Keep your keys, phone, etc. in your pocket or purse. Nothing should be on the table except for the tea display.
- Be aware of dress codes. Afternoon teas are formal events, so leave the shorts, sneakers, and sportswear at home.
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