Afternoon Tea in London’s best venues is to enter an indulgent world where the air is filled with the fragrance of fresh flowers and the toasty smell of scones mingled with the tinkling of piano music and compliments being exchanged. In this magical world chairs become thrones and tables are decked with fine linens, delicate china and silver cutlery – ready to welcome a parade of delectable treats, each one more delightful than the next.
Whether it’s a solidly traditional affair or a re-imagined version, it isn’t really afternoon tea if it doesn’t deliver tasty, tiny sandwiches, and scones with jam and cream. Above all, we think it should be outrageously special – the best afternoon teas are precise rituals steeped in luxury that make you feel pampered, extraordinarily special and outrageously refined. Our pick of London’s best venues do all this and more…
Afternoon tea at the Ritz is an institution and a ceremony conducted with such flair that it has the magical effect of making you feel like a member of an exotic aristocracy. The Ritz has been perfecting their afternoon tea since they opened in 1906 and both tourists and locals are known to book months in advance secure the same experience enjoyed by the most famous and powerful people in Britain. The venerable hotel is an experience on its own, but afternoon tea allows you to sample their fresh (apple and raisin) scones with clotted cream in the ornate cream-coloured opulence of Palm Court. The hotel dress code bans men who appear without jacket and tie (no jeans or sports wear, no unsupervised teenagers either). Think of this as encouragement to dress up as demanded by the chandeliers, the grand piano and the ornate gilded Louis XVI décor. Whether you enjoy the impeccable sandwiches and pretty cakes with the Ritz’s Royal English tea (one of many choices in the impressive tea list) or opt to celebrate with the sommelier’s choice of champagne, you can be assured of a memorable experience.
“When I die,” the actor Spencer Tracy said, “I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.” Afternoon tea at Claridge’s is a stylised ritual that has been performed (never just served) in the Art Deco splendour of the lobby of this famous hotel for at least a century and a half. Tea is also offered in the Reading Room which is more secluded. The menu is substantial – combining the expertise of a resident tea connoisseur and a dedicated chef – and it brims with with luxurious options. A poetic range of teas lines up to complement each delightful morsel that you’ll consume from the iconic green-and-white striped Bernardaud china. Instead of jam with your scones, they serve a Marco Polo gelée (infused with bergamot and vanilla) and instead of service there is a theatre of efficiency. A stool for your handbag to rest on? A glamorous box to take home the cakes you couldn’t eat? Some champagne perhaps? Even if you stick to tea, an afternoon at Claridge’s is bound to leave you feeling bubbly, very special and oh so terribly spoiled.
The contemporary style of the Edwardian One Aldwych hotel is infused into their playful take on afternoon tea. Their “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea” is a mouthful of playful gastronomy that reworks tradition into an adventure in textures and flavours that Willy Wonka would enjoy. Inspired by their official partnership with the musical version of Roald Dahl’s story, the tea menu is colourful and inventive enough to excite jaded palates,without straying too far from tradition. The chefs at One Aldwych do very good work with the classic finger sandwich fillings (such as beef with horseradish and salmon in lemon mayonnaise) but they really show off when it comes to sweet surprises like golden eggs and finely flavoured multi-coloured candy floss. The decadent sweetness of a chocolate factory tea is nicely balanced by the addition of savoury quiches in an innovative menu that is far from childish. It includes the option of being enjoyed with a Cocktail Charlie: a dramatic berry and chocolate concoction made with Dalmore whisky, Grand Marnier and Champagne.
Afternoon tea at The Dorchester on Park Lane is a very traditional, lily-scented and luxurious affair. Traditional afternoon tea will have you seated in the sublime comfort of the oversized chairs in the grand promenade lobby accompanied by the resident pianist but other options are also on offer. There’s a vintage tea served on the balcony overlooking the flower-filled lobby or you can nibble on bite-sized cakes served in the airy atmosphere of the spa. Whatever your choice, service at the Dorchester is exemplary in both attentiveness and the level of knowledge displayed about various temptations on the menu. Their sandwiches are made with array of unusual and innovative bread options but the the tiny scones still follow a 50-year-old recipe. The bite-sized scones encourage exploration of the wide range of flavours in their special range of intriguing hotel-made jams. Pacing yourself is vital because the pastries that follow include the lightest pistachio macaroons and the densest chocolate brownies you are ever likely to encounter.
The Athenaeum was the 2012 holder of the UK Tea Council’s Award of Excellence – a serious honour in the world capital of afternoon teas. The Athenaeum serves afternoon tea in a ground floor garden room with low nightclub-style tables that make the options offered by the champagne trolley seem like a very good idea indeed. Whatever your take on the paper dog or the images made from bank notes, the Athenaeum’s decorative art collection is curious and eclectic conversation point. The highlight of tea at the Athenaeum is the decadent cake trolley that rumbles towards you, groaning with every sugary confection you can imagine and many we cannot name. This follows a three-tiered parade of neat sandwiches, crusty scones and sweets that include a delightful champagne jelly, profiteroles and white chocolate cheesecake. The more relaxed dress code at the Athenaeum, and their more relaxed approach to afternoon tea, makes this location ideal for those less concerned with pomp and ceremony and more interested in eating themselves into a dreamy tea-soaked stupor.
For an afternoon tea in rock-star style, The Gore Hotel – a short distance from Knightsbridge and Hyde Park – is the place to see and be seen. Known for casual glamour, vintage décor and understated luxury, the Gore doesn’t feel like one of oldest hotels in London, which it is. Tea is offered in Bistro 190 – known for a lively atmosphere and fresh modern food – or in the Green Room where high ceilings, a marble fireplace and leather sofas create a timeless capsule of cool Victorian style. This is the perfect setting for decadent afternoon of tea, champagne cocktails, gossip and celebrity spotting. Tea at the Gore does justice to this much-loved of English tradition with superb, relaxed but very efficient service that delivers pure sensory delight and a tea experience designed for a younger, more adventurous palate. With menus that are often composed along musical themes, The Gore adds a light and often lyrical touch like mango macaroons and chocolate lollipops alongside more traditional afternoon tea menu items.
On level 31 of the iconic Shard building, Aqua Shard offers a cool, contemporary take on afternoon tea classics with breathtaking views over some of London’s finest sights. A classic three-tiered Afternoon Tea is served in the Tea Wing, a triple height atrium with oak floors decorated in a subtle tribute to all things English, namely tea, gin and Liberty fabrics. The only thing that could possibly compete with the stunning view is the impeccably presented spread that is the Classic Afternoon Tea. It begins with a selection of finger sandwiches that include smoked salmon and caviare, followed by freshly baked vanilla, raisin and orange blossom scones served with Jersey clotted cream and fragrant home-made jams. Bringing proceedings to a perfectly sweet end is a selection of treats including the Shard’s signature opera cake and chocolate truffles
The Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea at the Sanderson is a whimsical tribute to Alice in Wonderland in the five-star covered courtyard where factory workers took their lunch before Phillipe Starke waved his wand over the Sanderson and it was proclaimed to be the cutting-edge of quirky London style. The Sanderson’s creative take on afternoon tea works hard with small details to deliver delight from beginning to end. “Much of a muchness,” Alice might say, on discovering that the menu is hidden inside a vintage book. The linen napkins are wrapped in riddles and and the fragrant tea blends are presented for selection in miniature glass caddies. Sugar is served from musical box with a dancing ballerina and the teapot wears a paper crown. There is substance as well as style in the multi-coloured sandwiches, savoury and sweet scones, a wondrous jelly wonderland and a cake stand packed with delicious surprises.