While the English have been enjoying the luxury of tea drinking for over 350 years, it was only 170 years ago that the ritual of afternoon tea (a light meal of dainty sandwiches, cakes and pastries alongside the tea) developed alongside it. Originally the invention of Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford, the habit was soon taken up by fashionable ladies across the country and is now a mainstay on menus in London’s most elegant hotels and tearooms.
For a classic approach and superb attention to detail, book well in advance for a table at one of Claridge’s afternoon tea sittings. Served in the hotel’s elegant Art Deco foyer, their version will delight tea connoisseurs and anyone with impeccable taste (they took home the ‘Best Traditional Afternoon Tea’ award at the Afternoon Tea Awards last year).
Claridge’s have close competition from other iconic hotels, of course. The Ritz sets an equally sky-high standard with its focus on immaculate traditional fare (with an opulent setting at the hotel’s Palm Court salon to boot), while the Dorchester delivers their finest Dalreoch teas and exquisite treats in the beautifully plush surroundings of the Promenade lobby. Perhaps a lesser-known name but a royal favourite nonetheless, the Goring near Buckingham Palace has been perfecting its afternoon tea since it opened in 1910, and the string of awards from the British Tea Council attest that the proof is indeed in the pudding (or, at least, in the pastry!).
Outside of the famed London hotels there are still plenty of decadent and traditional servings. Fortnum & Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon offers an eminently stylish option that exudes old world glamour and provides a huge variety of tea accompaniments. The sketch Gallery in Mayfair brings a similar dose of luxury to its tea, but this time the fluffy scones are served up against the unusual yet delightful backdrop of retro powder pink velvet upholstery and framed cartoons.
If you’re less of a traditionalist, never fear. There are a whole host of more innovative varieties to choose from in the capital. Elevate the afternoon tea experience to new heights (quite literally) by dining at Ting at the Shangri-La Hotel, located at the 35th floor of the Shard. Usually split between traditional and Asian versions of afternoon tea, it’s not just the view that’s top notch.
For a meal with a dash of whimsy and magic, the Sanderson’s Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea might be just the ticket. This rendering puts colourful twists on afternoon tea staples and adds delightfully themed accessories into the mix (think ‘drink me’ labels, pocket-watch macaroons, and playful crockery) to transform a classic experience to something truly extraordinary.
P.S. Don’t forget to check dress codes! Most establishments simply ask for smart casual attire, but some do prohibit specific types of clothing as well – ripped jeans, flip-flops and the like are usually a no-no.