When we visit London and a friend says, let's meet for afternoon tea, my first thought is not where, but what kind. As in what kind of afternoon tea service? Afternoon tea can be split into three categories:
- Traditional: the classic, old-fashioned, full-service, white glove teas
- Modern: the full tea (savory, sweets, and scones), but in a less formal setting where the food is often more contemporary.
- Basic: very causal teas where you can opt for just pastries and tea
Traditional teas are what most people think of when they imagine afternoon tea. They are grand affairs from another era, often complete with gilded decor, glasses of champagne. In NYC, there are some options like this but in London, you could live there a year and still not make it through all the traditional afternoon tea establishments.
A notable example of traditional tea is found at Brown's Hotel (£39.50) in the Mayfair. At Brown's, you have it all: three tiers with tea sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle, and sweets on top. The sandwiches are classic, no surprise, but well executed. Think smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg salad and watercress, paper-thin ham with mustard and chopped pickles. And after you finish all that (though I've yet to see someone who actually finishes everything), out comes a cake trolley. Care for a slice of cake or two? These cakes change seasonally and on my visit there was a vanilla sponge cake with brushes of cream and jam, and a thick slice of boozy and moist fruit cake. The tea menu is extensive with a total of 17 teas covering all five categories (black, oolong, green, white, and herbals).
Other solid bets for traditional afternoon tea include The Ritz (£45) which is easily the most opulent in town (make reservations two months in advance), Claridge's Hotel (£40), and Palm Court at The Langham (£40).
One step away from traditional teas are modern afternoon teas. These teas are just as complete but less formal, sometimes even playful. A trend for modern afternoon teas are themed teas like the Prêt-à-Portea at The Berkeley, which includes iconic fashion-inspired sweets, and the colorful Mad Hatter's Tea at The Sanderson (pink and green sandwiches!).
Afternoon tea at The May Fair (£29.50) combines the foundation of a traditional tea with modern twist. The scones and tea sandwiches are classic: think English cheddar and pickles, and cucumber with dill cream cheese. The updated spin comes in the form of sweets like a petite phyllo tower scented with orange blossom, lemon tarts infused with cardamom, nutty black sesame macarons, and jars of caramelized banana mousse. They serve a selection of six tea from London-based Rare Tea Co.
For other modern afternoon teas, consider Sketch (the fairytale interior of Sketch alone is worth a visit), Dean Street Townhouse, and The Orangery (£19.95).
While traditional and modern afternoon teas require reservations, there's always a need for casual tea spots where you can waltz in on a whim. Casual teas are also important because you don't always want a full afternoon tea (no stomach space for dinner!), and sometimes you just crave scones or sandwiches, not both.
Surprisingly enough, Sotheby's hosts a fine casual tea. Tea is offered in their first floor cafe space and you can even watch live auctions on the big screen. The "Small Tea" (pictured, £8.25) comes with a pot of tea, tea cake, and two fresh-baked scones with clotted cream and jam. The best part of this tea is the toasted tea cake—it's like a cross between English muffins and cake, slathered in cinnamon-orange butter. Just enough to satisfy, not stuff.
Other Causal teas: Bea's of Bloomsbury offers a Sweet Tea (£10) which is the full tea minus the sandwiches, and at places like High Tea of Highgate and The Tea Rooms, you can order nearly all the components of afternoon tea a la carte.