Finger sandwiches, pillow-soft scones, rich clotted cream and endless cups of perfect brews – what could be more delightful than an afternoon tea? We have Anna (a Victorian Duchess of Bedford) to thank for this most civilized of meals. And what a meal it is: a four o’clock treat of piled-high sweets and savouries to plug that ghastly gap between lunch and dinner.
As with most things quintessentially British, there is an etiquette to the whole affair. Devon and Cornwall have long fought over whether cream or jam comes first. Our advice? As long as the scones are warm and airy, pick whichever most tickles your fancy. From gilded courts to art-loving salons and double-decker buses, we raise our cups (but never our pinkies!) to London’s finest afternoon teas.
The definition of afternoon tea may be somewhat loose here (it’s served from 11.30am to 7.30pm), but The Ritz takes everything else about the tradition extremely seriously. A jacket and tie are de rigueur in the jewel-box Palm Court, and it’s certainly worth the effort. Take your pick from the tea master’s 21 concoctions – from the house’s Royal English blend to fragrant white peony – and nibble daintily on the capital’s most cloud-like scones.
You’ll need to plan ahead for a chance to sample afternoon tea under Dale Chihuly’s spectacular chandelier. Poached Scottish salmon, truffled mayo and onion bread liven up the traditional sandwiches, and pastries are served on the hotel’s iconic jade-and-white striped china. Look out for seasonal twists: you’ll be treated to Eton mess during Wimbledon and festive pastries (and carollers) for Christmas.
The Corinthia puts a quirky twist on afternoon tea, taken in the lofty Crystal Moon Lounge. Tables are dressed with hand-painted china and Baccarat champagne flutes. The pastries – cannelés, mousses and other passion fruit pound cakes –are wheeled in on an antique trolley. Scones come in a wooden box to keep them toasty warm and are quite the treat when spread with a healthy dollop of the homemade rhubarb jam.
With its neon artwork, David Shrigley gallery and pink India Mahdavi lounge, this 18th-century townhouse is London’s Instagram darling. Superstar chef Pierre Gagnaire is the brains behind the menu, which includes suitably luxe sandwiches filled with caviar, foie gras or truffled egg. New art commissions and a programme of creative nights (canine life drawing, anyone?) ensure its street cred is up-to-the-minute, too.
It may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but this bright red double-decker is just the thing if you’ve only an afternoon in London to call your own. From the nifty flute holders to the takeaway tea mugs, everything’s designed for a spill-free whizz past Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Albert Hall. Take in the city’s most iconic sights while feasting on B Bakery’s scrumptious bite-size treats, but be warned: it can be a bit of a bumpy ride.
This canny South Kensington bolthole takes inspiration from its Science Museum neighbour for its kid-friendly afternoon tea. Lemon curd comes in a squeeze tube, pastries are served in a petri dish or shaped like fossils in chocolate ‘soil’. That’s not to say grown-ups are left out. Sink into the drawing room’s deep velvet armchairs for truffle-butter scones and cocktails served in teapots.
Image credits: © The Ritz; © The Ritz; © The Ritz; © Claridge’s; © The Corinthia; © SKETCH; © B Bakery; © Amy Murrell