Civilised, ceremonial and the perfect event to choose for a celebration, afternoon tea has seen something of a renaissance in recent years. It is not lunch or dinner but rather sits proud as its own event; it’s too frivolous to do as a regular thing so is a special occasion for most. Afterall, we can’t all be the Duchess of Bedford – said to have invented the tea-and-cakes feast as a hunger-staving ritual for her aristocratic cohort back in 1840.
Now, it generally encompasses a savoury course of finger sandwiches sometimes joined by additional savoury fancies, followed by scones and cakes and/or pastries. Plus the tea itself and the option to begin proceedings with a glass of something fizzy. The modern afternoon tea has become a way of celebrating London, too, whether that be spotlighting fashion, art and theatre or the contemplation of an outstanding view or tradition. The final plus? It’s the ultimate multi-generational meal choice – a real crowd pleaser. From hotel icons to playful re-imaginings, discover our pick of London’s best afternoon teas.
At a glance, the best afternoon teas in London
The fashionable tea at The Berkeley Hotel
Now in its 34th season, Prêt-à-Portea at The Berkeley serves up a coveted twice-yearly patisserie edit of seasonal catwalk designs to London’s most stylish. Pastry chef Mourad Khiat has been known to sketch his highlights from the front row before re-creating the edible works of art that appear on a very chic plate. Designers for SS23 include Hermès, Loewe and Moschino; the latter of which comes in the form of a tropical mousse layered on a Sable Breton biscuit, topped with a meringue flamingo inspired by its fishtail gown from the collection. The Madagascan biscuit portrait that acted as a tribute to Dame Vivienne Westwood was a classy touch, too.
The bold and colourful creations look almost too good to eat. Savoury wise, the sandwiches are subtle twists on the classics – think cucumber sandwiches with jalapeño cream cheese and poached Scottish salmon on beetroot bread. A nice ceremonial touch is the timer the waiter brings to the table to make sure you give your tea optimum time to infuse.
Prêt-à-Portea is served every day from 1pm – 5.30pm, from £80 per person.
The tea that’s steeped in glamour at Claridge’s
It doesn’t get much more London-iconic than afternoon tea at Claridge’s. Head through the revolving doors to this Mayfair institution and be immersed in the movie-like glamour of the art deco foyer with its high-shine checkboard floor and Dale Chihuly light sculpture, suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. This is where tea is served by the exceptional white-jacketed team who will tell you everything you need to know about the extensive menu and who cleverly make every guest feel like a VIP.
The pianist and cellist playing 1920s jazz music add to the upscale ambiance. With the food it’s all about attention to detail. Claridge’s is fastidious about its bread to filling ratio and lateral slicing, making for perfectly executed sandwiches with fillings such as Dorrington ham served on onion bread with orange and mustard mayonnaise and hand-chopped Burford brown eggs with truffle mayonnaise. Then it’s all about the freshly baked warm scones served with Cornish clotted cream and house jam. Delicate patisseries complete the experience, with the banana, peanut and chocolate tart being a highlight.
Afternoon tea is served every day between 2.45pm and 5.30pm; from £85 per person.
The tea with royal connections at Fortnum & Mason
There’s a unique atmosphere for afternoon tea at Piccadilly’s legendary Fortnum & Mason department store, because despite being the official royal grocer and part of high society since 1707, the experience feels pleasingly jolly and laidback, not at all formal or stuffy. The hum of celebration rings around the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon (all panelled walls and white table cloths) officially opened in 2012 by her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
There are six tea menus to choose from, including an all-savoury option and high tea, both perfect for those without the requisite sweet tooth. Finger sandwiches include Kames Bay Smoked Trout with preserved lemon and dill cream cheese and cucumber with minted pea. Plain and fruit scones are followed by patisserie delights such as the rose éclair and black cherry mousse. As for the teas, there are 150 varieties with special royal blends that mark important occasions such as the recent Coronation. Plus, you can get as many refills of anything you’re served, too.
Afternoon tea is served from 11.30am to 7pm Monday – Saturday and from 12pm to 6pm on Sunday; from £78 per person; fortnumandmason.com/afternoon-tea
The tea with an Asian twist at Pan Pacific London
In the Zen-like Orchid Lounge (think natural tones, organic curves and lots of stylish plants), this Singapore-inspired tea ritual begins with a cold towel to refresh you for the experience, followed by a zingy amuse bouche in the form of an iced pea and mint shot topped with truffle pearls. All setting the scene for an entirely different tea experience. You can choose a more traditional menu but the ‘Kopi Tiam’ (the name for coffee shops found all over Singapore) is the signature choice. This ‘Floral Fantasy’ themed afternoon tea is a tribute to Singapore’s fantastical Gardens by the Bay.
The first course of Asian savouries includes a selection of siu mai (steamed prawn, beef and spinach dumplings), crispy deep fried milk and steamed pandan mantou with kaya jam. Matcha scones are served with rhubarb-ginger preserve and clotted cream, and then come the colourful and delicate ‘floral fantasy’ pastries, from a lavender macaron to a pistachio and raspberry choux topped with a flower. All presented on fine china and placed inside decorative hanging bird cages. An exquisite experience that borders on meditation. You can also add your first glass of English sparkling wine to the experience for £10.
Afternoon tea is served every day from 12pm-4.30pm; from £68 per person. Twilight afternoon tea is available on Mondays between 6pm and 8pm.
The tea with a view at Shangri-La The Shard
For true pinch-yourself wow factor, try being served a miniature milk chocolate Shard cake with dry ice whilst staring down at all the key London landmarks from the 35th floor of the very same building. This tea really feels like a love letter to the city, served in the Shangri-La Hotel’s wisteria clad TĪNG Lounge, accompanied by a live singer at the weekends.
Delivered on a pretty cake stand decorated with flowers, delicately flavoured finger sandwiches are complemented with dainty savouries such as the ‘Rata Burger’ (Rata Burger Provençale ratatouille and green pesto). The plain and raisin scones come wrapped in napkin blankets to ensure they stay warm and the vibrant patisseries (the Flower Power Choux with yoghurt creméux and peach mousse is astonishing) come topped with colourful butterflies and flowers. It would be rude not to opt for a glass of Veuve Clicquot here because there’s so much to celebrate.
Afternoon tea is served from 12:30pm – 3.30pm Monday-Thursday, 12:30pm – 4pm Friday-Sunday; From £71 per person.
The art inspired tea at Rosewood London
Art aficionados will love the Art Afternoon Tea at Holborn’s Rosewood London. This season’s artist in residence is the one and only David Hockney so expect colour, humour and a complete ‘Hockneyfication’ of the hotel’s Mirror Room by set designer Camilla Wordie. Executive pastry chef Mark Perkins’ culinary creations are inspired by Hockney’s ‘Bigger & Closer’ exhibition at Lightroom. To say the cakes are works of art seems obvious, but the Hockney-esque saturated colours and sculptural lines with playful details really elevate this tea experience to something altogether immersive.
Sweet highlights include the ‘The Splash’, inspired of course by Hockney’s iconic swimming pool paintings and made from Earl Grey chocolate bavarois, chocolate sponge with a passion fruit insert and vibrant blue façade. On the savoury menu, lobster and crayfish rolls and chicken and avocado on sourdough feel modern. Quintessential scones complete this unique Hockney experience.
Afternoon tea is served every day from 12pm to 5.45pm; from £75 per person.
The classic Londoner’s tea at The Wolseley
Opened in 2003 in a grandiose Italianate building on Piccadilly – a converted car showroom for The Wolseley car company – The Wolseley is a bona fide London institution that attracts a non-touristy, discerning clientele looking for quality and consistency rather than showmanship. Favoured by art and media types, the late artist Lucian Freud dined there most nights. For a venue of this stature, afternoon tea is really rather reasonable and you can choose from just a cream tea (if the scones are enough) as well as the classic or champagne options.
Classic is the word though, the bespoke blend teas come in one-of-a-kind teapots with monogrammed silver strainers, and the finger sandwiches stick to the quintessential fillings (smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, roast beef, coronation chicken and cheddar cheese and pickle) joined on the three-tiered stand by six pastries made fresh every morning by the restaurant’s pastry chefs. Want to be spontaneous? The restaurant always holds tables for walk-ins on the day.
Afternoon tea is served from 3pm-6.30pm Monday-Friday and 3.30pm-6.30pm Saturday-Sunday; from £39.50 per person; thewolseley.com
The Shakespearean tea at the Globe Theatre
Served in the Swan restaurant at Bankside’s Globe Theatre, this theatrical afternoon tea has a lot going for it. First up, you’re at the Globe, a playhouse institution since Elizabethan times – a detail that is celebrated with the Shakespearean-themed teas that are staged here. Then there’s the location, bang on the River Thames with a stupendous view of St Paul’s in the buzzy Bankside area. We also like the variety of teas on offer here – and the price.
Yes, you can get the traditional tea, served with creatively themed cocktails as well as the usual tea or champagne, but the so-called Gentleman’s Tea will go down a storm for those participants wanting a heavier meal. They can feast on such filling delights as beer battered Scottish haddock and chips (yes, really) and black pudding Scotch egg. A Midsummer’s Night Dream provides the theme (and the bespoke crockery) until the 14th August when Macbeth takes over for a blood-curdling Autumn season.
Afternoon tea is served from 12pm-5pm Monday-Friday; from £40.50 per person; swanlondon.co.uk