Afternoon tea ★★★
Raising your pinkies at a proper British afternoon tea in London (preferably with scones)
There is something right, proper, and inestimably comforting about pausing in the middle of the afternoon for a cuppa tea and a light meal.
It's not often that you get to indulge in baked goods, the world's most refined caffeine-delivery method, and other tasty comestibles as part of a bona fide local cultural experience.
The history of afternoon tea
The single greatest culinary innovation of the British—not a culture normally renowned for its role in the culinary arts—was the decision to slip a refined, refreshing spare meal into the middle of the afternoon.
They say the tradition of afternoon tea grew out of a custom started by Anna Russell, Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber and the Dutchess of Bedford, who used to have tea and bread snuck up to her room at Belvoir Castle around 4pm.
Word got around, and soon her friends—also peckish by mid-afternoon—were joining her for tea, cakes, sandwiches, sweets. When the Ducthess returned to London, she brought the rutual with her, and the rest of high society soon picked it up.
The art of the afternoon tea
To this day 3pm and 5:30pm, Brits around the world sit down to a steaming pot of tea accompanied by (at least in more refined situations) a tiered platter piled with slices of cake, teensy tortes, scones with jam and clotted cream, and a selection of delicious finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off—usually a variety, though I believe there's some sort of British law requiring that one of them be cucumber.
(And when I said "Brits around the world," I meant it. I once had afternoon tea in the home of a British couple on a minor island in the Falklands where nesting penguins and albatross outnumbered the handful of people thousands to one and right whales were breaching just off the beach beyond the English garden.)
A full tea serving can run anywhere from £7 ($10) to £57 ($81), depending if you want to go with something opulent in a fancy hotel or famous department store, or prefer to go for the more homey and sensibly priced approach.
(The tea servings themselves are virtually identical in either case; just the settings and bills change.)
Where to get Afternoon Tea in London
London’s classiest—and most expensive—afternoon teas are in the Savoy Hotel ballroom where Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her coronation, daily 1–5:45pm, and in the foyer rooms of the ultra-traditional Brown’s Hotel noon–6:30pm.
Less pricey—but just as good—are the teas at two of London’s legendary department stores: the inimitable Harrods Georgian Restaurant on the fourth floor from 11:30am–8pm (to 6pm Sunday—though note they run out of scones fast); and at Fortnum and Mason’s Diamond Jubillee Tea Salon, noon–7pm (to 6pm Sunday) (181 Piccadilly, tel. (0)20 7734 8040; www.fortnumandmason.co.uk; Tube: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park).
All of those teas cost an average of £39–£56 ($56–$81) per person—and here's a word of warning. If a kind waiter pauses at your table and asks, "Would you like some champagne?" The answer is "No!" This is a (terribly polite) scam some of them run that makes it seems like the flute of bubbly is just part of the whole experience, but in fact what it does is bump up your bill from "afternoon tea" to "champagne tea" status—tacking on an extra £10 to £15 ($20 to $30) per person.
If dropping an average of $70 for some tea and finger sandwiches sounds a bit high to you, the Cafe in the Crypt under St-Martin-in-the-Fields church offers an afternoon tea daily noon–6pm for just £6.95. » moreAfternoon Tea Tours
These might include Afternoon teaMore tours
- Afternoontea.co.uk - Descriptions and booking service for 250+ tea spots across London
- Afternoonteaonline.co.uk - Descriptions and booking service for 152 tea options in London
- Timeout.com - Excellent editorial selection and honest reviews of top 30+ venues, ranging from "Good Value" to "Treat Yourself" to "Special Occasion"
- Yelp.com - The Yelp list—a bit muddled as any place with "tea" in the review gets into the mix, so there are lots of cheap caffs and other venues that aren't really the "veddy British" afternoon tea–type place you are probably after—but handy,
- London Tea Tour - Experience traditional afternoon tea in one of London's finest restaurants. Drink in the history of possibly the world’s first truly global product and dunk yourself into a full-bodied blend of kings, queens, pirates and plague. Tea may hold its roots in lands far away, but it remains a drink that has flowed through every aspect of English life, from Victorian high society to wartime ration books, and has established its home in the bubbling metropolis of London...Partner
- London Afternoon Tea at Grosvenor House - sandwiches and tea on this must-do afternoon tea experience in London! Choose between one of two different types of afternoon tea – one with Champagne or one with just tea – both taking place at London’s 5-star Grosvenor House Hotel...Partner
- London Combo: Westminster Abbey with Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace and Afternoon Tea - Experience two top London sights and one of Britain's best traditions on this full-day combo tour. Visit Westminster Abbey; get an inside look at Buckingham Palace, the Queen's official London residence; and watch the Changing of the Guard, a wonderful display of British pageantry. Then, cap your day with an indulgent afternoon tea at a luxury London hotel...Partner
- Afternoon Tea at The Rubens at the Palace Hotel in London - Treat yourself to that quintessentially English tradition, afternoon tea, in an elegant lounge with views of Buckingham Palace's Royal Mews. Over the 2-hour experience that's fit for a queen, feast on finger sandwiches, fresh-baked scones, and mouthwatering sweet treats at The Rubens at the Palace hotel, a classically English boutique hotel. The Rubens can accommodate most dietary requirements: please advise in advance...Partner
- Afternoon Tea at The Milestone Hotel in London - Treat yourself to that quintessentially English tradition, afternoon tea, at Kensington's 5-star Milestone Hotel, with a history dating back to 1689. Over the 2-hour experience, feast on finger sandwiches, tartlets, cupcakes, macarons, and fresh-baked scones with clotted cream and homemade preserves, while sipping your choice of single estate tea. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are available: inquire in advance...Partner
- London's Sights and Secrets and Afternoon Tea - This tour brilliantly combines sightseeing with the most passionate of English pursuits, afternoon tea. So sit back in style and enjoy tea, cake and a charming piece of London’s history. Yes, we have done it again. We are the FIRST Taxi Tour company to offer this wonderful unique tour. The Original Black Taxi Tour - Bespoke London Sights & Afternoon Tea - is the first of its kind...Partner
Tea takes, well, as long as it takes you to have it.
At the smaller places, figure on 20–30 minutes. At the fancier joints, maybe 45 minutes to an hour–all depends on how long you linger.