Mother’s Day treats: The best afternoon tea in London, from the Ritz to Brown’s Hotel
Here’s a fun fact: afternoon tea came to be because a grumpy aristocrat couldn’t make it through the day without a snack.
Queen Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber, Anna the Duchess of Bedford, grew tired of having to wait for her late evening supper and mid-afternoon would ask servants to sneak her tea and slices of bread and butter.
This grew to cakes and sandwiches, until her friends began to join in and the starving upper classes hungrily adopted the practice. Since then, afternoon tea has become a staple of the English diet.
London is the capital of the world for tea and cakes and offers the afternoon tea in all sorts of curious guises. While we’ve found the finest traditional serves going – those with lashings of luxury, gilded in gold – there is life beyond cucumber sandwiches and chocolate éclairs, and it’s no longer compulsory to take your tea in a five-star hotel in Mayfair.
Below are our favourite teas across London. Indulge your inner Wooster, point your pinkie finger to the ceiling and get ready to argue whether the cream or jam should go on first. It’s what afternoons were invented for. All prices are per person.
The perennial dilemma of whether to skip lunch or cancel supper to make room for afternoon tea is answered by The Ritz, where the tea ceremony is administered in five sittings from 11.30am — 7.30pm. Afternoon tea is served in the hotel’s Palm Court, and remains as close as one can get in London to the full Marie-Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake fantasy, not least an entry price of £70, or £48 for kids. A vast chandelier hangs from a ceiling painted in pastel-coloured frescoes, tables are dressed in acres of snowy-white linen while carpets are so plush one practically bounces. The food is even more sumptuous: finger sandwiches, scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry preserve (nothing as infra dig as jam here), plus pastries and cakes replenished on request. Meanwhile, 18 different types of loose-leaf tea are selected by the only certified tea master in a UK hotel.
150 Piccadilly, W1J 9BR, theritzlondon.com
“Garden centre” hardly does justice to Petersham Nurseries, which has morphed into a full-on lifestyle emporium selling not only things to plant outside but antiques and objets d’art with which to prettify your interiors. There is no lovelier setting in London to take tea, with tables and chairs scattered around a flower-bedecked courtyard in summer and, in winter or when the weather’s not so nice, set amidst the heady fragrance of the jasmine-scented greenhouse (though note that afternoon tea, £45, is only served at the weekend). The food offering picks up on the rus-in-urbe vibe with simple preparations of top-notch seasonal ingredients — roasted red pepper tartlet with mascarpone and pea shoots; meringue with charred Petersham grapes and tarragon syrup; rose-petal Bellinis — though as owners Gael and Francesco Boglione are revered as arbiters of Italian good taste, don’t be surprised when your buttermilk scones arrive on a splendid Florentine-style, hand-blown glass cake stand.
Off Church Lane, Petersham Road, TW10 7AB, petershamnurseries.com
Lily Vanilli afternoon tea at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Afternoon tea at Drury Lane provides a reason to visit one of London’s most beautiful theatres without having to put on a synthetic blue dress and sing along to Frozen. Tea is a recent addition to the 360-year history of a building where Nell Gwyn caught the eye of King Charles II while selling oranges, and is certainly a more sophisticated proposition than a bag of citrus fruit. The £59 price tag buys an afternoon tea from east London baker and Instagram sensation Lily Vanilli: scones with cream and jam, of course, but also a stunner of a cherub-topped chocolate-sponge cake and savouries of sausage rolls and glazed salmon. There are vegan and gluten-free versions, too. The Grand Saloon, meanwhile, is a space as theatrical as the address, with soaring ceilings, sparkling chandeliers, a terrace for summer and walls hung with pre-Raphaelite paintings from the private collection of the theatre’s owner, Lord Webber.
Catherine Street, WC2B 5JF, thelane.co.uk
Most hotel teas come with the option to pimp things up with a glass of Champagne but if you want to take daytime drinking to a whole new level of afternoon delight then the cocktail-led Spirited Tea (£55) at Lyaness is for you. To eat, there are cucumber, chicken and salmon sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and blueberry and lemon-thyme jam, plus éclairs and other sweet treats — though everyone is really here for the trio of cocktails created by drinks supremo Ryan Chetiyawardana: a rum and galangal Rosebud, a gin and apple Orchard Spritz or vodka and vermouth Rock Melon Gimlet. A location within Sea Containers gives all the plush perks of hotel dining plus a cracking view over the river to St Paul’s thrown in for free.
Sea Containers London, 20 Upper Ground, SE1 9PD, lyaness.com
Fortnum & Mason
If only all department store cafés were like this. The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon sits on the top floor of Fortnum & Mason, holder of royal warrants to the late Queen and new King and opened by Her Majesty herself in 2012, which must have made a tasty change to cutting the ribbon on a new factory. The classic afternoon tea (£75) is superb — an avalanche of never-bettered sandwiches, scones and seasonally changing patisserie such as jasmine loaves and lemon brandy snaps — though the savoury version (£78) is arguably even better, with cream cheese-topped walnut scones and a crab and smoked mackerel éclair. Either way, don’t forget to leave space for a little something extra from the cake trolley. If you like what you see, pretty much everything, from the signature eau-de-nil St James china to the cakes and 150 blends of tea, can be bought somewhere in the store to take home.
181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER, fortnumandmason.com
London’s oldest hotel (est. 1837) is where Queen Victoria liked to take her tea, a double whammy of history which makes Brown’s catnip for tourists in search of the ultimate in English heritage. It is also, though, an ultra-civilised experience that any Londoner with a taste for tradition should try. Wood panelling and roaring fires keep things cosy even in the height of summer, Paul Smith lighting and contemporary art stop things feeling too stuffy while an afternoon tea that can be replenished as many times as you want makes the £75 price a bit of a bargain, should you wish to see how many scones, finger sandwiches and sweets it is possible to scoff in one sitting. A tea sommelier offers guidance to the 17 blends on offer, or swap your cuppa for a glass of Moët & Chandon for an extra £10, another bargain at this bastion of old-school comfort. There’s a plant-based afternoon tea menu, too.
Albemarle Street, W1S 4BP, roccofortehotels.com
The Ivy Tower Bridge
One of the pleasures of taking afternoon tea in London is feeling like a tourist in your own city, a few hours of daytime indulgence that is the foodie equivalent of a theatre matinée, but with the bonus of stuffing your face with cake before rolling out into the dusk. And nowhere says tourist London quite like Tower Bridge, which is on majestic full view through the windows and from the terrace of this riverside outpost of the dependable Ivy chain and where the £26.95 price tag won’t leave you feeling fleeced. Granted, it’s not the most imaginative offering and service can feel impersonal, but if you’re after a classic tea of smoked salmon finger sandwiches, chicken mayo rolls and scones with cream and jam while pondering the ye olde catering facilities for prisoners at the Tower of London over the water, look no further. Also worth considering as pre-theatre before a play at the neighbouring Bridge Theatre.
One Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2AA; theivytowerbridge.com
Prêt-à-Portea at The Berkeley
High calories and haute couture might not seem like the most comfortable fit but The Berkeley has been serving the most stylish of afternoon teas since 2005. The Knightsbridge hotel’s Prêt-à-Portea (£80) sees the most famous faces in fashion, from Iris Apfel to Anna Wintour, immortalised in pastry form. Other treats include cakes painstakingly created in homage to the designs from each season’s catwalks, from a recent Balenciaga collection reimagined as a velvety mandarin cheesecake with orange confit on chocolate sablé, to a blue Stella McCartney jumpsuit tailored into a cassis mousse with blackcurrant jelly. What’s more, each guest gets a mini magazine tucked into their napkin, while magazine editors consult on the looks of each couture cake: proof, if any were needed, that fashion really does take the biscuit. For an ever higher-end experience, try Cedric Grolet’s tasting menu.
Wilton Place, SW1X 7RL, the-berkeley.co.uk
Swap your afternoon tea for high chai at this casual Covent Garden spin-off from Westminster’s high-end Cinnamon Club, likewise overseen by trailblazing Indian chef Vivek Singh. Finger sandwiches are replaced by creative savouries including the kadhai chicken spring roll with kasundi ketchup, there is papdi chaat and panipuri and, when it’s time for something sweet, saffron macarons, rosewater marshmallows, carom-seed shortbread and coriander pistachio cake. The best bit? A £27.50 price tag. If you’ve pennies left to spend, hang around after for cocktails devised by drinks wiz Ryan Chetiyawardana, which go beyond the clichés of simply spicing up the classics by offering mixes with more subtlety and finesse.
28 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7JS, cinnamon-bazaar.com
Cakes & Bubbles
Before Cédric Grolet pitched up at The Berkeley offering a £135 tasting menu of pastries, there was Albert Adrià’s Cakes and Bubbles at the Hotel Café Royal by Piccadilly Circus. The Spanish chef is the brother of Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame (where Albert was the pastry chef) but is famous in his own right for his Michelin-starred Tickets tapas bar in Barcelona (now closed). With such pedigree, this is not the place to come expecting tea and cake: instead, the Sweet Afternoon Bubbles Menu (£45) offers a three-course masterclass in why Adrià won the title of World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2015: a golden egg flan like something dreamt up by Fabergé or a strawberry and chocolate marshmallow that looks like a cocoa-dusted teardrop. The bubbles here are just as important as the cakes; add a glass of Veuve Clicquot for £15.
Hotel Café Royal, 70 Regent Street, W1B 4DY, cakesandbubbles.co.uk
A tea party is the perfect match for the Mad Hatter world of Sketch, where it’s always hard to tell if one is dining in a restaurant or taking part is a site-specific piece of performance art. Afternoon tea is served in the Gallery, recently given a total refurbishment by artist Yinka Shonibare and designer India Mahdavi — though the pod-shaped loos remain, surely the most iconic conveniences since Marcel Duchamp insisted a urinal was a work of art. The classic tea components come with a gentle twist: cucumber and asparagus sandwiches, cranberry and coconut marshmallow scones, or a pineapple éclair, though the standout dish of Comté cheese soldiers and caviar is pure Mayfair, as too the £75 price tag (or £45 for kids). The drinks list, meanwhile, is a whole different rabbit hole to fall down, with 16 teas to choose between and half a dozen cocktails created to match the sweet treats on the plate.
9 Conduit Street, W1S 2XG, sketch.london
Afternoon tea opportunities are pretty limited in Soho and alfresco options that don’t involve hanging off the pavement virtually non-existent, so thank goodness for the Ham Yard Hotel, where the courtyard is a super-civilised oasis shaded by parasols and oak trees. Afternoon tea is also served in the hotel’s Orangery inside and clocks in at a very reasonable (well, by London hotel standards) £40 per person. There are scones with clotted cream and preserves, of course, and smoked salmon sandwiches, but also more creative prawn arancini with garlic mayonnaise, a rhubarb and vanilla choux bun and a cappuccino tart: finger food that won’t get in the way of you snapping a selfie.
One Ham Yard, W1D 7DT, firmdalehotels.com
Afternoon tea might feel like a quintessentially English institution but this French import puts a chicly Parisian spin on the concept. Tea at Mariage Frères is served in a simple white Salon de Thé in the atrium over a shop that claims to house the world’s longest tea wall. With more than 1,000 blends to choose between, Mariage Frères takes the art of tea very seriously, but just as much effort is put into the jewel-coloured patisseries, scones served with tea jelly, and tea-infused savouries such as beef tataki and smoked salmon that comprise the afternoon tea (£50). The hardest part, of course, is deciding what to wash it down with.
38 King Street, WC2E 8JS, mariagefreres.com
Former Wolseley owners Jeremy King and Chris Corbin took the grand cafés of fin-de-siècle Vienna as inspiration when converting the one-time showroom of Wolseley Motors into the quintessential restaurant of early 21st-century London. That means there’s a Mitteleuropean accent to the cakes and pastries here, with Black Forest gâteau, apple strudel, Battenberg and Sachertorte as likely to be washed down mit kaffee as a pot of loose leaf. Rest assured, however, that the classic afternoon tea (£37.50) is as English as they come, with finger sandwiches, cakes and scones spread over a three-tiered stand topped with a silver-plated dome. Anyone who finds the idea of the full blow-out overwhelming will be relieved to know that a two-scone cream tea (£16.75) is also available.
160 Piccadilly, W1J 9EB, thewolseley.com