Food & drink

The best afternoon tea in London? Here’s our top 10 brews …

Pinkey fingers aloft – it's time to salute the British capital in style with our guide to the pre-dinner institution

Lucy Fennings

BY Lucy Fennings13 June 2011

The best afternoon tea in London? It’s a subject every city-dweller has an opinion on. We’ve selected our favourite tearooms, so let us invite you to share that oh-so-British concoction, the traditional afternoon tea: a brew for two, served with a selection of cucumber-filled and strawberry-topped snacks. England expects every man to do his/her duty and comment on their favourite tea spots. So, without further ado, here’s our pick of the top teas in town…

THE CLASSIC Tea at the Ritz
The quintessential mid-afternoon dining experience in London’s most venerable institution. This is the gold standard for finger sandwiches and scones. Don a jacket and tie (or silks and pearls) for this lavish day out: The Ritz’s afternoon tea is served in the opulent Palm Court, all gilded edifices, heavy curtains, marble pillars, mirrored walls and fronded palms. Pull up your butter-yellow chairs and sit down to a traditional spread: 18 types of loose-leaf tea (lemon verbena, chocolate-mint rooibos…), sandwiches plump with smoked salmon and lemon butter, chicken and tarragon mayo, cucumber and cream cheese, plus other favourites and elegant little sweet treats. Slather your raisin and plain scones with Cornish clotted cream and strawberry jam as a pianist hammers out Puttin’ on the Ritz. If the song speaks to you, champagne teas are available too.

Also try: L’oscar hotel, whose Saint and Sinner afternoon tea nods to its former incarnation as a baptist church. Swathed in velvets, embellished with peacock feathers and swagged to the hilt: this stay very nearly matches the Ritz for opulence and the punny nature of the menu (devilled-chicken sandwiches, devil’s food cake…) will raise some wry smiles.

Inspired by the Science Museum, just down the road (and a fitting coda to a visit), this afternoon tea is an exquisitely conceived affair that boldly goes beyond your usual offering to delight the curious of all ages. Planet-shaped mousses emerge from dry ice, jams can be probed in petri-dishes, dinosaur biscuits and chocolate fossils must be unearthed under a dusting of chocolate ‘soil’. There’s astronaut food in the form of freeze-dried fruits and edibles in squeezy tubes, plus injectable fillings for macarons and rockets to launch into your mouth. It’s all delightful, even down to the more traditional scones studded with cranberry and white chocolate. Adults can zhuzh theirs up with champagne, too, but you’ll already be giddy with excitement after this experimental sugar rush.

Also try The Sanderson brought Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck’s idiosyncratic design vision to the capital. Equally attention-grabbing, its Alice in Wonderland-themed Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea goes down a delicious rabbit hole, with Queen of Hearts jammy dodgers, ‘Drink me’ potions and pocket-watch macarons, served on crockery themed around the Lewis Carroll tome.

Before we get round to the Franklin’s elegantly composed, Italian-accented afternoon tea menu, let’s take a minute to reflect on Anouska Hempel’s glamorous dining rooms. Strokable grey-velvet sofas, black-and-white patterns, mirrored panels and tasteful perfuming create a cosseting space you can easily while away the afternoon in. The tea itself involves a thick booklet of Camellia’s Tea House brews, salami and anchovy savouries, pecan and apricot scones and a decadent array of sweets: Chantilly cream-filled beignets, mango semifreddo… And, this is just their baseline tea – keep your eyes peeled for special themed teas, usually inspired by the happenings along Exhibition Road at the time. A Dior-inspired tea saw the table sprinkled with rose petals and calvados spritzed from perfume bottles, while a Tim Walker-inspired tea has cakes suspended from a miniature tree.

Also try For a similarly seductive sugar hit, pop into the Soho Hotel to try its G&Tea (see what they did there), which serves generous pours of its namesake spirit alongside bao buns, truffled tidbits and sandwiches filled with goat’s cheese and honey, smoked salmon and crème fraîche and other favourites.

THE LIT HIT The Bloomsbury
The Bloomsbury pays deference to Virginia Woolf, EM Forster et al with a beautifully penned menu for its afternoon tea, suitably served on the Dalloway Terrace. Instead of feminist treatises and moral-compass-swinging drama, you’ll be served virgin-colada mousse, blueberry and lavender éclairs and orange and thyme macarons. Bourbon-vanilla scones come with dollops of cloudberry jam and there are equal measures of teas and champagnes to choose from. And, if you find yourself lingering till late, the Coral Bar’s charming cocktail maestros will welcome stragglers.

Also try Hans Bar & Grill, the restaurant attached to 11 Cadogan Gardens hotel has an enticing array of savoury and sweet picks. Start with the lobster and truffle roll, chicken and almond sandwiches and the lamb and mint sausage roll; chase with Chelsea bun-flavoured scones; then – the grand finale –polish off mini Battenbergs, lemon-meringue pies and chocolate and rosemary cheesecake. There’s a tea library and sparklier thirst-quenchers, but you may wish to supplement with a hot-chocolate, a nod to Sir Hans Sloane, who invented the drink.

Known for its curious interiors, pop-up art shows and fashionable clientele – and London’s most-Instagrammed loos – Sketch is a fantastical dining spot with pâtisserie to die for. The Parlour’s all-day dining menu includes both set afternoon tea and a creative à la carte collection of sandwiches, cakes and teas, so even the fussiest sipper can select the right blend. The tea menu traverses the globe, with a gaba blend from Taiwan, jasmine silver needles tea from China, Ceylon and rose from Sri Lanka… The dining room is a soothing Pepto-Bismal hue with David Shrigley’s wry prints on the walls and cheeky slogans on the crockery. You can have favourites from the tier topped up once more – and you will, with coronation chicken and salmon-and-ricotta sandwiches, truffled croque fingers, egg gougères and truly wild sweet treats: home-made marshmallows, neon Battenbergs, cheesecake shots and other toothsome snacks.

Also try The Anthony Gormley-inspired tea at Rosewood London‘s Mirror Room. Using the medium of cake, an apple flourishes then withers, organic forms are given tough embellishments and the internal body commingles with the cosmological. And, there are salmon and fennel pollen, truffled egg mayo and coronation chicken sandwiches, plus glasses of Ruinart champagne, too. Serious stuff, that’s seriously delicious too.

TEA AL LA MODE The Berkeley
The Berkeley’s now-famously fashionable Prêt-a-Portea takes seasonal cues from the catwalks for its cake colours and designs. This means a menu that’s always fresh and fashion-forward, and you get to witness the chefs’ remarkable creativity. Currently, spun-sugar Molly Goddard gowns, Jimmy Choo biscuits developed with the brand’s creative director, Moschino-cued millionaire delices and micro-bag petits fours are en vogue. They don’t skimp on the savouries either, with sandwich fillings of smoked duck and egg, pastrami with mustard celeriac rémoulade, plus miso-scented madeleines. Teas range from ‘light’ to ‘invigorating’, with rare and historical picks, too. And with a guest designer creating one extra cake each month, you’ll get a true fashion plate.

Also try Join a sitting for Claridge’s afternoon tea, and chances are you’ll catch style journalists meeting their interviewees and fashion editors catching up over cakes. Make sure you look the part: this is a no-scruff zone and the setting is a beautiful as the people in it.

With more than 70 teas on the menu, and savoury snacks inspired by a century of menu archives, this picnic-perfect Piccadilly institution is the go-to choice for gourmet tea-totallers. Excellent staff can guide you through the menu and advise on the most suitable teas to match your finger-sandwiches, canapés, blinis and madeleines. Part of the fun is revelling in the surroundings: the rarefied air of the Diamond Jubilee tea salon and its beautiful table settings, with silver tea strainers and trademark aqua-blue porcelain. This high tea stays true to stiff-upper-lip tradition – you’ll nary find a scone with such spot-on consistency or a more precision-cut cucumber sandwich. But, there are some curveballs, such as a duck mousse and pistachio Paris brest or Cashel Blue parfait with port jelly.

Also try Vintry & Mercer have given a classic London look to their tea with miniature landmarks made of cake. To make it all the more special you can see some of the iconic buildings you’re consuming from the view-blessed terrace: the Shard, for example, rendered delicately in chocolate mousse. St Paul’s is crafted from cherry and orange marzipan, the Tate Modern’s Brutalist block is a brownie, and the London Eye a lavender macaron.

This hip hotel hub for work and play serves a seasonal afternoon tea in the Green Room, an aptly named bar brimming with leafy installations, accented with emerald tiles and furnished with moss-hued sofas. It’s a magical modern take on an English country garden and the edibles have been duly updated too, with smoked-salmon bagels, gin-and-tonic cucumber sandwiches and devilled eggs. Hackney Herbal fill pots with classic and bespoke tea blends, and moving up the tiers, you’ll find fresh-baked scones and a plateful of dainty macarons, cakes and mousses.

Also try Kit Kemp’s kookily dressed dining room at Ham Yard Hotel makes an elegant fern-spruced setting for a delicious afternoon-tea offering. Get stuck into roast pumpkin and feta sandwiches, goat’s cheese mousse and parma ham tarts, Tonka bean and dulce-de-leche éclairs, and fig and orange macarons. Then ascend to the plant-bedecked rooftop terrace for a fruity cocktail; say, the Pink Foragin, with the Botanist pink gin, strawberry and rosemary jam.

Inspired? Check out our pick of the best boutique hotels in London