Best Places for Afternoon Tea in London

by Melanie Waldman on December 24, 2010

by Melanie Waldman | December 24th, 2010  

Dating back to 1865, afternoon tea in England is credited to Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria.

A woman unused to the fashionably shrinking lunches of the day, the Duchess fell prone to mid-afternoon sugar crashes; after having her footman deliver tea, bread and butter to her room one day, a tradition was born. As her curious in-between meal spread to first her friends and then the finer aristocratic houses of England, afternoon tea became increasingly elaborate.

In modern London, afternoon tea as a meal (not t0 be confused with high tea, which is supper) comes in three forms:

Cream Tea: tea, scones and jam
Light Tea: tea, scones and sweets
Full Tea: tea, savories, scones, sweets and dessert

Here’s where to find the best afternoon tea in London:

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The Berkeley
KNIGHTSBRIDGE
Wilton Place, SW1X 7RL
T: 020 7235 6000
Transformed every six months to reflect London’s changing fashions, the “Prêt-à-Portea” menu features little cakes and cookies styled into handbags and dresses. Equally elegantly-attired servers present selections with laser pointers. (£36.50-53)

Brown’s
MAYFAIR
Albemarle Street, W1S 4BP
Tel : 020 7493 6020
The English Tea Room is not messing around. Surrounded by a cozy mix of modern and historic furnishings and details, you’ll find all the tea essentials presented with delicious, restrained (and quintessentially British) simplicity. (£37-50)

Claridge’s
MAYFAIR
Brook Street, W1K 4HR
T: 020 7629 8860
Served on saucy striped china beneath the high-ceilinged Foyer (graced with a Chihuly glass chandelier), an afternoon here involves stunning petit fours, a choice of 30 teas, and both seasonal and holiday menus. (£35-55)

The Dorchester
MAYFAIR
Park Lane, W1K 1QA
T: 0207629 888

The stars in the opulent Promenade room are the sumptuous cakes and melt-in-your-mouth macarons. However, if you prefer to hold back a bit, retire to the Lucite-tastic Spatisserie, where you can drift straight from a massage (still in your robe) to a sugary nibble and a glass of champagne. (£35.50+)

Fortnum & Mason
MAYFAIR/PICCADILLY
181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER
T: 020 7734 8040

At one of London’s finest department stores, in St James’ Restaurant, afternoon tea is a balance of sweet and savory. With something for just about everyone, choose from vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and even diabetic menus. (£32-36+)

Harrods
KNIGHTSBRIDGE
87-135 Brompton Road, SW1X 7XL
T: 020 7730 1234

As iconic as, well, Harrods, tea here (in any one of three different locations within the department store) manages to be both Continental and British, reflecting the pastries available in Harrods’ remarkable basement Food Hall, its in-house Viennese coffee cafe, and its outpost of Paris’ impeccable Ladurée.

Harvey Nichols
KNIGHTSBRIDGE
109 – 125 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7RJ
T: 020 7235 5000

At this sleek, modern and elegant department store, the afternoon tea at the Fifth Floor Restaurant fits right in; each tiny petit four is an exquisite work of art. (£27.50, or £37.50 with an excellent glass of champagne)

The Lanesborough
KENSINGTON
Hyde Park Corner, SW1X 7TA
T: 020 7259 5599
Featuring England’s first tea sommelier, who guides you through selections purchased at auction (who knew?), it’s safe to say this hotel tea room isn’t messing about. Choose from ultra-traditional, champagne or gluten & dairy-free menus. (£35-50)

The Langham
MARYLEBONE
1c Portland Place & Regent Street, GB W1B 1JA
T: 020 7636 1000

The Palm Court is a dazzle of luxury, gilt and mirrored mosaics, with a grand piano, an array of in-house blended teas, and three menus; the Bijoux menu features stunning little cakes inspired by jewels. (£38-60)

The Living Room
MAYFAIR
3-9 Heddon Street, W1B 4BE
T: o20 7292 0570

For a far less expensive version of a hotel afternoon tea, pair a hot beverage with a “sharing board” of the absurdly delicious desserts (or puddings) here; the rich chocolate brownies are some of the best in the city. (Sharing board, £11.25)

National Dining Rooms at the National Gallery
TRAFALGAR SQUARE
Sainsbury Wing, The National Gallery, WC2N 5DN
T: 020 7747 2525

In what may be the most patriotic tea in London, everything served in the National Dining Rooms is sourced within Great Britain. The hearty pies, tarts, cakes and scones are even sourced within the Rooms’ on-site bakery. (£16.50)

The Metropolitan
MAYFAIR/KNIGHTSBRIDGE
19 Old Park Lane, W1K 1LB
T: 020 7447 1000

At this swanky, ultra-modern hotel, the fashionista-friendly “Afternoon De-Light Tea” is unique in London: wheat-free, carb-free and low fat. Dolled up with hearts and flowers theme in bright pastels, it’s high tea without the guilt. (£25)

Orange Pekoe
BARNES
3 White Hart Lane, SW13 OPX
T: 020 8876 6070

A Tube ride to Hammersmith and short jaunt by bus (the 209 or 419) takes you to this cozy little whitewashed tea room off the beaten tourist path and still near the Thames. They serve 50 varieties of tea here, in traditionally twee floral china; the buttery scones taste like a trip to the countryside. (about £10)

The Orangery at Kensington Palace
KENSINGTON
Kensington Gardens, W8 4PX
T: 020 3166 6000

More ideal as a warm-weather indulgence (the glass-covered atrium here is barely heated in the winter), this is one of the least expensive of London’s truly elegant teas. The Tregothnan menu goes whole hog with a tiered tray, but this close to royalty, even the simplest menus are served on impeccable china. (£14.85-33.75)

Petersham Nurseries’ Teahouse
RICHMOND
Church Lane (Off Petersham Road), Richmond, Surrey, TW10 7AG
T: 020 8605 3627

Take the Tube to Richmond station and walk along the Thames to this flowery idyll not far from Kew Gardens. Also ideal for a warmer day, it’s essentially a rambling patio with mismatched tables and chairs surrounding the nurseries’ main greenhouse. Treats are homemade and reservations here are essential; open only from Thursday to Sunday, it books about one month in advance. (About £25)

The Portrait Restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery
TRAFALGAR SQUARE
St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE
T: 020 7312 2490

With one of the loveliest views over central London, a visit to this otherwise spare, modern space could easily involve sitting and staring. But since the pretty menus here vary with the seasons and holidays, why not eat a little something? (£17.50-22.50)

The Ritz
MAYFAIR
Served in the ubër-opulent Palm Court, tea here requires a bit of of formal dress. Their traditional English tea can include extras like a full cake, whether you’re celebrating a special occasion…or just plain being in London. (£40-62)

The Savoy
THE STRAND
Strand, WC2R 0EU
T: 020 7836 4343

At this half-Edwardian, half-Art Deco and entirely elegant hotel (which re-opened in October 2010 after major renovations), tea in the splendid Thames Foyer is booked several months in advance. The room is half the fun (the insane parade of food the other), with a faux-Edwardian gazebo and a stained-glass dome. Stop by the adjacent Savoy Tea shop to watch little chocolate treasures being handmade. (£35-46)

Selfridge’s
OXFORD STREET
40 Duke Street (between Marble Arch and Bond Street), W1U 1AT
T: 0800 123 400

A bit less expensive than the other major department stores in London, the tea at the Aubaine Café (set conveniently beside the shoe department) is from Maraige Freres; at Hix Restaurant, it’s from all over the (former) British Empire. (£19-29.50)

Swissôtel The Howard
COVENT GARDEN
Temple Place, WC2R 2PR
T: 020 7836 3555

Sure, you could have a traditional afternoon tea here with all the trimmings, but the whimsical “TLSee” menu is London all over — literally. Half the delicious treats here are (adorably) shaped like city landmarks, from Tower Bridge to Big Ben. (£25-32)

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