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Clifford Mould seeks out the finest Afternoon Tea in London

There is a detailed list of prices and addresses at the end of the article.

Years ago, afternoon tea in one of the opulent public rooms of a grand hotel was just a routine for the residents. Nowadays it has become a treat for the tourist, or an afternoon out for the family that wants to celebrate in style. For many of us, afternoon tea is a legitimate excuse to sit in very comfortable chairs in swanky surroundings whilst being waited on hand and foot. The cost of the "full works" is anything between about fifteen and over forty pounds, but at least there are no necessary extras like bottles of wine, mineral water and coffee that somehow seem to double the price of lunch or dinner.

Be warned, however, that most of the grand hotels operate a basic dress code, which means a jacket and tie for men; mostly there's an embargo on denim and trainers, though children are usually exempt. If you're not certain, ring before you go. The hall porter can usually lend you a tie if you find yourself in extremis. I once had to borrow a white bow tie from a hall porter in an hotel in Venice. It was a dreadful clip-on tie and it pinged from my throat to the platform when I went for a high note in the concert in which I was singing. Very embarrasing. But not as bad as the trousers I once had to borrow for a concert in Vienna, but that's another story.
Reader Update 2001

My hubby and I just returned to the States from 10 days in London. We were fortunate to have formal afternoon tea five times. Hubby said you'd like to know how we got on, so this is my informal critique.

Ritz: Expensive, but amazing. The service was top-notch and the food was flawless. Very welcoming atmosphere in spite of the lavish surroundings. Not intimidating at all.

Brown's: This was my favourite place, although the service left a bit to be desired. They did come around with extra bonus desserts like sponge cake and tarts which were in addition to your pastry tray. Very yummy and nice environment to relax in.

Lanesborough: Garden-like, Asian setting. Again, somewhat slow service, but a fine tea overall. Made we think of an Indian garden when Britain still had an empire.

Claridge's: Art Deco to the max! They have a wonderful South African tea with a hint of vanilla (Bourbon was the name) which was delicious. Unfortunately, service was extremely slow and we were only checked on once during the meal.

Four Seasons: An excellent tea-stop for beginners and tea fans. We were one of only two tables enjoying tea on the day we visited. The hostess was very helpful and explained the meal completely and even poured and refreshed our cups several times. Quiet, lush surroundings with live piano music. We also had a final sorbet included in our teas which was an excellent finish.

Thank you for your earlier input. We are looking forward to a return to London in the near future.

For the most traditional English afternoon tea, one's first port of call would probably be Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street, just off Piccadilly. It is London's oldest hotel, established in 1837 by Mr & Mrs Brown who were servants to the late Lord Byron. At Brown's you can sink into the deep armchairs of the Drawing Room while waiters fetch sandwiches and cakes on Victorian silver tea stands.

Across Piccadilly on the South side is The Ritz Hotel where afternoon tea has become rather an institution. It is so popular that there are three sittings. It comes in a bone china service by Royal Worcester served at little tables in the high camp opulence of the Palm Court with its Louis XV chandeliers, curlicues and cabriolet legs. To avoid disappointment, you really must reserve a table at the Ritz, especially at the weekend.

Further down Piccadilly, towards Hyde Park, the privately owned Atheneum Hotel is an oasis of calm. I had tea in the elegant sitting room, and a smiling waiter laid up the coffee table with proper napery and a colourful tea service. Unlike most of the other hotels where there is a set price for afternoon tea, at the Athenaeum you can choose from a range of options starting with a pot of tea and with home made pastries charged separately, as well as two more substantial set teas - see details at the end of the article.

For the true gourmet, the beverage itself is of more significance than the sandwiches and cakes. At Claridge's in Mayfair, serious consideration is given to the brewing of tea, having been first carefully selected from the enormous range offered by the specialist Parisian importer Mariage Frères. Their very own Monsieur Frank Desaine recently came over from Paris to demonstrate the art of brewing tea to the Claridge's staff. They are now using special unbleached cotton filters that allow the tea space for the extraction of all its essences. After three minutes, the stimulant theophylline will have been extracted along with sufficient other flavours and tannins. After this the additional tannins and darker colours will add only a vulgar coarseness to the brew. As well as a choice of fourteen varieties of teas, there are the usual delicacies such as freshly baked raisin and apple scones with cream and strawberry jam.

At the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane there is a bewildering choice of over thirty different varieties of tea to choose from, but the most popular is the Dorchester's own brand. All their blends can be purchased, wrapped in the Dorchester's distinctive livery.

nExecutive head chef Andrew Turner, of the Berkeley Hotel, has clearly been inspired by the Chelsea Flower Show, one of the early attractions of the "season" - that quintessentally English procession of halcyon social, sporting and cultural events. At the Berkeley you will find warm sloe gin scones and honey blossom cakes baked in little individual flower pots. Nasturtium blossoms and elderflowers have been pressed into fragrant service and on no account should you miss the lavender brulee and the orange blossom pomponettes.

Handy for Harrods and the other smart Knightsbridge emporia is the Capital Hotel whose maître de cuisine Philip Britten somehow finds the time to bake fresh teatime breads, make homemade jam and supervise the preparation of a waist enhancing array of cakes and pastries. The Capital Hotel tea is served in their very elegant sitting room and we vote it the best value for money of all the grand hotel teas in central London.

In Summer, tea is best taken al fresco, or at least within sight of a garden. At the Hyde Park Hotel, opposite Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, there is a fine view over the park, but if the weather is fine you can sit outside on the terrace at Cannizaro House on Wimbledon Common enjoying the sweep of a grand country house garden within the London postal area. This fine hotel has a kitchen brigade that launch themselves (successfully) at just about every culinary competition going, so expect a great selection of home baked calorific concoctions. Because it's just outside central London, the cost of your tea at Cannizaro House is rather less stratospheric.

Back in the metropolis proper, tea at The Savoy is taken in the magnificent Thames Foyer with its hand carved French porcelain roses and original art deco mirrors. Nowadays a pianist accompanies an orchestra of tinkling teaspoons, but in the roaring twenties Victor Sylvester and the Savoy Orpheans used to play for the Thés dansants. In the nineteen thirties there was many a storm in a teacup at the famous Savoy "Tango Teas". Today, if you fancy strutting your stuff over a cup of Earl Grey then you must go to the Café de Paris on Sunday afternoons. It has recently reopened in great splendour after a 1.5 million pound refurbishment of the Grade II listed premises in Coventry Street, W1. To get you going, there is an eight piece orchestra plus the added excitement of The Indigo Club, Britain's first theatrical Ballroom Dance company. At each Tea Dance they execute two demonstration sets: classical ballroom as well as Latin American. I haven't yet checked out the cucumber sandwiches, but I'm told the honey and crumpet is absolutely fabulous!

 

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010


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