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. But while the city's love for it has not dimmed, the coronavirus crisis means venues have been forced to temporarily cease service in recent months and – particualrly seeing as many of those are located in luxury hotels – not all of them are back up and running just yet.
Still, we've found the finest traditional serves going – those with lashings of luxury, gilded in gold. You come to eat cucumber and salmon, to drink fine English tea and to brighten the day with a dash of champagne. Indulge your inner Wooster for a day and sink into soft chairs to the sounds of pianos and harps and silverware on china. Heaven.
Below are our favourite teas across London, with those that are currently open listed first, and those that should return soon following suit. All prices are per person.
Update: The Game Bird at The Stafford is currently open.
The Stafford is the epitome of old world refinement; it's beautiful but subtle, not gaudy but genteel. Though close to tourist noise of Piccadilly, it sits quietly at the end of St James's Place, in that part of town where specialist shops selling expensive things survive, blithelyunaware of prevailing market forces. Tea is served in the hotel's very comfortable restaurant, the Game Bird, where staff do not walk but float across its polished floors. Though the tea has a gimmick – the sweet dishes are ostensibly a tour of those nearby shops – it's especially well executed, the details done properly. Cake is delicate, chocolate buttery, and the tin of Chantilly cream is worth fighting for. The other bits and pieces are done to the same standard, with the smoked salmon sandwiches a particular favourite, and the cheese scones a nice addition alongside plain and raisin choices.
Perhaps the best of it, though, is that staff respect the tradition of afternoon tea; it is something to be leisurely savoured, not rushed through. Unlike some of the other famous names on the list, it doesn't feel like they're rushing guests in and out. You come to the Stafford to be spoiled, that's what they're best at.
Cheque out: From £45 per person
16-18 St James's Pl, SW1A 1NJ, thestaffordlondon.com
Fortnum & Mason
Update: The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason is currently open.
Fortnum & Mason is celebrated for its selection of fine teas – perhaps unsurprising since they’ve been importing and blending leaves since 1707. They do elegance with a certain pleasing quietness and offer a generous selection of sandwiches and the scones come with a marvellous array of jams – wild blueberry is especially good. Out of all the afternoon teas in London, Fortnums offers some of the finest cakes, with very generous helpings. The staff also kindly encourage customers to take some away with them and the cakes are good enough that they'll easily stay fresh for a couple of days afterwards.
Fortnums also offers a savoury option for those without a sweet tooth, as well as vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options. If you’re splashing out for champagne, the menu includes a number of Grower Champagnes, which is wonderful if you fancy something a little different.
Cheque out: From £60
181 Piccadilly, W1A 1ER, fortnumandmason.com
Update: The Palm Court at The Ritz is currently open.
Considered the granddaddy of afternoon tea, the Ritz has earned itself the reputation as the one to beat. Held in the almost cartoonishly opulent Palm Court, which is all gold leaf and crisp linen, flowered plates and immaculate service. The food is as you’d expect – finger sandwiches, scones and sponge cakes – and as good as you’d expect, too. There is a fine selection of 18 teas to ponder over while a harpist plays across the hallway.
We admire the fact there is a dress code (jacket and tie for men, no jeans, no sportswear), which only adds to the sense the Ritz are holding up centuries worth of standards. We’ll (politely) toast to that. However, holding the reputation this tea does means this afternoon is incredibly popular. You may find it difficult to book, and one should be aware they turn around tables quickly, so guests don't have all afternoon to luxuriate over the hotel's excellent offerings. Still, this is the bona fide Tea at the Ritz – hard to ignore how good that sounds.
Cheque out: From £53.50
150 Piccadilly, W1J 9BR, theritzlondon.com
Update: The Gallery at Sketch is currently open.
Afternoon tea at Sketch is not just a feast of pretty little sandwiches and sweet treats, it’s a feast for the eyes – and your Instagram following too. It’s held in the David Shrigley-designed Gallery downstairs, which is an explosion of millennial pink, from the scalloped velvet chairs and booths to the waiters’ double-breasted jackets.
Be spoilt with a pretty presentation of finger sandwiches with gourmet fillings such as egg gougere and a truffle croque – as well as sponges, cakes, scones and petits gateaux.
Cheque out: From £49
9 Conduit St, W1S 2XG, sketch.london
Update: Jean Georges at the Connaught is currently open.
Like the Ritz, this is another popular choice that limits your visit, but you're able to squeeze a lot into your hour and forty-five sitting: Jean-Georges, where the tea is served, is a conservatory, a light and airy spot to enjoy yourself. They're serious about tea here, enough to have been awarded membership by the British Tea Council.
In a dream world, where pockets are bottomless, we'd use the seasonally changing finger sandwiches, the fine, fresh scones and the cakes and pastries, as a hearty meal prior to a trip to their wonderful bar. Still, while that's the dream, there's no harm in enjoying the afternoon tea exactly for what it is: a really rather splendid way to enjoy an afternoon.
Cheque out: From £48.13
Carlos Place, W1K 2AL, the-connaught.co.uk
Update: The Langham is has reopened, but is not currently running afternoon tea service.
The Langham is serious about tea, very serious. Their menu of the stuff is long enough to raise eyebrows without intimidating, they've even a menu which pairs different blends with dishes. That said, it's not just the tea that's given due respect: staff are both attentive and charming enough that the hotel picked up the "Best Tea Service" award at 2018's Afternoon Tea Awards, while the sandwiches and pastries are changed fortnightly and ingredients only ever used seasonally. Of which, these pastries are beautifully light, which owes something to executive pastry chef Andrew Gravett's determination to use fewer refined sugars and fat. This, frankly, is a relief after all the food that comes before this – come hungry, preferably starving, but ensure you save room for their honey cake, which is extraordinary in every sense. The best cake in London? It's got to be up there.
Cheque out: From £62
1C Portland Place, W1B 1JA, langhamhotels.com
Update: The Foyer and Reading Room at Claridge's is currently closed until August 15.
Although somewhat more understated than some of its Piccadilly cousins, Claridge’s is no less luxurious. Bow-tied waiters in white jackets serve in the art-deco surroundings. Sandwiches, scones and even the tea itself is all excellent but note that the service here is more hands-off than you might expect. Rather than constant attentiveness, the staff leave parties to themselves for much of the time. This suits many people, but others prefer to be attended to a little more closely, so decide what you prefer before you head down.
However you feel about what kind of service you prefer, there's no getting away from the fact the food and tea is delicious. Find the bar afterwards, too, it's pretty marvellous.
Cheque out: From £61.25
Brook St, W1K 4HR, claridges.co.uk
Update: The Dorchester is currently closed until September 1.
Served in the grand Promenade lobby, take staff up on the option to be greeted by a glass of champagne and a selection of finger sandwiches -- the most startlingly decadent is one filled with Highand wagyu pastrami, closely followed by a smoked salmon and Devon crab offering, additionally flavoured with candied ginger, avocado and Greek yoghurt. Head to the sweets, and you'll find a traditionally English rhubarb and raspberry teacake, as well as bergamot and dark chocolate gateaux laced with a surprising dose of popping candy.
A palate cleansing serve of camomile strawberry jelly and vanilla yoghurt mousse with fresh mint foam is an inventive detour from the status quo, steeling diners for plentiful bounty of warm scones on their way.
Cheque out: From £65
53 Park Lane, London W1K 1QA, dorchestercollection.com
Update: The Goring is currently closed until September 4.
The Goring is upmarket in that understated sort-of-way: it’s a Savile Row suit, not a Balenciaga tracksuit. It does quiet elegance, not in-your-face glitz and is probably the most English of all London hotels. That said, there’s scant evidence of snobbery here; staff are eager to please and happily chatter through what’s being plated up. Of which, it’s afternoon tea as it’s always been done, strictly traditional, no messing about.
There’s an option not to have Champagne (£50), but where’s the fun in that? Otherwise, it’s £62 with a glass of Bollinger or £72 with Bolly’s Rosé. For that, there's delicate finger sandwiches (crusts guillotined, of course), homemade scones and a selection of cakes and bakes. The hallmark of it all is quality throughout; strawberries fresh the way they taste in memories of perfect summers, smoked salmon a delicate foil to the fizz, a pistachio pud with a recipe worth stealing. The tea list is gorgeous, too. There’s no flash at the Goring, but that doesn’t stop it being flawless.
Cheque out: From £50
15 Beeston Pl, SW1W 0JW, thegoring.com
Update: The Lanesborough is currently closed until September 4.
Afternoon tea venues don’t come much more sensational than The Lanesborough’s Venetian dining room – a richly decorated space adorned with Bas-relief friezes, spectacular chandeliers and a beautiful domed glass roof that naturally illuminates the room during daylight hours. The culinary servings are rich and plentiful – comforting and homely British classics served with a fine-dining finesse and exceptionally attentive service. There's a tea sommelier on hand to advise guests on blends to suit their palate, while the hotel's pastry chef serves up fresh scones with thick, velvety clotted cream and fresh fruit preserves.
The sandwich selection is particularly generous, with both gluten and dairy-free options available, and the double tier of beautifully presented cakes makes for possibly the most Instagrammable afternoon tea in the capital. Come with an empty stomach and a couple of hours to while away in front of the tinkling piano with a glass of champagne.
Cheque out: From £53
Hyde Park Corner, SW1X 7TA, oetkercollection.com
Hotel Café Royal
Update: Hotel Cafe Royal is currently closed until September 4.
Hosted in the stunning Oscar Wilde bar, this tea is all about location: the room is one of London's most beautiful and has hosted the likes of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elizabeth Taylor and its namesake, who fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas here. There is a sense of occasion in the Oscar Wilde bar, made all the more so by the pianist who plays throughout the afternoon. It is one to head to when you're looking to make somebody very, very happy.
The afternoon tea itself is lovely: the cakes are particularly exquisite and look marvellous, with the London Royal Tea benefiting from a heavy London-theme. Instagram heaven. The macarons are a highlight.
Cheque out: From £55
68 Regent Street, W1B 4DY, hotelcaferoyal.com
Update: The Savoy is currently closed, with no reopening date yet slated.
The Savoy serve their afternoon tea in style: you’ll be seated in the beautiful Thames Foyer, under light streaming down from the glass cupola, looking out over a black and white marble floor. A pianist plays, tea comes in upright, sterling silver teapots and all the usual suspects are all here: raisin and plain scones, finger sandwiches, French pastries, and a cake selection served from a trolley. There are 30 types of tea on offer, while they also offer high tea and champagne tea. The mint tea is the finest mint tea in London – genuinely – while the chai offers a delicious and reasonably authentic experience.
This and a little magic means The Savoy's offering is easily among the finest afternoon teas in London: if you so desire, the first-rate food is unlimited, while staff are extremely courteous, managing the fine balance of keeping a little distance while always remaining attentive. Though constantly busy and lit up with conversation, things thankfully aren't run like a military option, so guests aren't whisked through things.
Cheque out: From £75
Strand, WC2R 0EU, fairmont.com