When in London, you really should take time for a proper British tea at least once. It’s a deeply civilized ritual, and when you’re in the right setting, it can be great fun. And delicious. The only dilemma is this: there are hundreds of options for afternoon tea in London. Which one’s the best? Said another way: is the best afternoon tea in London at Claridge’s?
what makes an afternoon tea location the “best”?
“Best” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. A lot of it depends on your mood and your budget.
There are some locations that are traditional, formal and fancy: The Goring in Belgravia and Brown’s in Mayfair, just to name two. And there are some that are modern, cheeky, and fun: Sketch in Mayfair and the Rosewood Hotel, for starters.
If you’re hoping for a private and chic setting to talk with your companions (especially if they live in London, or have had tea many times), The Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair has a lovely afternoon tea in its Art Deco lobby that would be perfect. It’s elegant and unfussy, and it feels just right for a grown-up cuppa.
All of these are wonderful experiences. But if you want to experience the height of traditional afternoon tea in London, there’s really only one place to go: Claridge’s.
Afternoon tea at Claridge’s is the grand dame of afternoon tea in London. It’s like what tea at the Plaza used to be in New York: an iconic experience and a rite of passage. The hotel has been serving high tea for over 150 years, so its unsurprising that they’ve nailed it.
You’ll need a reservation for afternoon tea at Claridge’s. It’s served from 2:30 to 6:30p. The cost is £58 per person (more if you want champagne). You don’t have to dress up for this (we went in a sweater and slacks) – but the setting is so grand that if you feel like wearing a special outfit, definitely go for it. It’ll just add to the fun.
The moment you step through the doors of the hotel, you can see the parlor off the main lobby where tea is served. It’s framed by a series of large arches and Greek columns, and in the center, there’s an enormous floral arrangement that looks like a tree that has grown up in the middle of the room.
We were there in the autumn (on the afternoon of Halloween, actually). The seasonal decorations throughout the hotel that day were all in tones of rich and vibrant red, brown, orange and rust.
In honor of the season, the tree in the center of the tea room was all about pumpkins. Hanging from its limbs were gourds of all shapes, sizes and colors.
Plus lovely orange orchids dangling upside down.
The tables and booths surrounding the center tree are lit with individual lamps that cast a warm glow.
We were seated in one of these, and we have to say, it was pretty special. Like having tea in an enchanted forest. Only much, much better.
At Claridge’s, in addition to the lovely visuals, there’s live music during the afternoon tea service. A pianist and a cellist regaled us with jazz standards and torch song classics (and they take requests, too). The vibe is swanky and romantic: a bit like London in 1920’s, with a twist of Manhattan on the side.
The service here is warm and friendly. Honestly, the most intimidating part of the entire experience is actually the menu. Specifically, the tea menu.
the tea selections
Afternoon tea at Claridge’s is offered as a set menu, so unless you’re also having champagne, the only choice you need to make is what kind of tea you’d like.
That might sound simple, but there are pages and pages of choices and descriptions of the various types of loose leaf tea, sourced by Claridge’s resident tea connoisseur, Henrietta Lowell. As consumers of copious amount of coffee and almost no tea in our real lives, we quickly felt totally overwhelmed.
Happily, our server came to rescue. He asked us what we wanted – caffeine or no caffeine, strong flavor or subtle. Based on that, he recommended white tea, which we had never heard of. He said it might not stand up as well to the savory sandwiches, but it would be perfect for the sweets. We took his recommendation, and it was an excellent one.
Its great fun to read the menu – which is the size and length of a short novel. In addition to descriptions of the teas and the forthcoming food, there are vignettes about the history of afternoon tea. (The creator is said to be Anna Maria Russell, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria).
There are also tips for how to eat a scone with clotted cream and jam, which turned out to be quite handy.
the table settings
The table setting is quite something: a proprietary bone china pattern and silver. Claridge’s says that the tea stand was specially designed for them. It’s all very gracious and civilized.
the finger sandwiches
After the first cup was poured, five savory finger sandwiches were served: Coronation chicken; smoked salmon; cucumber; ham; and egg salad. Plus a cheddar and walnut mini-quiche.
We confess, this wasn’t our first tea and we have strong reservations about cucumber sandwiches.
But in the interest of research, dear reader, we had a bite of everything. And that reminded us of one of the pleasures of tea: sometimes you find that something you thought you didn’t like is actually the most delicious thing of all.
In this case, we’d rate the Coronation chicken and the smoked salmon as excellent. As expected, the English cucumber sandwich was just not our thing. We thought we’d like the ham and apple sandwich, but not so much. To our surprise, though, it was the Burford brown egg salad that was the sleeper hit. It was much better than we expected. Must be the eggs. Or the home-made mayonnaise.
Oh, and the Croxton Manor cheddar and walnut quiche was like an elegant bit of autumn on a plate. Really superb.
As the sandwiches were cleared away, we took a pause to check out the crowd and the surroundings. There seem to be four rooms used for afternoon tea: two bright and public, and two dim and much more private.
As expected, lots of people in the two public rooms were there with friends and family members: a few with toddlers, a couple of families with teenagers. There were combinations of couples who appeared to be double dates. And lots of couples who were definitely on a date.
It was reasonably hard to gauge the ratio of tourists to residents. But its fair to say that everyone seemed extremely happy. The high-ceilinged room was noisy with a cacophony of conversation, laughter and clanking china.
Before we knew it, the sweets had arrived.
We started with the scones, which were warm and delicious. One was plain, and the other had raisins. They were accompanied as promised by thick Rodda’s Cornish clotted cream and Claridge’s proprietary Marco Polo gelee (which the menu says is made from a secret recipe).
We followed the instructions, and we were rewarded with quite possibly the best scone we’ve ever had. The jam is just crazy-delicious. And we say as people who almost never eat jam. If it were possible, we’re pretty sure we’d eat that every day.
By the time we turned to the rest of the sweet tray, we were blissed out on jam and getting pretty full. But of course, there’s always room for just a little bit more.
And as with the savory offerings, there was happy surprise waiting in this group. We give the Mandarin cheesecake a definite thumbs-up (although, to be fair, we should not that it takes a lot for us to say no to cheesecake of any type).
Personally, we were less enamored of the Gianduja (made with milk chocolate and hazelnut) and the Arabica coffee cake.
The sleeper hit? We really don’t like figs, and when the waiter explained that one of the beautiful little desserts was made with them, we made a mental note: hard pass. But then we forgot which one it was, and had a bite of the Fig and Mascarpone choux. It tasted like cherries (which we love). We’re not sure what happened, but suddenly it had disappeared, with nothing left but the crumbs.
This is one of the reasons we travel: to upend our beliefs about what we like and don’t.
One last cup of tea, and then it was time to go. As we gathered our coats to head out into the dusk of Halloween night, the musicians struck up a tune: Witchcraft. (For you young ones, that’s a torch song from the late 1950’s made famous by Frank Sinatra. It’s romantic and witty and basically the perfect tune for a setting like this, especially on Halloween night).
Well played, Claridge’s. We floated out to start our Halloween adventures officially bewitched. We shall return.
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