Nothing bad can happen at afternoon tea. On the occasional dreadful day when everything seems to be going wrong, I head straight for the teapot to sort out any problems. After sipping a cuppa and nibbling on flaky scones and lemon-drizzled cakes, even the biggest grumps have no choice but to emerge cheerful.
In a lovely book I recently read, The Regal Rules for Girls, American-Anglophile-turned-London-local Jerramy Fine examines the role tea plays in her adopted homeland. “In England, tea has endless magical qualities and is genuinely believed to solve everything,” she writes.” Your boyfriend breaks up with you? Tea. Come down with the flu? Tea. Terrorist attack on the London Underground? Tea.”
The time-honored tradition can be traced to England’s Anna Maria Russell, a Duchess of Bedford and friend to Queen Victoria, who understandably became ravenous before late-night dinners. By the turn of the 20th century, stylish hotels and department stores began serving afternoon tea, and tiny tea shops started popping up about town.
The ritual retains its reputation as a ladies’ escape, but, with a welcoming fireplace, deep-seated leather chairs, and cozy sofas, it’s hard for anyone to disagree with American novelist Henry James who said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
It’s popular in America now, especially in cities with grand hotels, but there is no place for tea like London — especially during the holidays, when hotels and stores are decked out with thousands of lights, towering trees, and garlands of evergreen and pinecones.
Here are five of the best places to sit and sip and take in the holiday spirit:
1. The Savoy in London has been serving afternoon tea for more than 100 years, and nowadays nearly everything they serve — from scones to chocolates — is made in-house. After closing for a massive multi-million-dollar restoration, the hotel reopened in 2010 but kept historical elements like the Thames Foyer and a distinctive gazebo centerpiece.
While their afternoon tea is top-notch year round (and accompanied by live piano music), the hotel will be serving a special Christmas Carols Afternoon Tea on the weekends for the entire month of December, complete with cranberry scones, egg-nog eclairs, stollen (fruit cake), and live singers belting out holiday classics.
2. Teeming with English hospitality, The Lanesborough serves a Festive Afternoon Tea with strawberries and a glass of champagne. But the real treat comes in the form of Karl Kessab, the U.K.’s first-ever tea sommelier, who recommends Darjeeling, which pairs well with pastries, for the novice tea drinker.
But the holidays bring other surprises. Kessab says the hotel adds mince pies and The Lanesborough special Christmas blend (a Ceylon-based tea with sweet roasted almonds and cinnamon) for some festive flair. When I asked him what he likes most about his job, he was quick to reply: “guiding people through the complexities of teas [and] following rituals of proper English etiquette.”
3. The Soho Hotel will serve up cranberry and orange-spiced treats along with the traditional mince pies at its Winter Afternoon Tea — a reasonably priced alternative to the higher-end hotels, and in the heart of London. Have your pick: tea can be taken in the Refuel Restaurant, the Drawing Room, or the Library, each comfortable and whimsical in its own way. But wherever you sit, I recommend adding one of their delicious Bellinis, my favorite drink, to your tea service.
4. The Wolseley isn’t a hotel, but it’s grand. The London cafe, housed in a former car showroom turned bank on Piccadilly, has a beautiful interior (one of the best in the city) that provides the perfect backdrop for a December afternoon tea. It’s also about half the price of a hotel’s full afternoon tea, without scrimping on any of the grandeur.
5. For a more contemporary experience, try Metropolitan by COMO near all the holiday cheer in Mayfair. They offer a Winter Warmer Afternoon Tea, with savory delights like warm figs topped with stilton and a cranberry jelly roll. I love the gingerbread cupcakes served with rum cream, and of course, the egg nog. Tea is served in the super sleek Met Bar, which was originally members-only.
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If you love tea, you can’t leave London without bringing some home to share.
You could head to Harrod’s enormous food hall, but I prefer A. Gold in the Spitalfields area of London. The picture-perfect shop sells traditional British foods, including nostalgic brands of tea that are difficult to find elsewhere — like Williamson, one of the last family-owned companies to own and operate their own tea plantation, and Butterworth & Son.
To make gift-giving easy, try the Suffolk Special Blend, which includes a picture card inside each tea packet — a practice that was once commonplace among tea manufacturers — or pick up some much-loved Campbell’s Perfect Tea in its iconic yellow tin.
Don’t forget about teapots! You can pick up the classic Brown Betty variety, made in Staffordshire in Northern England, at the A. Gold shop as well. Tea aficionados say the shape makes for a superior brew. As Jerramy Fine says: “When in doubt, put the kettle on.”
Related: How to Drink a Cuppa (Tea)