Never mind that tea wasn’t introduced to Britain until the mid-17th century or that coffee actually preceded it to the Scepter’d Isle: The image of an English afternoon tea is practically synonymous with refined British culture.
Traditionally served between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., afternoon tea can be a luxurious event — involving delicate china and fanned napkins as well as the culinary essentials of exquisite teas, dainty cakes, and elegant sandwiches — or a quiet, quite simple affair.
Here’s your guide to enjoying a cuppa in London no matter your taste or budget.
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To take tea in a royal home, visit Kensington Palace’s 18th-century Orangery to choose from more than ten flavors of tea, all served with homemade cakes and sandwiches. The official tea sommelier at the Lanesborough in Hyde Park will help you select among exotic options like Wild Tuo Cha, aged 17 years to concentrate its flavor.
Both the Ritz and Brown’s Hotel provide the classic experience—with Champagne if you are feeling extravagant. For the Ritz, tables may have to be reserved at least three months in advance, especially for weekends. It is best to book the last sitting, so you do not have to rush. At Brown’s, you can schedule a tea-torial to learn sugary secrets from the house pastry chef.
Other excellent afternoon teas are served at the Park Room at Grosvenor House, Claridge’s Hotel, and the Landmark Hotel.
Londoners book weeks in advance to experience Piccadilly’s Sketch, a concept space dedicated to both art and food. But no reservations are taken at the more casual Parlour on the first floor of Fortnum & Mason, which serves afternoon tea. Enjoy colorful macaroons while keeping an eye open for lounging fashionistas.
For something even less traditional and equally fashionable, try afternoon “Cocktails and Cupcakes” at the May Fair Hotel; it may not be tea for the family, but it is hard to pass up the bar’s tea-inspired cocktails and paired cupcakes.
Great Value Teas
With its open-plan pastry kitchen, Bea’s of Bloomsbury is a baking paradise devoted to colorful cupcakes and delightfully dense brownies—and they also serve a wonderful afternoon tea, at a fraction of the cost of the big hotels.
• Greet your fellow tea partiers. Sit down, placing your purse on your lap or behind you against the chair back (not on the floor!). Unfold your napkin and place it on your lap.
• Sugar and lemon: Put sugar into your teacup first, followed by a thinly sliced lemon. According to most people (though this is debatable), if you’re using milk, it goes in after the tea—but never mix lemon and milk together.
• Eat savories first, then scones, followed by sweets.
• Scones: Break off a bite-size piece of the scone. Place curd and cream on your plate. Use your knife to put curd and cream on each bite.
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• The spoon always remains on the right side of the tea saucer; don’t leave the spoon in the cup.
• Do not put your pinky up.
• Look into the teacup when drinking, not over it.
• Do not use your tea to wash down food.
• Do not refer to your afternoon tea as “high tea.” High tea, served between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., takes the place of dinner and includes heartier fare, including salads, one or two hot dishes, potpies, cold chicken, and so forth.