Afternoon teas are served by most major London hotels, but while some provide an experience you’ll never forget, others can be nothing short of dire. We’ve eaten our way through tier after tier of delicate finger sandwiches, scones and indulgent pastries and cakes to find out which ones stand out. Whether you want panoramic views over the capital, somewhere you can linger for the whole afternoon in style or a tea on a budget, there’s something for everyone.
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Combining the indisputably traditional with contemporary pizazz is no mean feat, but Palm Court manages just that. Forming the centrepiece of this luxury hotel – which became the first ever London hotel to serve afternoon tea when it opened back in 1865 – it provides an immediate wow factor with service to match. Our delicate finger sandwiches were followed by a scallop served in its shell, one of many seasonal ‘”special” choices. The plain and golden raisin scones were perfection itself, while the raspberry sponge with raspberry confit and jasmine cream was one of many delectable cakes and pastries. No need to worry about table space – the dainty tiered plates (Wedgwood, of course) sit on floor standing silver frames. And if you don’t have tummy space (we didn’t), you can take your cake of the day home. Take time to peruse the teas – there are 30, all chosen by a tea sommelier.
We’ve all seen them – the kids who are dressed to the nines and looking like they’d rather be anywhere else, eating anything else, than at a posh hotel tea. Not here – this quirky, imaginative affair is as child-friendly as it gets yet manages to retain a feel of elegance for the grown-ups. No wonder the chic red and grey drawing room was packed when we visited – every table complete with little ‘uns. Inspired by the nearby Science Museum, our kids’ Sci Fi tea kicked off with a DIY lemonade kit, complete with test tubes, plus mini dinosaur biscuit ‘fossils’ hidden beneath chocolate soil. On the vibrant rocket stand, favourites included mini hot dogs, buttery scones with a squeezy tube of lemon curd, milk chocolate spacemen and chocolate and raspberry ‘planet’ mousse – all arriving with gasp-inducing clouds of dry ice. For the adults’ Science Tea, highlights included the smoked salmon and avocado on blinis, white chocolate and cranberry scones and redcurrant and lychee macaroons.
Kids’ Sci-Fi Tea from £31.50 per child; Science Afternoon tea from £44.50 per person
Dean St Townhouse
This is the cheapest tea in our round-up, but the Dean Street Townhouse afternoon indulgence – which is served daily from 2-6pm – won’t leave you feeling hungry, with generous portions of neatly laid out sandwiches (egg and mayo, smoked salmon and horseradish and gin and tonic cucumber), warm scones with homemade jams, along with a good dollop of fresh clotted cream. While the cakes are not quite on par with other grander hotels reviewed here in terms of elegance, creativity and arrangement, the texture and taste are still notable. There’s a selection of Canton loose leaf teas to pick from and there’s no skimping on presentation – with the full tiered experience and beautiful matching blue and white china – and it’s served up in the intimate, dimly lit restaurant, complete with sink-into velvet chairs and plenty of privacy for each table. All for just over 20 quid – a bargain.
From £21 per person
This is old London (the capital’s first ever hotel, in fact) at its finest, with smatterings of modern touches for panache. Think original wood panelling, Jacobean ceilings and roaring fires. It’s intimate, impressive and on a cold winter’s day it feels like a warm hug from a much loved glamorous relative. Hats off to the pianist too, who creates just the right ambience with both old and new favourites. No chance of the sandwiches curling up at the ends here – the bread feels fresh out of the oven, with traditional flavours such as smoked salmon, orange and dill on malted loaf, spice-glazed ham with piccalilli puree on mini bagel, followed by soft and buttery scones with cakes and pastries including Mont Blanc, gingerbread and caramel mousse, plus a cake trolley. On a diet? Go for the Tea Tox, a fully gluten-free selection of more healthy savouries and dairy-free deserts – although it was the full-fat version for us, thanks. A firm favourite, especially during the festive season.
From £55 per person
Neighbourhood: The Strand
Descending the black and white marble stairs into Thames Foyer, you’ll realise why you had to book so far in advance. The light-flooded formal room with tables centred round the gazebo – complete with grand piano – is breathtaking. But what really marks this afternoon tea out is that it’s first-class in atmosphere, service, tableware and culinary delights, yet somehow manages to be unstuffy. Our imaginative finger sandwiches included brown shrimps with champagne “Mary Rose” on charcoal bread and eggs and truffle with mustard cress on spinach bread, while open sandwiches included pumpkin tart with golden cross cheese. The still-warm scones came with lemon curd and clotted cream, but do leave room for the seasonal pastries. Similarly to The Ritz, the pianist bursts into “Happy Birthday” during every sitting while waiters in pairs (one to stop the candle blowing out) bring individual celebration cakes to the relevant tables – a bit ritualised and impersonal for our liking, but it seemed to please the rest of the punters.
From £75 per person
Neighbourhood: London Bridge
The first thing that hits you about this luxury-end tea is the view – or should we say views. Located on the 35th floor of this iconic building, Ting has views that are both panoramic and spectacular and with all the low tables and armchairs arranged to make the most of it. You’ll want to block out a big chunk of your diary to take it all in. Afternoon teas often come with a welcome drink, but this one topped them all with the base tray immersing our table with billowing clouds of dry ice (long enough to take some great snaps). Our savouries included smoked salmon and wasabi mayonnaise on caraway bread and salted cucumber with cheese spread on rye bread with freshly baked scones, but it was the melt-in-the-mouth sweets that earned first prize – cherry mousse with griotte insert and chocolate tart with blackberry mousse among them. Service is attentive and there are some interesting teas – cinnamon black tea and orange and cactus fig rooibos among them.
From £60 per person
If it’s fashion that floats your boat, then the Prêt-à-Portea tea is for you. The pastry chefs at this Knightsbridge hotel attend London Fashion Week to assess the collections, which then inspire their sweet treats that are served on Instagrammable china in the modern, light and airy Collins Room. The staff talk you through all the goodies, which are based on everything from Jimmy Choo heels to Fendi coats, while you inevitably coo at the exquisite detail, and which don’t disappoint when it comes to taste. Fear not if you’re worried you’ll forget the detail – the hotel now sends you home with a souvenir bite-size magazine showing the original garments, along with any fare you couldn’t fit in (we recommend it, if only for the beautiful miniature hat-style box). Flavoursome savouries include the likes of finger sandwiches and miso madeleines topped with shipped chive cream, trout roe and golf leaf, but scone lovers should be mindful that they are only available on request.
From £60 per person
This understated Chelsea boutique hotel offers good value for money with its afternoon tea. Served in the smart, homely drawing room (or in the relaxed restaurant, Hans’ Bar & Grill), it’s a more intimate offering than most with a personal, friendly service and plenty of nice touches including the tallest most delicate champagne flutes we’ve come across (mind those elbows) and attractive nature themed bone china. Our sandwiches were ever-so-slightly on the dry side, but it was not a deal breaker, and the scones made up for it while the top tier included beauties such as orange and cinnamon crème brûlée tarts and pistachio, white chocolate and cranberry macaroons. If the razzle dazzle (not to mention the price tag) of The Ritz and Claridge’s doesn’t appeal, this may be just the ticket. And despite being just a stone’s throw from Sloane Square, the quiet residential surroundings mean you’d never even know.
From £35 per person
Not a single selfie was taken during our visit to this grand dame of London hotels – almost unheard of in the world of afternoon teas, where some folk seem to click away for hours. A clue, perhaps, to the fact that this is a hot spot among Londoners, not just tourists, who flock back time and again to the gilded palace-like environment of The Céleste Restaurant for the imaginative savouries (our faves were the olive and sundried tomato muffin and chicken bon bon with tandoori mayonnaise), crumbly scones and cakes and pastries (the pumpkin cookie and Mont Blanc treacle tart were to die for). There’s always a seasonal spin – no prizes for guessing when we visited. Our clotted cream was a bit on the hard side (too cold), albeit delicious, and we’d have welcomed a pianist tinkling away on the ivories – but these are small grumbles about what is up there with the best if you’re hankering after the truly traditional.
From £53 per person
Neighbourhood: The Strand
If The Savoy is out of your price range – or you simply don’t want that level of formality – then this hotel just across the road serves a great afternoon tea for a third of the cost. Don’t expect the finger sandwiches to be cut to quite the precision of the top hotels reviewed here or the scones to be quite such a triumph, but they are fresh, tasty and varied – and you get 13 different types of loose leaf teas to pick from, including white peony with rosebuds and organic Chinese sencha, while the cakes include the likes of pistachio Bakewell, chocolate champagne bomb and classic Victoria sponge. Plus, you can add on bottomless prosecco for an extra tenner or champagne for an extra £15 (although don’t get too comfy as the time limit is 90 minutes). The service is attentive and the 1920s-themed afternoon tea salon has been decorated in rich reds, with Art Deco glitz. For a budget afternoon tea in a central London hotel, we give it a big thumbs up.
From £25 per person
The 150-year-old ritual of afternoon tea at this sophisticated art deco hotel has waiting lists longer than any other offering in this round-up – with the possible exception of A-list celebs who are, frankly, part of the furniture. Expect stunning tableware and soft lighting, classical musicians playing well known tunes in the background and the scent of magnificent floral arrangements. The savouries are so good (seasonal examples include sandwiches such as Norfolk chicken breast with gem lettuce, roasted corn, marjoram and mayonnaise on malt bread and smoked Scottish salmon with brown shrimp, horseradish, juniper and caraway on rye bread) that you’d be happy to leave it there (especially after seconds and the seasonal special). But the ultra-soft and light scones and Marco Polo tea jelly are not to be missed, and the pastries are delicate and full of flavour – think cherry plum and bergamot macaron and hazelnut Paris-Brest.
From £70 per person
Serving 450 afternoon teas a day across five sittings, it’s no wonder this feels like such a well-oiled machine. The formal dress code, doormen in top hats and the stage (literally) of Palm Court sets the scene – this is posh London in all its theatre. The tea is good and traditional – plenty of fresh finger sandwiches (smoked salmon, egg mayo, cucumber and cream cheese, ham and mustard), brought out with an assortment of elaborate cakes (three each), with one tier left for the warm raisin and plain scones which arrive about 20 minutes in. We had the Ritz Royal English tea (one of a choice of 18) – pleasant enough and refreshed half-way through. A cake trolley does the rounds – we opted for the orange cake, moist and full of flavour – while for birthdays, individual cakes arrive en mass to the tinkles of the pianist. And yet, of all the afternoon teas we tried, it somehow felt the least personal. You’ll love it if opulent surroundings and old-fashioned etiquette is your thing; you might not if the strict time slot of 90 minutes and the crammed-in tables are likely to irritate you.
From £60 per person
Pastry chef Nicolas Rouzaud is the perfect fit for this iconic Mayfair hotel and his afternoon tea is a true feast for the senses. But first things first: the Jean-Georges restaurant deserves a special mention for its chic, conservatory-based surroundings and laid-back London buzz. The result is a sense of occasion but without the need to stand on ceremony. Savoury standouts for our tea (which changes seasonally) included egg and truffle mayo on white bread and roast ham, sweet potatoes and coconut with cranberry chutney on beetroot bread, while the melt-in-the-mouth plain and raisin scones came with organic mandarin and vanilla jam, strawberry jam and clotted cream. But the sweet treats are the real reason to come here, with every mouthful of our vanilla mousse and hazelnut praline on shortbread and the lime gel, coconut mousse with white chocolate outstanding in taste, texture and most of all, originality. Leave room for the fondue – you won’t want to try taking that home. The tea list could be longer, though.
From £55 per person
Barely a hop, skip and a jump from Marylebone station, this hotel was built at the end of the 19th century around a large central courtyard to allow horse-drawn carriages to drop guests in the heart of the property. That courtyard, now covered with a glass roof, remains the beating heart of this grand hotel, providing a striking setting for afternoon tea. Traditional to the core, our finger sandwiches included smoked salmon, egg mayo, chicken coronation and classic cucumber – delicious, albeit disappointingly fridge cold (as was the Wedgewood plate). Next up were warm freshly baked raisin and apple and classic scones with an impressive choices of jams (Bergeron apricot, gooseberry and elderflower among them) and a beautiful display of mini deserts including pumpkin, lemon and mascarpone opera and raspberry and pistachio choux. Our waitress couldn’t have been more friendly or knowledgeable, but we’d have liked posher glasses – they felt more pub-standard than crystal glass.
From £45 per person