It doesn’t get much more British than afternoon tea. The upper echelons of Victorian society sure knew how to live life to the fullest when they indulged in this pastime, invented in 1840 by the seventh Duchess of Bedford as a way to keep herself satiated in the hours between lunch and dinner.
Fast forward to present-day London and the ritual is just as popular, with an almost overwhelming number of services from which to choose. From the quintessential finger-sandwich-and-scone affair in 19th-century surroundings to a cocktail-paired selection created by an internationally acclaimed bartender, we’ve found some excellent afternoon teas brewing across the city right now.
Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at Sanderson London
Much like the rabbit hole Alice entered to reach Wonderland, there’s no hint of the color and fun to be found inside Wests End’s whimsical Sanderson hotel from the outside. But once you venture inside the sacred space, its semi-open-air Courtyard Garden — dotted with pink flamingo sculptures and an Instagrammable hanging wicker chair adorned with roses — transforms into the setting for a Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea.
The service itself lives up to the timeless tale’s fun connotations with a vintage book concealing the menu, little bottles of loose tea leaves you can sniff from and the playing-card-themed crockery. Four tightly packed tiers of sweet and savory treats (see: Scotch quail eggs topped with caviar, vanilla macaron pocket watches, sponge cake shaped like pink flamingos and Queen of Hearts cookies) will leave you grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Afternoon Tea with Wedgwood at The Langham, London
This Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star stay was reputedly the first hotel to serve afternoon tea, introducing the concept for one shilling and sixpence when it opened off Regent Street in 1865. As it has been for more than 150 years, the decadent institution is still served daily in the Palm Court, delivered to the tune of a grand piano.
The SeasonaliTea — served on rose-dotted Wedgwood china — is so called for the emphasis executive pastry chef Andrew Gravett places on selecting seasonal and local ingredients for his sandwich and patisserie creations, which sees the menu tweaked as regularly as every few weeks.
During summer, for example, dishes might feature Bermondsey honey, fresh ricotta from a producer down the road and tomatoes from the Isle of Wight.
For fall, expect British heritage pears and opal apples, and black figs from Provence.
When it comes to the brewed drink, there’s a tea sommelier on hand to help navigate the extensive menu — though, when in doubt, you won’t go wrong with The Langham’s own 150-ingredient blend created in 2012 to mark the hotel’s milestone anniversary.
Thomas’s Café at Burberry
For afternoon tea with a side of shopping, head to this quaint eatery at the Burberry flagship store on Regent Street, which was named after the British brand’s founder. While you can dine downstairs, we recommend reserving a table in the first-floor dining room, a stylish space with dark gray wood paneling and mid-century furniture dotted with green velvet cushions drenched in the sunlight flooding in from tall windows that look out to Sackville Street.
The restaurant is situated up a spiral staircase from the main store, where you can browse designer wares before filling up on a two-tier array of finger sandwiches and delicate cakes. Scones with clotted cream, hot buttered crumpets and toasted teacakes arrive with an array of wild fruit and flower preserves.
Darjeeling is served as standard in a glass teapot with a sand timer on the side (cleverly made out of a cotton reel), so you can monitor when your tea has brewed for the optimum three minutes. When the pot runs low, the waiter will refill it, inviting you to linger a while longer.
If you prefer a caffeine-free sip, peppermint tea or a flute of Nyetimber Rosé is also available.
CUTcakes & Tea at 45 Park Lane
This Five-Star art deco gem’s new American-themed CUTcakes & Tea fittingly launched on Independence Day. This twist on the British tradition sees finger sandwiches replaced with Wolfgang Puck’s wagyu beef sliders, black truffle grilled cheese, tuna tartare and buttermilk fried chicken. A nostalgic sweets spread includes chocolate-orange “cheeseburger” macarons, peanut butter and jelly Twinkies, New York cheesecake pops and cream-topped strawberry milkshakes.
The beverage choice has been shaken up as well, where you’ll now find iced teas, American craft beers and tea cocktails, though a full menu of Jing teas and champagne are also on hand.
Sleeping Beauty Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester
This reliably luxurious Five-Star hotel serves afternoon tea year-round, but for one week this fall, you can enjoy a fairy-tale-themed service as dancers from the English National Ballet School pirouette between tables.
Created with younger guests (ages five to 12) in mind, the Sleeping Beauty Afternoon Tea consists of themed sandwiches and cakes served alongside storytelling, face painting and character appearances.
Adults can tuck into tea and champagne from the comfort of cozy couches. Available from October 22 to 26, this magical treat has limited seating, so be sure to book ahead.
Wyld Afternoon Tea at Mondrian London
Cocktail lovers should look no further than this experimental afternoon tea, served Thursday to Sunday in Mondrian London’s plush Tom Dixon-designed Dandelyan bar. The four-course event pairs unique bites with spiked botanical beverages created by renowned barman Ryan “Mr. Lyan” Chetiyawardana.
Sip on tasty tipples, such as Chocolate Farm (a blend of chocolate vermouth, pink peppercorn and prosecco) or the Bacardi, plum, peach and sparkling-wine-topped concoction, Cheers!, while noshing on buttery brioche stuffed with gimlet-compressed cucumber, goat cheese and watercress or curaçao-smoked duck with crunchy parmesan croûte.
If you don’t have a taste for cocktails, traditional teas and wines are also available.
Who said afternoon tea had to be boring?