james debate
james debate

Monday 27 October 2014

The afternoon tea is one of Britain's great traditions; an indulgence of quintessentially English sensibility, a celebration of the culture that fueled an Empire and thrice beat the Germans. The Ephemeric is often asked where one might find the best afternoon tea, and today we are proud to announce the Insider's Guide to afternoon tea in London.

Originating among the English elite in the mid 19th Century, London is naturally home to some of the finest purveyors of afternoon tea in the world. The higher class hotels celebrate the pastime's opulent roots in lavish settings, but increasing popularity on the high street means it is no longer restricted to such exclusive demographics. Today we will explore a variety of afternoon tea styles catering to a wide range of the populace.

But across all genre there are certain key criteria that define an afternoon tea. After careful consideration and a great deal of research in the field, The Ephemeric has these down to just five pivotal metrics upon which any real contender will rise and fall:

  • The Ambience
  • The Tea
  • The Scones
  • Miscellaneous food and drink
  • Tradition
So with these dicta in mind, and a yearning for the sweet and tasty, The Ephemeric set out and chronicled these, the top 10 afternoon teas in and around London.

10. The Ritz

Where: 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR
Price: £47 per person for the traditional tea, £59 for the champagne tea.

the ritz london afternoon teaThe world famous Ritz hotel is of course the pinnacle of glamour and opulence. Hues of gold and expensive upholstery would give the palm court a palatial ambiance were it not for the relentless tourism that so dominates the location.

The sandwiches are unadventurous but perfectly yummy, a traditional 6-set of ham, cheddar, chicken, cucumber, salmon and egg with one for each guest. The all important scones are light and buttery, while the strawberry jam provided was flavourful and smooth. In particular the cakes were very tasty, albeit with a limited variety. Champagne varies, but they have a good selection.

But these occasions live and die by the quality of their tea, and the Ritz has, as one would expect, a selection of very high quality, but again, with only limited selection. At the time of attendance the tea selection contained only 12 or so options, some of which had run out, and only 5 black teas from which to choose.

Considering this is one of the more expensive teas available, though one can't find fault with the quality, we can't help but be somewhat underwhelmed with the limited variety on offer. At the same time, one feels almost a little uncomfortable at the general stuffiness of the surroundings, for example the insistence that all male guests wear a smart jacket in the palm court.

The Ritz is a bastion of classical English tradition, and they make sure you know it throughout the tea, but it occasionally comes off as almost a Disneyland version of an afternoon tea. There's no doubting that the Ritz offers a fine tea, but there are better times and teas to be had elsewhere.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

9. Sketch

Where: 9 Conduit St, London W1S 2XG
Price: £39 per person for the traditional tea, £51 for the champagne tea

sketch london afternoon tea michelinAs a two michelin star restaurant, and a uniquely complex venue featuring a variety of bars and eating areas, Sketch offers a very different experience when it comes to afternoon tea.

From the moment you enter the gallery you will be taken aback by the quirky decor and modernist design. Sketch is intended as a place of artistic expression, and there's no escaping the feeling that you've walked into some form of exhibition.

As one would expect from such a celebrated restaurant, the food is the main attraction. A selection of sandwiches covers the staples while adding a unique twist that includes the likes of mozzarella and pesto, and quail egg with caviar. The homemade treats (marshmallows are included) are tasty and well presented, but are mostly just one ingredient off-palate, with unnecessary twists of pistachio and exotic fruits tainting the various cakes. The scones however, were not good. Overcooked and overproduced, glazed with some unnecessary topping.

The tea menu is larger than the Ritz's, and essentially what one would expect from an afternoon tea, although in places it's strangely unbalanced; 7 herbal teas and only 1 white tea? Meanwhile the champagne is unfortunately the hugely mediocre and overpriced Pommery, but at £39 pounds the standard champagne-less tea offers an attractive alternative. Sketch also offers a non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice instead, which is a very nice touch.

Certainly one can't help but appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of the Sketch afternoon tea, but it scores an absolute zero in the way of tradition. Sketch is high quality, but a perfect example of a place that tries too hard to be different for the sake of it, and loses authenticity in the process. It is worth a look for sure, but if you want the real afternoon tea experience this is not the place.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

8. Claridge's

Where: 49 Brook St, London W1K 4HR
Price: £50 per person for the traditional tea, £61 for the champagne tea

claridges afternoon tea londonOne of London's most well known locations for afternoon tea, Claridge's is necessary research for any guide, and certainly it is worthy of it's high esteem.

The sandwiches are delicious, with homemade ingredients that include brown shrimp butter and burford brown egg mayonnaise, while the cakes are among the finest available. However the star in Claridge's lineup is the extensive tea menu which includes a good 25 varieties for your perusal.

What makes all this even more enjoyable is the extensively scripted menu which contains full information on the source of ingredients and the nature and complexity of the tea variety. The Ephemeric is getting hungry just thinking about the descriptions on that menu. The tea is pretty expensive as far as these go, but the quality of tea is as good as it comes.

Unfortunately Claridge's committed one cardinal sin: no plain scone option. The scones on offer included raisin or apple. Lesson one for an afternoon tea, always always give your guests the choice. Claridge's would be significantly higher up this list if they had thought that one through better.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

7. Sanctum Hotel

Where: 20 Warwick St, London W1B 5NF
Price: £50 per person

sanctum hotel soho gentlemen's gents afternoon teaAll this champagne and cake a little too girly for you? Then we have just the thing in at number 7: The Sanctum Hotel's gentlemen's afternoon tea.

You won't find meringue and watercress here, this is a tea packed full of red meat sandwiches, mini-burgers, lamb hotpots, and the like. The extensive food selection includes two platters full of such treats, and they're all really damn tasty. Your tea also comes with scotch, and after finishing tea, one is invited onto the Sanctum hotel's roof terrace for a cigar and more scotch. The tea room and roof terrace have both been redone recently and are fully optimized for comfort. The roof terrace in particular is a very comfortable space with sofas and heaters.

While this scores maximum points for "awesome", which is not a category by the way, the lack of scones is unforgivable, as is the lack of tea selection, with just one or two options available. Come to think of it, we're not really sure why this qualifies as an afternoon tea at all. That said, it is a heck of a lot of fun.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

6. Haymarket Hotel

Where: 1 Suffolk Pl, London SW1Y 4HX
Price: £22 per person for the traditional tea, £29.50 for the champagne tea

haymarket hotel afternoon tea london brumusA high quality tea that wins extra points for being one of the most affordable options available. Considering the usual price of an afternoon tea in London seems to hover close to £50, £22 per person is an absolute bargain.

What's even more impressive is what you get for your money, very fine scones, one of the best selections of cakes enjoyed at any of these teas, and a really quite solid selection of teas.

What you don't get is the same kind of ambience of one of the other teas. For sure, the Haymarket Hotel has a certain British understatement about it, but it all has a very "high street" style about it, while the tea room itself certainly feels a bit more pret-a-manger than the Ritz. This is reflected in the level of service, which can often be quite slow during busy times. On a whole proceedings here did not have the same "special occasion" feel as a more glamorous hotel.

And while the food and tea is of a generally high quality, it is noticeably, aside from the cakes, of a lesser quality compared to other more high end teas. In particular the sandwiches often steer too far wide of the classics and add an unwelcome European twist, like liver parfait or croque monsieur.

Certainly the Haymarket Hotel tea is a worthy entry on this list, but while it is arguably the best value for money on this list, it is still clearly a step below some of the other hotels.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

5. Langham Hotel

Where: 1c Portland Pl, Regent street, London W1B 1JA
Price: £44 per person for the traditional tea, £56 for the champagne tea

langham hotel wonderland afternoon tea londonThe Langham hotel's "Wonderland" tea is one of the more unique afternoon tea experiences in London. Capturing a fairytale experience for patrons, cakes are served in all manner of unusual shapes and colours, and are as delicious as they are gorgeous to look at.

The food elsewhere is generally also excellent quality, with unusual sandwiches featuring ingredients like Atlantic prawn in brioche, or Foreman's smoked salmon with whipped brie, adding a little bit of sweetness and novelty to the tradition. Sometimes, however, this adventurous spirit comes back to bite the Langham in the ass, in our case with a rather nasty and bitter pumpernickel abomination. The scones are fine, with a little twist of sweet glaze on top, which you may or may not like.

Another standout element is the extensive tea menu, stretching on for several pages with a very broad and high quality assortment of options. That said, we found a number of teas that were out of stock on our visit, suggesting that while the tea selection is wide, it isn't deep, and the actual selection available may be much smaller than it appears.

But holding the Langham back is the ambiance of the room itself. While the Langham was not the only tea experienced which did not have windows, it was especially noticeable here with the room's harsh lighting and somewhat more garish and oppressive decor. The Langham offers one of the better teas overall, but these caveats do matter.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

4. Park Lane Hotel

Where: Park Lane Hotel, Piccadilly Mayfair, London W1J 7BX
Price: £33 per person for the traditional tea, £41 for the "Art Deco" tea with champagne

park lane hotel palm court afternoon teaConversely, the Palm Court at the Park Lane Hotel makes for an absolutely beautiful tea setting. There may again not be much natural light, but the exotic and stylish oriental-themed decor, mixed with gentle mood lighting and good use of space makes for a far more relaxed atmosphere. More like a quiet tea in your living room than a world famous hotel.

The Park Lane afternoon tea makes for a great all-rounder. The setting is complemented by the addition of live music and high quality service, while at £33-£41 it also makes for one of the more moderately priced teas among the major hotels.

The crucial tea selection is quite robust at a good 20 or so varieties on offer, which includes all the usual favourites as well as a few more exotic options with an East-Asian slant, as befits the decor. The champagne was a mellow Mo√ęt & Chandon, a refreshing example of good taste over the name-baiting selections of Krug and Pommery we see elsewhere.

The seasonal jam was a little too runny, but otherwise there were no complaints with the high quality scones, which generously afforded the option of plain or two kinds of fruit scone and unlimited refills of both, although let's be honest once you've had two any more and you start to feel like a fatty. Meanwhile the sandwich selection combines the familiar (egg, salmon, cucumber) with more interesting options such as crab, corn-fed chicken on ciabatta, and beef with wasabi.

The Park Lane delivers the genuine afternoon tea experience, an earns itself a high placing on this esteemed list.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

3. The Savoy Hotel

Where: The Savoy Hotel, Strand, London WC2R 0EU
Price: £50 per person for the traditional tea, £61.50 for the champagne tea

afternoon tea savoy hotel londonAt this high level the differences between one establishment and another often become merely incidental, but still The Savoy manages to distinguish itself.

The setting is one of the more stunning we encountered, with it's great ornamental pagoda taking the centre of the room while sunlight cascades in through the huge glass dome in its ceiling. This gives the room an airy feel to it, while maintaining its grand impression, immediately recalling the bucolic setting of afternoon tea tradition.

Quality is the name of the game as far as the food is concerned. There's nothing revolutionary about the sandwich selection, but as The Savoy's afternoon tea reminds us the choice of specific ingredient can make a world of difference: Wiltshire ham, fleur de marquis, and of course The Savoy's signature cakes. Meanwhile the scones are about as good as scones get, and come with a selection of two different jams, plus the unusual option of lemon curd. Notably, everything here is provided in generous quantity, and with unlimited refills available.

Most pleasing is the extensive tea menu, containing a good 30 options, and unlike other hotels we visited everything on the menu appeared to be in stock.

While it ranks among the more expensive afternoon tea's sampled for this article there's no doubt that it's somewhat justified. The Savoy scores highly on every category, combining good service with a good, traditional tea.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

2. Lord of the Manor

Where: Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 2JD
Price: £25 per person for the traditional tea, £35 for the champagne tea

lord of the manor upper slaughter afternoon tea
So we're cheating a little bit here, heading just out of London to the Cotswolds for Lord of the Manor. There's a good reason for it, because this is the real deal.

Your tea here will be set in the beautifully maintained country estate, looking like something out of a Jane Austen novel. It's unglamorous, old fashioned, but absolutely authentic. A pristinely maintained lounge straight out of Britain’s golden era where you can drink tea from chinaware that leans more towards elegant classicism than the typical post-modern efficiency many city locales favour, all while out in front of you lies the glorious English countryside. It's the pinnacle of classic afternoon tea tradition.

There's nothing overly complicated or audacious about the food or scones, it's just classic, traditional fare, done very very well. The scones are served warm, the jam is fresh, the sandwiches and cream are made from local ingredients. Lord of the Manor is known for it’s award winning restaurant, and it shows with the quality of the food even in their afternoon tea.

The tea list is a little short, but we still had no difficulty finding something to our tastes, and the somewhat different location also gives license to mix up the repertoire a bit, with a lovely Cotswold blend and other more unusual variants.

Best of all, being located outside of London means that Lord of the Manor’s wonderful afternoon tea also comes with a significant discount, considerably less expensive than most similar teas enjoyed in London.

Ultimately what Lord of the Manor gives you is the perfect authentic afternoon tea, complete with the unique rural setting and competitive price makes it a very difficult tea to top, and an ideal destination for anyone who finds themselves near the area.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

1. Brown's Hotel

Where: 33 Albemarle St, London W1S 4BP
Price: £41.50 for the traditional tea, £51.50 for the champagne tea

brown's hotel best afternoon tea in londonBut the Ephemeric’s top dog for afternoon tea, year after year, can still be found in the grand old hotels of London. Coming in at number one is the classic afternoon tea of Brown’s Hotel.

Granted it may not have the rural setting of a Lord of the Manor, but the atmosphere at Brown’s equally manages to be effortlessly laid-back. It may not have the glitz and gold of the Park Lane or Langham, or the edgy modern trendiness of Sketch, but Brown’s excels in understated British elegance. It epitomizes that very British style of celebrating tradition, without being ostentatious.

The Brown’s tearoom is instantly relaxing as you walk in off the hectic streets of London; reminiscent of an old fashioned country estate complete with live piano music, open fireplace in the winter, and friendly service.

The food can't be criticized. The sandwich selection varies periodically, but always includes a good mix of afternoon tea staples and more unique additions. The scones simply can't be improved upon, and the consistency of cream/jam is pretty much ideal. The cakes are delicious and creative, and of course everything comes with unlimited refills.

The tea selection is robust if not exhaustive at a good 20 or so, but the quality is extremely high, and plenty of unusual varieties can be found, owing to connections with some of the oldest tea producers in the world. The winning touch though? At the end of your tea all guests are given a small sachet of the particular tea you ordered, to take home with you. It's the perfect end to a sublime afternoon tea.

The fact is Brown's traditional afternoon tea is simply the ideal afternoon tea. They get everything right, and few things wrong, leaving little doubt that it is the most complete afternoon tea package one can find.

Rating on Tea-O-Meter:

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