Afternoon tea is to Britain what apple pie is to the U.S., an enduring staple of the culture. But that doesn't mean that the tradition of afternoon tea hasn't had to change over the years to accommodate new tastes and shifting requirements. A buttery scone with clotted cream and rose petal jam? Sure, but that scone can now be gluten-free. Egg and watercress finger sandwiches are made even better with organic, vegetarian-fed eggs. And give some of London's top tea specialists a little notice, and they'll come up with a fantastic vegetarian or nut-free spread, if so requested.
After all, the art of taking tea in London is not just steeped in tradition, it's also perhaps the most pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Particularly now, as temperatures have dropped and Londoners look for a leisurely and relaxing way to entertain indoors, count on spending a day in one of these top tea-taking places in the city.
Photo Credit: Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park
Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park
It's almost impossible to make a trip to London without stopping in at Harrods and Harvey Nichols. But after some shopping, head across the street to the Rosebery Lounge adjacent to the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, for one of the most inventive tea offerings in the city. Sandwiches such as Wiltshire cured ham with heritage tomatoes are served on platters reminiscent of elaborate bird cages, and the setting is spacious, airy and contemporary. The lounge's tea master is on hand to offer suggestions, which include a particular tea leaf from a single 200-year-old tree on the Wudang Mountains in northwestern China, or the exotic saffron-infused Heart of Persia blend.
Photo Credit: The Milestone Hotel
The Milestone Hotel
The Park Lounge at the Milestone Hotel in Kensington has cleverly tapped into non-traditional tea-drinking customers. Its Gentlemanly Afternoon Tea sounds like quite the low-key and genteel alternative to a typical bachelor party. Cozy up in this warm and comfy spot with a flight of selected whiskies or an ale cocktail, accompanied by hearty fare like wild boar Scotch eggs and miniature Beef Wellingtons. Even the desserts are more manly than most; the berry tart is soaked with brandy, and cupcakes are laden with whisky-infused cream cheese frosting.
Photo Credit: The Goring
The Goring in London is one of those uniquely elegant hotels that happens to be quite the hotspot as well. It is, after all, where Kate Middleton spent her last night as a single woman before marrying Prince William, and the royal couple still enjoy meals and getaways there. The property has won the British Tea Guild Council's Top London Afternoon Tea Award, which is saying something in a city where tea offerings are the norm. Opt for a chilled glass of Bollinger Rose Champagne to accompany delicate edibles like cucumber sandwiches with mint and crème fraîche and the raspberry pistachio and violet tartlet. The hotel's chefs use local and seasonal fruits and vegetables and, yes, many of the same treats can be offered in a gluten-free version.
Photo Credit: The Shangri-La at The Shard
The Shangri-La at The Shard
The appropriately-named Shard (it resembles a giant blade of glass piercing the sky), is home to many things: an observatory, a high-end beauty salon and a pop up store. But it's also where Shangri-La at the Shard is located, the London outpost of the luxury Hong Kong-based hotel group. And because of its heritage, Asian influences are predictably strong. Its teas fuse ingredients associated with South Asian cuisine such as azuki red bean, sesame seeds and mango with the scone-and-pastry tradition of a fine high tea. The result is an adventurous repertoire featuring offerings like Cornish crab with chives and curry mayo in a brioche bun, or a matcha-flavored sponge cake with white chocolate flakes.
Photo Credit: Jumeirah Carlton Tower
Jumeirah Carlton Tower
There's nothing conventional about the tea at the Chinoiserie in the Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel. Here, themes are everything, and rendered in an unforgettable way. Fashionistas who stopped in for tea during the hectic days of London Fashion Week were treated to miniature cakes shaped like high-heeled pumps, and when Wimbledon was going on, pastries were in the form of tennis balls and slabs of green mousse conveyed courts. During non-event days, cupcakes rest within glass bell jars and are decorated with the most airy and delicate of petals.
Photo Credit: The Dorchester
Like its sister hotels—The Plaza Athenee in Paris, the Hotel Eden in Rome and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles—The Dorchester is an institution, known for its swanky suites, three Michelin-starred restaurant by Alain Ducasse and the rarefied ambience of The Promenade, its tea lounge. In recent months, its signature tea—classic, elegant and steeped in luxury—has added another dimension. It is now fun and lively as well. The hotel's recently-unveiled Ice Cream Tea service allows guests to enjoy some creamy cold treats in flavors like Elderflower, Cox apple, English honey and Earl Grey. Traditional tea will still be offered, such as the staple Mad Hatter's Tea Party featuring Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea cakes. And just to show that the hotel takes its tea-time seriously, it recently opened its Secret Tea Garden on the roof, with trees from the Scottish Dalreoch Tea Plantation. Fresh tea leaves are picked every day to be served to hotel guests. The Dorchester is the only hotel in England to serve the rare teas.