Best for tea service, 8 Lamb Street, E1 6EA (7247 1333)
The staff will blow you away with their tea knowledge at this contemporary teahouse on the edge of Old Spitalfields Market. Catch them at a quiet moment (that means during the week, not the bustling weekends) and they’ll spend as long as you like talking teas and traditional brewing techniques. Snag a place at this alternative afternoon tea (there are only 16 spots, which can be requested but not reserved), in which teas are paired with Japanese-inspired confections by William Curley, and you get a chance to secure a little more of their attention. The four ‘courses’ include a walnut and miso biscuit with matcha and honey dip served with a vibrant green tea; and an aromatic oolong presented with the patissier’s couture chocolates. It’s not going to fill you up, but it’s a unique tasting experience.
See Afternoon Tea Ceremony at Tea Smith venue details
Afternoon tea served noon-3pm daily; £20 per head.
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7LA (7201 3899)
Don’t be put off by the basement location: this smart-casual hotel restaurant may not be your first choice on a gloriously sunny day, but at any other time, its outstanding afternoon selection is well worth shunning the sunlight. Loose-leaf teas are served alongside a picture-perfect selection of tea-time treats, arranged over a minimalist three-tier tower. The highlights from our visit started with soft sandwiches with generous, delicate fillings such as creamy avocado and crab. Elegant cakes – such as a spongy pyramid of lemon mousse with miniature chunks of pineapple, a flawless macaroon and just-baked madeleines – arrive still warm from the oven. If you’ve more of a hankering for something savoury, the menu’s small plates, such as our luxuriously gruyère-laden croque monsieur (possibly the best in London) or cumin-spiced lamb terrine, were equally memorable.
See Bar Boulud venue details
Afternoon tea served 3.30-5pm daily; £26 per head.
72 Blythe Road, W14 0HP (7602 1177)
Betty Blythe’s is a bit of a local institution. The small café-cum-pantry is a well-worn spot with local mums in particular, who often make use of the downstairs space for children’s dress-up tea parties. It’s not all prams and gossip, however. The upstairs café space is light and smart, with white and pink-washed furniture, and food is fresh and appealing. The sweet selection has a strong British theme with lemon drizzle, carrot cake and scones as staples. Teas come from supplier Sherston and include a wonderfully light and gently fruity Earl Grey. But for a special tea party twist, you can bring your own Champagne (£2 corkage) or arrange your afternoon tea to be served with a cupcake-decorating or fascinator-making workshop.
See Betty Blythe venue details
Afternoon tea served 9am-5pm Mon-Sat; £20 per head.
Haymarket Hotel, 1 Suffolk Place, SW1 4HX (7470 4000)
Firmdale hotels are best known for their stylish spaces, hospitable service and dependable cooking; the Haymarket Hotel is a case in point. Afternoon tea is taken in Brumus, its elegant but unstuffy restaurant, where handsome wood floors and bold artworks are off-set by charcoal upholstery and fuchsia walls. Served simply on a three-tier glass stand, it ticks all the boxes, offering classic finger sarnies (egg and cress, crab and avocado) ahead of warm scones (fruit and plain). Equally comme il faut is the Anglo-French patisserie selection, with a decent miniature éclair, fruit tart and macaroon lining up beside a dinky slice of moist banana and walnut cake. The limited selection of teas, coffees or infusions may be a let-down for aficionados, but is perfectly well-suited to the tourists and shoppers filling the tables, while free plates of extra sandwiches and refills of your brew make this one of the best-value hotel teas in the West End.
See Brumus at the Haymarket Hotel venue details
Afternoon tea served 12.30-4.30pm Mon-Sat, 1-4.30 Sun; £21.50 per head.
15 Montague Street, WC1B 5BJ (7637 1001)
This little-known Bloomsbury hotel means well and tries hard. On our visit, the staff bent over backwards to make us feel welcome. What’s more, the tea is more ‘proper’ than at many of its grander, more pompous competitors. A box of loose-leaf options (brought to the table so you can sniff out your favourite) and a dinky set of sand-timers help achieve the perfect brew. Sandwiches are well-filled and interesting, with walnut-crusted rounds filled with chicken and celery – a nod to a Waldorf salad – joining the likes of smoked salmon and horseradish. We also enjoyed warm scones and pretty miniature patisseries (chocolate cake, raspberry macaroon). But there are some inescapable red flags. Quantities are rather stingy (refills of sandwiches were offered, but not of cakes, which had to be shared) and if you can’t get a table overlooking the garden, you’ll be seated in the conservatory – which, though light and airy, is marred by the presence of the (muted) flat-screen TV on in the background.
See Conservatory and Garden at Montague On The Gardens
Afternoon tea served noon-6pm daily; £26.50 per head.
55 Aldwych, WC2B 4BB (7499 8558)
The new sister branch of The Wolseley (see above) is a fine place to take tea in the midst of theatre land. We like the cosy leather booths along the sides of the brasserie, which make ideal nooks for enjoying a leisurely afternoon nibbling warm scones, petite cakes and finger sandwiches. The Delaunay's house blend is a delicious black tea incorporating fragrant rosebuds that aren't too overpowering, but we took issue with staff only providing three teapots for four guests, and the time it took to get hot water refills. Not quite as polished as big sister then, but still a grand spot with lovely cakes and special atmosphere.
Afternoon tea served 3-6.30pm Mon-Fri; 3.30-6.30pm Sat, Sun; £21.50 per head.
Best for gents, Mandeville Place, W1U 2BE (7935 5599)
This is a classy tea, served in a hushed drawing room section of the DeVille restaurant in Marylebone on crockery designed – in a far more restrained style than you may anticipate – by Zandra Rhodes. The treats (finger sandwiches, scones, summer fruit shot, macaroons) are beautifully presented on a cake stand, moreish and sometimes surprising: for sir, salmon tartare on croute (salmon on toast); for madam, bright pink meringues. The chap conceived of by the Men’s Tea here plainly metrosexual. As well as the anticipated red meat (mini cheeseburger, steak sandwich with shallot jam), it diverges from the Fashion Ladies Tea at DeVille in providing a basil ‘panna cotta’, actually textured like firm jelly. The rest was perfectly executed, well judged in quantity and accompanied by exquisite tea – from Darjeeling to flowering osmanthus. Perhaps due to the backstreet location, the room was empty on a rainy Sunday afternoon – another mark in the Mandeville’s favour.
See DeVille at the Mandeville Hotel venue details
Afternoon tea served 1-5pm daily; £26.50 per head.
Lower ground floor, Selfridges, W1U 1AT (0800 123 400)
Recognising the unorthodox past of Selfridges, Dolly’s celebrates its founder’s relationship with the Dolly Sisters – the vaudeville performers who stole Harry Gordon Selfridge’s heart and embroiled him in scandal. In their honour, Dolly’s is an art-deco den, sitting rather clamorously at the centre of the store’s basement floor. If you don’t mind the backdrop buzz of shoppers, the afternoon tea is a treat for the impulsive (you can’t pre-book). Loose-leaf tea is served in magnificent vintage silverware and a brief selection of sandwiches and mini scones are followed by delicate French patisserie from the wonderful Belle Epoque bakery. The opera cake is particularly worth digging a fork into, and offers a decadent (if somewhat pricey) break from shopping.
See Dolly's Cafe venue details
Afternoon tea served 11.30am-8pm Mon-Wed, 11.30am-9pm Thur; 11.30am-6pm Fri-Sun; £20.95 per head.
101 Buckingham Palace Road, SW1W 0SJ (7821 8898)
What used to be Chez Gerard at Victoria Station has been transformed into a rather elegant Cantonese restaurant, part of the Thistle Grosvenor Hotel. It’s a stunningly renovated room, with high ceilings and tasteful decor – a blend of burnished gold, black and white. Despite the central location, it can feel uncomfortably quiet during tea service – we got the feeling staff didn’t really have their hearts in it. Which is a shame as the ‘Oriental Afternoon Tea’ (£20 per person) is rather good, despite some odd portion sizes. We enjoyed the barbecued pork buns and black cod wrapped in fried kataifi pastry– the former hot and fluffy, the latter light and grease-free; but who could manage two of each for tea? There are also four ‘wraps’ – ‘concubine’ chicken and jellyfish on lettuce, and shredded roast duck on a prawn cracker, both better than they sound. They made for messy – and repetitive – eating. It might therefore seem like a good idea to share one tea between two – but doing so can result in negotiations over the four different chocolate dim sum, or halving the excellent green tea brûlée. A noble tea selection, as befitting for a Chinese restaurant – includes a mellow jin xuan oolong (known as milk oolong for its sweet aroma) from Taiwan.
See Grand Imperial venue details
Afternoon tea served 3-5.30pm daily; £20 per head.
42-44 William IV Street, WC2N 4DD (7420 2050)
When it comes to afternoon tea, this ‘grand brasserie’ has yet to find its feet. It's a great shame, because the handsome surroundings could give the Wolseley a run for its money, yet on our weekday visit, it was almost empty. Despite this, service is cheery and welcoming, with free refills from the boutique tea selection provided without asking – but the food was very hit and miss. Scones fared well, but the choux pastry of a Lilliputian caramel éclair had lost its bounce, and a too-sweet pudding of alfonso mango and rice mousse smacked of the 1980s. Meagre fillings meant that with the exception of the good-quality smoked salmon version, the sandwiches were a disappointment. By contrast, the small plates on offer at this time of day are exceptional, from moreish Puy lentils with a soft-boiled egg to a well-seasoned and toothsome hand-cut steak tartare. This is where the kitchen's true strengths lie, making lunch or dinner a better time to visit.
See Les Deux Salons venue details
Afternoon tea served 3-5pm daily; £19.50 per head.
The May Fair Hotel, Stratton Street, W1J 8LT (7915 3892)
Although billed as offered by Quince (Silvena Rowe’s surprisingly good Turkish-inspired restaurant), tea on our visit was not served in the restaurant (or even in the buzzy lobby), but a windowless function room deep in the bowels of the hotel. A fabulous interior might be able to rescue the pitiful location, but the large, soulless space has been done up on the cheap, with laminate dark woods and garish red velour banquettes. Tea starts well: the extensive selection of brews come served in pretty glass teapots that are refilled without prompting (and at no extra charge). Elsewhere though, it’s a terrible muddle. Dry sandwiches come with Middle-Eastern-themed fillings (chicken shawarma, say), that would work better in flatbreads or wraps, and the cloying, predominantly European pastries (lemon tart, chocolate brownie) are equally disappointing. Well-made scones and ultra-accommodating service help redress the balance, but we’d rather visit the main restaurant for lunch or dinner.
See Quince at the May Fair Hotel venue details
Afternoon tea served 3-5.30pm daily; £29.50 per head.
9 Conduit Street, W1S 2XG (7659 4500)
If you can appreciate the showy decor (which looks as though avant-garde art has had its way with the set of a period drama), taking tea at Sketch’s eccentric Parlour can be quite a treat. The French pastries are the highlight with triumphant éclairs, macaroons and tarts among an impressive selection. They’re so tempting, in fact, that unless you’re dead set on sandwiches and scones, it’s better to indulge in what you fancy rather than order the restrictive afternoon tea set menu – one which is notably less generous than that of most hotels.
See Sketch: The Parlour venue details
Afternoon tea served 1-6pm Mon-Sat; £27 per head.
Best for gents, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT (7928 9444)
Attached to the Globe and overlooking the Thames from the second floor, the Swan is guaranteed a tourist clientele, but prices don’t exploit this and quality is high. This is one of London’s few places specifically to offer a ‘Gentleman’s High Tea’, here making the not unreasonable assumption that masculinity revolves around meat, whisky and beer: on a couple of wooden boards you get goodies including a salt beef sarnie and mini-sausages, an éclair stuffed with whisky-dosed cream and, with your cuppa, a bottle of London Pride ale. The standard afternoon tea produces more fancy cakes (scones, meringues), along with sandwiches (ham, beef with horseradish). Our friendly waitress couldn’t explain why the Gent’s Tea differed from the menu (fine Cheddar instead of Cornish yarg, quiche instead of sausage roll with caper mayonnaise), but was diligent in supplying additional substitutes. Enjoyable and well proportioned for the price, but not quite as refined as you might wish – we do always like to see a cake stand.
See the Swan venue details
Afternoon tea served 2.30-5pm Mon-Sat; £19.50 per head.
Best for people watching, 160 Piccadilly, W1J 9EB (7499 6996)
This beautiful space takes its inspiration from the grand cafés of the Continent – from the Florentine marble floors to the Corinthian pillars, but was built originally as a car showroom. Good linen and silverware are the norm. Head to the cute café off to the side, where despite a more casual atmosphere, the tea service is as polished as that in the main dining room. Enjoy lavish stacks of finger sandwiches, scones and pastries accompanied by hot, properly brewed pots of tea. We particuarly like the details – the hourglass timer that appears with your pot of tea, the silver tea strainers, the profligate use of linen napkins. The Wolseley’s excellent afternoon tea blend can be bought to take home to recreate the experience.
See The Wolseley venue details
Afternoon tea served 3-6pm Mon-Fri; 3.30-5pm Sat; 3.30-6pm Sun; £21 per head.