Afternoon tea is more than just a meal. It’s a British tradition, whose history may be traced back to the 1830s and beyond, depending on whom you believe.
Credit for its invention usually goes to Duchess Anna Maria, the wife of the seventh duke of Bedford, who felt the need to bridge the long gap between luncheon and dinner when entertaining friends at Woburn Abbey, outside the capital.
The Langham hotel in London, which has been serving afternoon tea since 1865, offers rules of etiquette, including the stipulation that you should always pour the tea before the milk: Expensive china won’t crack under the heat.
Other decrees: When stirring, don’t clink the cup; serve lemon slices, not wedges; the teapot spout faces the hostess; don’t raise your pinkie when drinking; never dunk; sandwiches should be served without the crusts; with scones, it is acceptable to spread the clotted cream or jam first.
Where to go in London for this slice of culinary history? Stores such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason are possible, though you may feel like a tourist. Brown’s -- a discreet hotel -- is favored by many an aficionado, but when I tried it a couple of years ago, the service was less than welcoming.
Here are four places that are among London’s finest for afternoon tea. I went along with TV chef Gizzi Erskine, 31, who embodies conflicting aspects of British style. She is well spoken and looks like Audrey Hepburn. She is a former body-piercer and punk model with a tattoo that covers her back.
THE RITZ: Where better to enjoy afternoon tea than in the gilded splendor of the Ritz? As you nibble on your egg-mayonnaise-and-cress bridge roll and sip the Ritz Royal English, you can listen while pianist Ian Gomes plays your request and admire the ornate beauty of the Palm Court, where afternoon tea has been served for more than 100 years.
The cost? 39 pounds per person ($60), or 50 pounds with a glass of Champagne. There are five sittings, starting at 11:30 a.m. and finishing at 7:30 p.m. Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie. Jeans and sport shoes are not permitted. Ladies may wear trousers. You have to book as much as five months in advance.
Gizzi’s verdict? “It’s fantastic, isn’t it? Super chintzy. I’m a massive fan of afternoon tea. It’s a testament to being British and also it’s evocative of so many good memories for me. Growing up, I came here a couple of times. It makes me proud to be British. A good finger sandwich comes down to good bread, really soft bread, and just enough filling. These are great. There’s a lot of thought gone into it but not too much thought. It’s keeping it classic, which I really like. I can’t fault it.”
THE LANGHAM: This hotel, across from the BBC on Portland Place, claims to have begun the tradition of afternoon tea in London. The Tea Guild gave it the Top London Afternoon Tea Award 2010. Previous winners include Brown’s, the Lanesborough, Claridge’s, the Ritz and the Dorchester.
The cost? 37 pounds, or 49.50 pounds with a glass of Champagne. We tried the fancier Bijoux Tea at 45 pounds or 60 pounds. It offers cakes inspired by jewels, including Delices de Cartier, and sandwiches such as pastrami and marie rose.
Gizzi’s verdict: “It’s creative, even with regards to the sandwiches, and it’s beautiful tea with hibiscus and rose. It smells fantastic. The bread tastes really fresh, made on the premises. I bake a cake every weekend and I can see the skill that has gone into these. They’ve really thought about the cakes and the flavors are punchy. This would be a memorable tea. It isn’t as classic as the Ritz but the quality of the food takes afternoon tea to the next level.”
THE BERKELEY: This luxury hotel’s Pret-a-Portea is inspired by the fashion world. The menu reflects the current collections. So if you are up for a belted Jason Wu poppy-seed cocktail-dress biscuit embellished with ruffled purple icing, served on a Paul Smith plate, this is the place for you.
The cost? 35 pounds, or 45 pounds with Champagne. Pret-a-Portea is available by delivery aboard a Vespa adorned in the Pret colors of pistachio green and pale pink. Your delivery comes with handbag takeaway boxes stowed in a bespoke handbag carrier perched on the back of the motor scooter.
Gizzi’s verdict? “I love these cakes. I feel happy being in their presence. I’m female and seriously in my element now. It has to be the most stylish tea I’ve ever seen. As a girl, I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ There’s a whole load of women who come to London and want to shop, and in this area you have Harrods, you have Harvey Nichols and then you come here and you can have that inspiration on your plate. How ingenious is that? It’s fantastic. I almost don’t care how it tastes. A lot of the cakes we’ve seen have been carb heavy, spongy, lots of scones. These are a lot less so, which for a young female conscious of her weight, is better. The sandwiches are not very creative and the cakes have similar squidgy textures but I’m having a whale of a time. I’ve got my mojo back.”
SKETCH: This venue, owned by chef Pierre Gagnaire and restaurateur Mourad Mazouz, features some of the most exotic staffers you will see in London, along with eccentric designs. Afternoon tea is served in the Parlour, a crazily beautiful room. My tea contains toasted rice and popcorn.
The cost? 27 pounds, or 38 pounds with Champagne. You get assorted finger sandwiches and two fruit scones with seasonal jam and clotted cream. A simple cream tea is 10.50 pounds. Afternoon tea is served between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. London Fashion Week is taking place, so good luck getting a table.
Gizzi’s verdict? “How much fun is this? We’ve had four very different teas and this is like a combination of all of them. We’ve got our classic sandwiches, we’ve got our scones but we’ve also got an array of slightly bananas cakes and the setting is amazing. I like eccentricity. I love that there’s a side of the British -- punk rock, eccentricity and art -- that’s accumulated in this room. It’s Alice in Wonderland. If you were coming from New York and you like things that are creative and push boundaries, this is the place to come. I don’t know if the food is as up to scratch as the others, but for value for money and atmosphere, this is hard to beat.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)