All about afternoon tea
You arrive at Heathrow at 4am after what feels like several lifetimes up in the air. There are delays at customs and the handlers for reasons known only to themselves put your luggage through last. The train to central London doesn’t come for another hour. What do you do? Here’s what: you dive headfirst into British culture, put up with all major grievances and buy a cup of tea. Instructions are as follows: buy cuppa, season to taste (milk no sugar please), stand around huddled in the cold and talk about your weather predictions for the coming week.
Tea is so much more than just a warming beverage in Britain. It’s an institution, an opportunity for communicating, an entire part of the day! Although it’s all about cutesy little coffee bars in London these days, the old stalwart tearooms of the capital will stay open forever, because a hot brew on a cold day will never go out of fashion. Britain drinks 165 million cups of tea a day - 60 billion a year! - which isn’t bad for a nation of 65 million. I’m on my third already and it’s not yet 11am. So if you want to get a taste of the culture, try out a few of the cafes, tea-rooms, hotels and lounges we look at here and perhaps you’ll find yourself tea-tillated by a new world of flavour. Click on the bold place names for links to their locations on google maps.
The most famous tearoom in the world is probably that of Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair. This is where all the most eminent Victorians like Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling went to enjoy scones, finger sandwiches and earl grey in comfort and style. Queen Victoria herself was a regular here, so if it was good enough for her, chances are it’ll satisfy you. The Ritz is another classic, even fancier institution where you can enjoy an indulgent (both financially and gastronomically) afternoon treat. But beware, these places aren’t cheap: you’ll be looking at £50 and up for afternoon tea, including all the trimmings, and another tenner or so for the traditional accompanying glass of champagne. And make sure to dress your best. The Ritz has a strict dress code so brush off the old dinner jacket and enjoy taking your place among the well-heeled London set.
If you’re mad on tea but even keener on keeping what little money remains in your wallet, there are plenty of other options which still have a refined feel. The London Tea Exchange on Brick Lane, for example, takes its brews very seriously and has sold high-quality loose leaf tea for a decade now. They have just opened a tearoom in their shop and it’s definitely worth a look, especially with all the on-hand expert advice you’ll be offered in selecting a blend just for you.
Candella in Kensington is another fine purveyor of the nation’s favourite drink which boasts all the refined elegance of the bank-breaking hotel tearooms but with a more down-to-earth price list. You can expect sumptuous patisseries, dozens of different types of tea and, if you insist on being a renegade, some very fine coffee indeed.
Yumchaa, which has locations in Camden, Brick Lane, Kings Cross and Soho, is known as a modernising influence in the tea world. Declaring that, on arriving in London, there was nowhere to be found a properly made cup of tea, the Yumchaa mission has been to hone down the perfect techniques for brewing and serving tea in order to get the most out of the drinking experience. And if you love tea but want to learn more about it and develop your palette, check out their tea masterclass! By the end of the day you’ll know your lapsang from your suutei and your kombucha from you kahwah.
Finally, if you want to sample all of the above - the stylish pomp of the hotel tearooms, the value of the smaller cafes and the expertise of the specialist shops - then go to the oldest tearoom in London, Twinings on the Strand. Choose from hundreds of blends, taste, discuss and create your own flavours, learn how to brew properly, or just relax and enjoy the historic atmosphere.