Afternoon tea, anyone?

It feels so decadent, and so very English, to settle down around 3 p.m. to afternoon tea, that curious meal of finger sandwiches, scones and cakes. Any trip to London should include at least one stop for tea … and these days there’s no shortage of choices, from the formal to the somewhat outlandish. Here are some of the places I love:

The Lanesborough
In 2008, the Tea Guild named the Lanesborough the number one afternoon tea in London—so I simply had to see if I agreed. I tapped Lauren, one of my Insiders and a self-proclaimed scone specialist to check it out: “Afternoon tea at the Lanesborough is a truly gourmet experience, even down to the amuse bouche! It’s very formal, but the neutral Art Deco colors make is less glitzy, more glam. Service is impeccable and the attention to detail is worthy of a proper meal—the mini teacakes add a certain English something, very cute. This is also the only place in the UK to offer the services of a tea sommelier, who will guide you through the extensive wine list-style tea menu. On Hyde Park Corner, it’s a little more out of the way, but worth the trip, and we finished up with a relaxing stroll through Green Park back into town.” | Phone: +44 (0)207 333 7254
Hyde Park Corner | London SW1X 7TA England

The Metropolitan Hotel
Low wheat cakes, low-fat cream and no-bread sandwiches—the “De-Light” Afternoon Tea at the Metropolitan has done the unthinkable and brought the tradition slap bang into the 21st century. Somehow it works; a funky affair perfect for girls who want to indulge without the guilt. The scones are a little crumbly—removing some gluten will do that—but topped with crème fraiche, they leave you feeling much less bloated and heavy. All of the usual suspects have been given a healthy twist; your favorite sandwich fillings are mixed with seasonal vegetable purees instead of bread, muffins are made with olive oil rather than butter, and the brightly colored cupcakes use potato rather than flour—you’d never know if I hadn’t told you! Every good deed needs a bad partner, so if you need to feel just a little naughty, the eco-tinis are delicious blends of seasonal fruit with a splash of London Gin. Reservations essential. | Phone: +44 (0)20 7447 4757
Old Park Lane | London W1K 1LB England

The Parlour at Sketch

If the Mad Hatter were to hold his tea party in London, it would happen at Sketch. Stepping inside any of the rooms is like tumbling into a Dali painting. The Parlour is decorated in mixed-up furniture, with stag-head lights adding a twist to traditional British hunting décor. Tea is served on mis-matched crockery—Lauren had a particularly odd teacup with a pair of provocative legs emerging from the side as a handle! The use of a blackcurrant jam was a refreshing touch to the scones, and the cakes, created by pastry chef Pierre Gaugasin, are very decorative (and pretty delicious). The only let down is the cool reception some people have reported from staff at the door. Might sound odd, but make sure you take a trip to the bathrooms, as you delve into the building, it gets more and more surreal, until you come upon a room of individual, white, egg-shaped pods reached by grand white staircases. You’ve got to see it to believe it. | Phone: +44 (0) 207 659 4500
9 Conduit Street | London W1S 2XG England

Tea at Claridge’s is another London institution. I would recommend sitting in the Foyer Restaurant with the gold and pampass centre piece, rather than the Reading Room on the left with the sofas. They may look comfy, but it is much darker. And, don’t forget to look up … An enormous hand-blown glass Chihuly chandelier, “Medusa,” dominates the ceiling. Perhaps a little out of place in the Deco-esque room, but there’s no denying it’s impressive! Tea is served on a tier at the side of the table—nice as it means you don’t have to peer around scones to see your dining partner! Talking of scones… they’re nicely sized, not too big, and deliciously crumbly—although jam aficionados might not be convinced with the Marco Polo jelly. As you’d expect, apart from a small amount of confusion over extra clotted cream, the service was top notch. If you’re thinking of an “occasion tea” that’s a little less “ritzy” than the Ritz, then Claridge’s is your place. | Phone: +44 (0)20 7629 8860
Brook Street | London W1K 4HR England

Men’s Afternoon Tea
Mandeville Hotel

The “heteropolitan” afternoon tea. The Mandeville’s “Men’s Afternoon Tea” is perfect for business meetings and creative media brainstorming (there’s wi-fi throughout). Or, perhaps, for those boys who can’t face the shopping trawl along nearby Marylebone High Street … The ‘manly’ is subtly implied in enormous portions of meat-based savouries like roast sirloin focaccia sandwiches, chicken satay and very salty potted shrimps, all served up on bespoke Schönwald blue china. To top it off, there are enough bite-sized cakes, scones and pastries to warrant a double session at the gym later (the best of which are the chocolate fig beignets) and the addition of whisky or champagne and games such as poker and backgammon add a nice gentlemen’s club vibe. Tea can be served in the restaurant, but the theatrically flamboyant Drawing Room is much cozier. Its linen wall coverings, Venetian mask lampshades, velvet drape curtains, and textured upholstery are all suitably “Louis XIV.” | Phone: +44 (0) 20 7935 5599
Mandeville Place | London W1U 2BE England

Nicole’s at Nicole Farhi

Afternoon tea is so much more fun for a meeting or a daytime chat than a coffee or a cocktail. Nicole Farhi has created a miniature tea that easily slips in between lunch and dinner and has that same sense of chic and simple style that characterizes her clothing. Open sandwiches, macaroons rather than scones, and miniature tarts and cakes are just enough to satisfy a sweet tooth without leaving you struggling. Nicole herself has been heavily involved in the design, using her travels in the fashion capitals of Europe to influence the menu. It’s not really the tea to go to for afternoon tea’s sake, but more of a shopping stop-off or a fun catch-up with friends. If you can’t quite manage even a mini afternoon tea, a slice of 97% gluten-free chocolate served with goji berries should hit the spot … | Phone: +44 (0) 20 7499 8408
158 New Bond Street | London W1S 2UE England

Afternoon Tease

Volupté Lounge, near Chancery Lane and Pigalle Club, Picadilly.

This has to be one of the most unique, and most fun, afternoon teas out there. Zoe Fletcher has put together two deliciously decadent events—afternoon tea and burlesque performances. It’s a great alternative to some of the more traditional and “stuffy” venues; Lauren had a blast supping on champagne, nibbling cakes and watching some excellent performances. She reports back that these were the best scones she’s had: “rustic, freshly baked, bursting with fruit and served with a fabulous selection of jams.” There is a little nudity involved, however there’s a good helping of comedy, dance, and some fabulous outfits, making it all very tasteful and a good giggle. The majority of the audience was women, but guys don’t be put off by the feathers and finery—on and off stage. The venue at Volupté Lounge, London’s premier burlesque club, is perfect, with pretty wallpaper and plenty of cheeky cocktails to start or finish the afternoon.

Every first and third Saturday of the month at Volupte; on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at The Pigalle Club, Piccadilly. | Phone: +44 (0) 79 7113 0611
9 Norwich Street | London EC4A 1EJ England

The Ritz
I could hardly talk about afternoon tea and neglect to mention the Ritz—the quintessential experience. Unfortunately, everyone seems to think so and it has become perhaps a little touristy. Nevertheless, it’s a must. To sip a delicate Darjeeling in the Palm Court sends you miles, and centuries, away from the busy London streets. As you’d expect, the food is great, but taste buds aside, tea at the Ritz is all about the atmosphere; the live piano, the waiters in their white coats and the famous nymph on the central fountain. It’s grand here; a real 1930’s afternoon tea experience. However, be aware that you’ll only have an hour and a half—so there’ll be no lying back in the chair or a quick digestive nap afterwards … | Phone: +44 (0) 20 7493 8181
150 Piccadilly | London W1J 9BR England

Fortnum and Mason
I love Fortnum’s—that bastion of Edwardian Englishness. The St. James is a great stop-off after a busy day shopping. Decorated in trademark eau de nil, it’s elegant rather than grand, and tea is a relaxing tete â tete rather than an “occasion.” Unlike some of the afternoon teas out there, this won’t leave you feeling ready to burst; everything is charmingly mini, so there’s no need to skip lunch in order to fit it in! It’s a relaxing affair, ideally accompanied by plenty of laid-back chatter. One of the most impressive things about the menu at Fortnum’s is that everyone can join in; there’s an egg-free menu, a diabetic menu, a gluten-free menu and a special selection of sandwiches for vegetarians—all without losing the essential items that make Afternoon Tea so decadent. | Phone: +44 (0) 845 602 5694
181 Piccadilly | London W1A 1ER England

Suzanne Aaronson, Co-founder of Suzanne’s Files, is our Travel Curator. Stay in-the-know on her latest finds and insider tips by signing up to receive Notes from Suzanne’s Files, a free e-newsletter.

Afternoon tea, anyone?