A history of the English tradition and
London where it is celebrated at its best
Article added on June 2, 2004
The English tradition of afternoon tea
is celebrated at its best in some of London's famous five-star hotels. The exquisite and exclusive
experience is very popular and therefore not cheap. Luckily, an afternoon tea is as
much a hunger killer as an opulent lunch or dinner. It is an experience you should not miss.
Make sure you reserve your table in advance.
All four hotels tested in January 2004, Brown's Hotel, Claridge's,
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and The
Ritz London offered an afternoon tea to a very high standard. The
differences between them in quality were minor. The element that set
them apart was the ambience and the style of the place in which afternoon tea
Brown's Hotel convinced with its unique old fashioned ambiance and charm
created by comfortable sofas and chairs. It would not surprise me if the word
"cosy" was invented there. The informal atmosphere reminded me
of an old English country house. My friend Silvia, who accompanied me, elected it her favorite
place for an afternoon tea and called it "funky" - others would say
a bit worn down. Not surprisingly, Brown's Hotel is closed for
refurbishment until March 2005; they will try to do it softly, preserving the
hotel's charm. [added on April 14, 2012: I have stayed again at the Rocco
Forte property in 2008 and 2012, which has been beautifully restored. In early
2012, they are using Jing teas at
At Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, afternoon tea is served in The Park restaurant.
All tables enjoy views onto Hyde Park. As in all four hotels, the traditional afternoon tea
is accompanied by assorted finger sandwiches, freshly bakes scones and a choice of home-made cakes and
pastries. In addition, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park offers tea breads
with preserves. A specialty of
the house is the delicious rose petal jam. As in the other hotels, afternoon
tea can also be ordered with champagne.
The real originality at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park is the shape of the finger sandwiches. Unlike the
three other hotels, they are not traditionally made of two slices of bread, but
only of one folded slice with a filling.
As for the atmosphere, The Park was the only modern afternoon tea venue tested. If you are looking for
excellence in a
contemporary style, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park is your place. If you like the service but
prefer a more traditional surrounding, do what I did, enjoy the afternoon tea
in the elegant and classical English style of your hotel room. I remember that
Nadja, the guest who joined me, was impressed by both the room and the
afternoon tea is served in The Reading Room on the ground floor, next to The
Foyer and the Front Hall. It was designed in 1898 when, in accordance with the
move towards public dining, Claridge's
was redesigned to include several public rooms to accommodate guests. The
Reading Room was built on the American model by the most celebrated interior
designer of his day, Ernest George. Along with the foyer, it was refurbished
in 1994 under the direction of Prue Lane Fox, respecting the art deco designs
and lines of Oswald Milne, the foremost art deco designer of the 1930's, with the centerpiece
of The Reading Room remaining an
oil painting of the founding hotelier, Marianne Claridge. In short, it is a
place where the tradition of the English afternoon tea is celebrated in art
The specialty of Claridge's
is the fourteen different blends of tea, imported by the Paris specialist
tea supplier Mariage
Frères, France's oldest importer of tea, established in 1854. In my view, Claridge's
offered the best and most unique vegetarian sandwiches. By the
way, it was no problem at all to order excellent vegetarian sandwiches in all four
If you prefer glitz and glamour, The
Ritz London must be your choice.
Afternoon tea regulars through the years at The
Ritz included Kind Edward VII, Charles Chaplin, Sir Winston Churchill,
General De Gaulle, Noel Coward and Judy Garland. It is served in The Palm
Court, built by Mewès
and Davis and originally called Winter Garden. This was a standard feature of
grand hotels around 1900. It was designed to fill the view of everyone who
came through the Piccadilly entrance, which is closed today; guests now use
the side entrance. The Palm Court is like a stage - and some waiters still know how to
perform; I vividly remember one with an extraordinary dark voice. Afternoon
tea at The
Ritz is more than just tea, it is a performance.
Both at The
Ritz and at Brown's Hotel, finger sandwiches, scones and pastries are
presented on a dramatic three-tier stand. At The
Ritz, home made strawberry jam, clotted Cornish cream and fresh cream
cakes accompany the sandwiches, scones and pastries. Different types of bread
are used for each sandwich. There is also a choice of seven varieties of tea.
In my opinion, The
Ritz offered the best pastries, although differences between hotels were minimal.
The Tea Council elected The
Ritz "Top London Afternoon
Tea Award Winner" in 2004 (AA Britain's Best: Afternoon Tea. 2004,
p. 11). Please be aware of the six-week waiting list for the afternoon tea at The
you are a hotel guest. And mind the strict dress code, jacket and tie for men.
Service, presentation, pastries, scones, sandwiches and tea were excellent at
all four hotels tested. They all must be highly recommended, not only for the
afternoon tea, but also as places to stay overnight.
The history of the Afternoon Tea
According to a Chinese legend tea drinking began more than 5000 years ago. The
Emperor Shen Nung decreed that, for reasons of hygiene, all drinking water
should be boiled. One day when the court was having a rest during a journey,
dried leaves from a bush fell into the pot - tea-drinking was born and spread
quickly throughout China. As early as 800 AD, the first book about tea was
written by a man called Lu Yu.
Zen Buddhist priests carried the tradition to imperial Japan. Tea first
arrived in Europe in 1610. Due to its horrendous cost, it was a luxury item at
first. With its growing popularity, prices fell. Tea came to Russia in 1618,
as a gift from the Emperor of China to the Tsar.
Britain was the last of the great seafaring nations to join the Chinese and
East Indian trade. The ships of the East India Company reached China in 1637,
but it was not until 1644 that the British entered the tea trade. Sailors
returning from the Far East introduced tea to London coffee houses. By 1700
one counted over 500 houses serving tea in the capital.
King Charles II who grew up in exile in France and Holland returned to England
in 1660 to re-establish the monarchy. Two years later, he married the
Portuguese Infanta Catarina de Braganza. Both were confirmed tea drinkers.
The couple established tea drinking as as social and family ritual in Britain.
In 1773, American colonists protested against high taxes levied on tea. The
so-called Boston tea party triggered the American colonies' fight for
independence. Had the tea drinking habit not spread to America during the 18th
century, the USA might never have been established.
In Britain in good families, tea was served at the end of an evening's
entertainment, before the ladies went to bed. In the 1730's, London's pleasure
gardens began serving tea. The idea quickly spread all over Britain.
The tradition of afternoon tea is credited to Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford. In
the early 1800's, the Duchess apparently grew hungry between an early lunch
and a late dinner and conceived the idea of a separate meal, served in her
boudoir in the mid-afternoon, to ward off her own and her guests' hunger pangs. This habit quickly spread
in polite society.
However, tea only became available to the working class in the mid to late
19th century, when clipper ships speeded up transportation and large
quantities of cheaper tea grown in India and Ceylon was imported. Apart
from tap water, some 40% of all drinks served in Britain today are tea.
The "high tea" of ordinary people was quite different from the afternoon tea of
high society. For the poor, who could not afford a proper cooked meal, it was
the main meal of the day, comprising bread, meats, cakes or pastries, served
with a good strong cuppa.
Britain's first tea shop was established in 1864 by the manageress of the
Aerated Bread Company, when the company directors permitted her to serve
refreshment to favorite customers. Demand for the service grew quickly and
spread across the country. It helped to liberate women since it was considered
perfectly proper for a woman to meet friends in a tea shop without the
imposition of a chaperone.
A three-tier stand at
Photo © Claridge's.
The Afternoon Tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Photo © Mandarin Oriental.
Afternoon tea in the lounge at
The Milestone Hotel and Apartments, London.
Three-tier stand. Photos ©
Brown's Hotel, London / Rocco Forte Hotels.
High Tea at the Palm Court. Photos © The
The Palm Court, where the afternoon tea is served. Photo © The
The Park Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, where the Afternoon
Tea is served, with the Royal Horse Guards in the background riding through Hyde
Park. Photo Copyright © Mandarin Oriental.
Afternoon tea at Claridge's. Photo © Claridge's.
Afternoon tea at Claridge's. Photo © Claridge's.
The Afternoon Tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Photo © Mandarin
AA Britain's Best: Afternoon Tea. 2004, 192 p. The book contains a short history of "The
Tradition of Tea", pages 16-17, which was used for the historical part of this
article. The main part of the book, some 140 pages, is dedicated to short
descriptions of the best
places for tea in England, Scotland and Wales. Get it from Amazon.co.uk
Afternoon Tea at
Brown's Hotel. Photo © Brown's Hotel, Rocco Forte Hotels.