Tea is the quintessential British meal, so much so that other languages don’t even have a word for it. And there can be few better places to enjoy a proper high tea than London, although you could perhaps make a case for Yorkshire or Cornwall. It can be as much a part of the experience when visiting the capital city as riding on a red double-decker bus, touring Westminster Abbey and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Enjoyed as an alternative to afternoon tea, and usually a little later in the day, high tea is a more substantial meal. As well as the sandwiches or scones, or both, which characterise teatime, there may be a plate of bread and butter, hardboiled eggs, cold meat, even a hot savoury dish. Cakes are still an essential component, however, and are always the stars of the show, with dainty meringues, crisp pastries, moist sponges and creamy eclairs all vying for your affections.
High tea is an excellent meal to enjoy before the theatre, at the end of an exhausting afternoon’s shopping, or if you have young children in your party who will be in bed before dinner time. It’s also a great opportunity to sit and watch the world go by, whether you choose a tea shop, the cafe in a large department store, or one of London’s many traditional hotels.
Out of all these options, it is probably the hotels that put on the best teatime spreads. Both long-established and modern hotels offer high tea to guests and visitors alike, although you may have to book in advance for more popular hotels at busy times of year.
Park Lane, Piccadilly, the Strand and London Bridge hotels all have a long history of supplying teas to travellers. You’re guaranteed smartly dressed staff, gleaming cutlery and table linen, pleasant surroundings, and, of course, a delicious meal.
Feel free to take your time, lingering over your cuppa and a lengthy chinwag, seeing and being seen. Your teacup will usually be refilled free of charge, and in some hotels the cakes and the finger sandwiches, cucumber or otherwise, will keep on coming until you couldn’t possibly manage another.
Although it may seem like an old-fashioned meal, tea has moved with the times, and you’re likely to find cupcakes or a rainbow of delicately coloured and flavoured macarons nestling on the cake-stand alongside classic favourites like jam tarts, Victoria sponge and Chelsea buns. Vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free goodies are often available too. As for the tea itself, you will probably be offered a selection ranging from Earl Grey to green tea and rooibos. You might even be allowed to have coffee instead!