England is known for many wonderful things – its designers, street style stars, museums – but its cuisine is not one of them (steak and kidney pie, anyone? Didn’t think so). But, without doubt, one of its most delicious traditions is afternoon tea: dainty sandwiches, fresh scones and delectable cakes all washed down with the world’s best teas. While this tasty ritual has been adopted in other parts of the world, no one does it quite like the Brits.
So, in my quest to find the ultimate afternoon tea, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling some of London’s finest offerings and present here a mini-guide to the capital’s best tea experiences, complete with recommended fashion looks for each one. The next time you’re in town – to, you know, shop, buy real estate, catch up with Will and Kate – set aside a few hours for this most enjoyable of customs.
1. The Berkeley ($63; Wilton Place, Knightsbridge)
Combining two of our favourite things – fashion and sweet treats – the Berkeley’s Prêt-à-Portea celebrates our sartorial heroes with cookies taking the form of fluoro-yellow Louboutin stilettos, a vanilla cake in the guise of a Fendi bag and other delicious offerings that change according to the season’s current collections. This year, in honour of the Queen’s jubilee, the Berkeley is offering a special royal-themed tea: Nibble on confections in the shape of the infamous Philip Treacy fascinator Princess Beatrice sported to last year’s royal wedding or the maple leaf hat that the Duchess of Cambridge wore on her visit to Canada last summer.
What to wear: Cutting edge spring fashion from the top designer labels (or your best approximations). We love the water theme that swept the Spring/Summer 2012 runways in the form of prints, scalloped textures and lovely variations on the colour blue.
Runway inspiration: Mary Katrantzou, Versace, Chanel
2. Liberty ($30; Great Marlborough Street, just east of Regent Street)
Handily placed for a break from Oxford Street shopping, Liberty is in one of London’s most beautiful and iconic buildings – and the perfect place for a spot of tea. Known for its lovely fabrics and designer gear, this historic department store is a treasure trove of temptation; but if you can make it from the door to the tearoom without dropping a month’s salary on its gorgeous offerings, you’ll be rewarded with a classic afternoon tea in a stylish salon.
What to wear: Ladylike chic fused with downtown cool. Think patterned pencil skirts, pleated dresses and sheer blouses thrown over lace – or leather! – camis.
Runway inspiration: Nina Ricci, Roland Mouret, Proenza Schouler
The Palm Court at The Ritz, set for afternoon tea.
3. The Ritz ($68; 150 Piccadilly)
Tea at the Ritz is an institution. It’s so popular here, they now have five seatings – the first at 11:30 a.m. and the last at 7:30 p.m., making it more of an “all day” tea! But, stepping into the ornately beautiful Palm Court, you can see why people keep coming: It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting than this Louis XVI room. The Queen herself celebrated her 80th birthday at the Ritz, and apparently Buckingham Palace has dubbed it her “local.” If it’s good enough for Her Majesty, it’s good enough for me.
What to wear: Well, there is a dress code. Jeans and sports shoes aren’t permitted, and “gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie.” Why not embrace the grandeur of the occasion with an on-trend lace ensemble? Make a lace frock look modern by pairing it with a fitted blazer in a sweet sorbet shade.
Runway inspiration: Erdem, Valentino
Here’s one a lot of tourists won’t know about. The Wolseley, on the same tony stretch of Piccadilly as The Ritz and Fortnum & Mason, is popular among high-powered media types from the surrounding upscale areas as a venue for working breakfasts and lunches. Be sure to admire the detailed decor while you sip your tea: The high ceiling and striking art deco interior are vestiges of The Wolseley’s original incarnation as a prestigious car showroom in the 1920s. I liked the feeling that I was “in the know” when I visited.
What to wear: Art deco fashion with a modern twist. Pair a drop-waist flapper frock with peep-toe leather ankle booties and an enigmatic smile.
Runway inspiration: Chloé, Derek Lam, Gucci
Classic afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason.
5. Fortnum & Mason ($61; 181 Piccadilly)
Stepping into the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the fourth floor at Fortnum & Mason feels a bit like stepping into the 1950s: think pale green sofas, beautiful china, someone tinkling the ivories in the middle of the vast room and a refined atmosphere. You’ll instantly want to sit up straight and not laugh too loud (like we did – the family at the neighbouring table moved), but it’s worth behaving properly. Everything here is delish, and I couldn’t stop admiring the pretty teapot and cups.
What to wear: Pastels. Mint, lilac, strawberry – the entire palette is on the style set’s menu this spring.
Runway inspiration: Christopher Kane, Hussein Chalayan, Louis Vuitton
6. The Wallace Collection ($28; Manchester Square)
Combine your afternoon tea experience with a little culture at the Wallace Collection, an impressive museum in a historic London townhouse in the pretty neighbourhood of Marylebone. I spent hours wandering around there last summer, enjoying the 18th-century-style rooms as much as the art itself. The tea is served in a bright, peaceful courtyard enclosed by the house and comes with all the requisite elements, as well as preserves from the much-lauded Peyton and Byrne food company.
What to wear: Couture silhouettes. Think voluminous drapery and structure in the form of coats, dresses and – the season’s unavoidable trend – peplums.
Runway inspiration: Dries Van Noten, Gareth Pugh, Jil Sander