The Duchess of Bedford was hungry. It had been hours since the lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria had eaten breakfast at Belvoir Castle, and dinner — as always — would be served at 8. What was a famished functionary to do? She called for tea and a light repast to be served in her chambers, and the enduring English custom of afternoon tea soon became the rage.
What could be more perfect for the traveler than a relaxing pause (anytime from 11:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., depending on the tea salon) with enough sandwiches, scones and pastries to substitute for lunch or dinner?
During a recent two weeks in London, I was by myself; tea for one just hit the spot. I reserved months ahead and wove afternoon teas through my stay as a ribbon of gloriously relaxed interludes.
Once again, I was reminded that it's true that you get what you pay for. Although every one of my teas was superb, some were even more so, and the most expensive ones were at the top. Generally, afternoon tea at a lovely place like Kensington Palace's Orangery will cost close to $40, and the very best will cost about twice that.
My favorite was, indeed, among the most expensive, at about $79. The Foyer at Claridge's has been hosting afternoon tea for 150 years, and certainly has it perfected.
The high-ceilinged tearoom is all cozy and colorful in its signature Claridge's sea-green and white, from the beautiful carpet and striped china to the cushy upholstered tub chairs and pillows. A gorgeously sculptured, twisted and knotted glass chandelier hangs over the towering centerpiece of green and white flowers.
The pianist and cellist were playing "Cheek to Cheek" as I was ushered to a round, white-clothed table with a bouquet in the center. My waiter, in a crisp, white jacket and Claridge's green bow tie, presented the menus of teas and delectables with a flourish.
"Let me tell you how we make the perfect cup," he said, and assured me that he would return with a second cup if I decided to switch from Assam. I settled in to people-watch. As the piano and cello played on, I surveyed couples of several vintages: a group of elegant women in hijabs, a mother and young daughter with a big bow in her hair.
Perfect little tea sandwiches came quickly, lined up like crop rows — as they were at each of the tea spots I tried. Claridge's version of the usual sandwich varieties are the best. Their Cotswold roast chicken, layered with asparagus and avocado in crème fraîche on rye, and the Scottish salmon, with dill and rock samphire mayonnaise on malt bread, are superb.
I tried to pace myself, knowing from experience — this was the fifth of the eight afternoon teas during my stay — that the scones and pastries were still ahead. By now, the duo's music and the tea I had chosen had me in dreamland.
As with nearly all of the tea spots, Claridge's serves plain and raisin scones with clotted cream and jam (including its secret recipe for Marco Polo gelee, a variation on strawberry jam). Many places also offer lemon curd. All you can eat — if you dare.
Although my waiter never stopped trying to convince me to switch teas, he kept bringing fresh pots of Assam. Like the other high-end spots I tried, Claridge's tea menu recommends different varieties for different dishes, like wine pairings.
The piano and cello were on to "Tea for Two" and I was sinking back into my comfy chair, loving the scene.
Nearby, on one side, was a group of six Americans talking politics. On the other, three women speaking Arabic. All very hushed. Not a jarring sound to be heard. Gorgeous.
I rallied as my waiter presented a platter of pastries that included the lightest strawberry cream tart with tiny streusel crumbles, the lightest lime-cream macaroon and the lightest chocolate cream with caramel on a crispy bottom. And finally, I took his advice to try an infusion to accompany the desserts and enjoyed a light lemon grass herbal tea.
It was 6:30 p.m., and the lights dimmed as a bass took the cello's place for "There Will Never Be Another You." There could never be another tea like this one, for sure.
None of the afternoon tea spots rushed me. I spent an hour and a half to two hours at each. And the hosts and waiters didn't bat an eyelash about giving a onesome a nice perch from which to savor the experience.
Here are some high points of the other afternoon teas during my two-week survey.
Overall runner-up: The Savoy Hotel, where the scones are supremely soft and doughy, better than Claridge's, and the setting gorgeous, with its 1904 glass cupola.
Best for an intimate, quiet setting: Brown's Hotel, where the tearoom is oak-paneled and low-ceilinged. Top hint: a fromage blanc lime and ginger tart.
Best if you prefer stylish dress and a strict men's dress code: The Ritz Hotel, the only one I visited that is still requiring a coat and tie for men.
Best for a view: Aqua Shard, on the 31st floor of Britain's tallest skyscraper, where the glass-walled restaurant is contemporary, you can see for miles up and down the Thames and the food is great.
Best for a world-class, encyclopedic selection of teas: The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason, grocer to the queen.
Best for quicker, less expensive teas (three-way tie): The Wolseley, which seems to host more London ladies for tea; the Orangery at Kensington Palace, noisier, with slate floors and where kids seem more commonplace; the Portrait, atop the National Portrait Gallery, convenient at Trafalgar Square.
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.
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The Foyer at Claridge's
Brook Street, Mayfair
The service, the memorable food even among so many other tearooms tried and the unique combination of piano and cello (and sometimes bass) all make this hotel a standout. Tea daily from 2:45 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance. Traditional tea, about $79; (with a glass of champagne, about $94).
The Thames Foyer
at the Savoy Hotel
The softest scones are offered here, not to mention standout salmon sandwiches with lemon-infused crème fraîche on Norfolk crunch bread. A beautifully restored, colorful glass cupola from 1904 is over the piano in the Thames Foyer tearoom. Tea daily from 1 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. Traditional tea, about $79; with a glass of champagne, about $92.
English Tea Room
at Brown's Hotel
33 Albemarle St.
This exclusive hotel serves tea in an intimate oak-paneled room. Particularly lovely piano. Tea daily from noon to 6 p.m. Sneakers,
T-shirts, shorts and sportswear are not permitted. Traditional tea, about $72; with a glass of champagne, about $85.
The Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel
Expect the most stylishly dressed patrons here — it's the only tearoom I visited in London that still requires men to wear a coat and tie. A standout on the pastry tier was their macaroon with black currant and vanilla cream. Tea daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Traditional tea, about $71; with a glass of champagne, about $93.
The Aqua Shard
31 St. Thomas St., Southwark
The Shard, on London's south bank, is Britain's tallest skyscraper. The floor-to-ceiling windows of this 31st floor chrome and glass dining room afford views up and down the Thames. Tea daily from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Traditional tea, about $59; with a glass of champagne, about $72.
Fortnum & Mason
The large Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in this landmark grocer to the queen has an encyclopedic offering of teas. The standout is their version of the Coronation Chicken tea sandwich. Tea daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Traditional tea, about $58; with a glass of champagne, about $77.
A very popular restaurant with Londoners, serving afternoon tea between lunch and dinner. No piano, no frills, but considered a good choice if you're not interested in making it a special occasion. Tea offered 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday; and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Traditional tea, about $49; with a glass of champagne, about $62.
The Orangery at Kensington Palace
A convenient spot if you're touring Kensington Palace or shopping on Portobello Road. Less relaxing and noisier than others I tried, particularly because the 18th century building, originally the Palace greenhouse, has a stone floor. No piano. Tea daily from noon to 4 p.m. Traditional tea, about $37; with a glass of champagne, about $51.
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin's Place
Location offers lovely views at the top of the Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square. No piano. Tea from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Traditional tea, about $36; with a glass of Bellini, about $43.
Note: All prices are for traditional tea service. High tea, which is more extensive, costs more.