Along with fish and chips and a full English breakfast, afternoon tea forms part of a holy trinity of the United Kingdom’s gifts to the culinary world. Even when British food was the laughing stock of the planet, no one could deny the appeal of the classic afternoon tea.
Wafer-thin slices of white bread cut into crustless finger sandwiches filled with savoury morsels; warm scones slathered with clotted cream and strawberry jam; delicate pastries and cakes, sticky with icing: who can resist such a sybaritic way to fill the dead hours of the afternoon?
And while the ceremonial aspect of afternoon tea might not be quite as formal as a Japanese tea ceremony, there’s still a delightful ritual to the presentation of cake stands, fine china crockery and tea being poured into porcelain cups from an ornate pot – to say nothing of whether you first spread your scone with jam (as they do in Cornwall) or cream (the Devon way).
Legend has it that afternoon tea began in the 1840s when Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, visited Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire and asked for something to tide her over from luncheon to dinner. A pot of Darjeeling tea with some bread and butter hit the spot and had such a marvellously reviving effect on the Duchess that soon her friends were joining her in what has turned into one of the most civilised of social occasions.
With so many visitors keen to try this archetypically English ritual, it’s hardly surprising that the streets around Covent Garden are full of restaurants, cafes and hotels serving afternoon tea.
But afternoon tea isn’t just for tourists. Recent years have seen afternoon tea grown hugely in popularity for business meetings while it’s also a convenient way to eat if you’ve just left a matinée at the theatre or you’re feeling hungry before an evening performance but still want dinner later on.
Read on to find our list of 11 of the best afternoon teas in Covent Garden.
What: The NY-Tea at Balthazar pays homage to the New York origins of this French-style brasserie while keeping things nice and English. Naturally, buttermilk scones served with jam and clotted cream feature, as do freshly made sandwiches including classic Brit coronation chicken with apricot alongside a more American-style pastrami and egg roll. Sweet treats meanwhile include a peanut butter and jam eclair, key lime pie and cookies and cream tart.
When: Mon-Sun 3-5pm (Sun -6.30pm)
Where: 4-6 Russell Street, WC2B 5HZ
Brasserie Max at The Covent Garden Hotel
What: Brasserie Max takes its afternoon tea seriously, offering four different varieties. Guests can opt for a traditional affair with sandwiches, scones and a selection of sweets including a Victoria sponge and banoffee pie, with the option to add a glass of Pommery Champagne. The brasserie also offers a tea for gents featuring Scotch eggs and steak sandwiches, and caters to special diets with reduced sugar, gluten-free or vegan alternatives available.
When: Mon-Sun 12-5pm (Sat 1.30-3.30pm, Sun 1-5pm)
Where: Covent Garden Hotel, 10 Monmouth Street, WC2H 9HB
What: Part of Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Collection, this Covent Garden site boasts a colourful interior and laid-back atmosphere. Cinnamon Bazaar’s daily afternoon tea swaps out cucumber sandwiches for authentic Indian alternatives. Alongside a range of teas, including ginger and cardamom masala chai, a selection of snacks is on offer – we particularly like the papadi chaat (crisp wheat puffs with tamarind, yoghurt and chickpea vermicelli) and the pistachio cake with rosewater marshmallow.
When: Mon-Sun 2.30-5pm
Where: 28 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7JS
Corinthia Hotel London
What: On the fringes of Covent Garden near Embankment tube, afternoon tea at the Corinthia hotel is a charming prelude to an evening in the theatre (the walk over Hungerford Bridge to the National has one of the best views in London). The traditional afternoon tea includes some old-fashioned finger sandwiches – cucumber and radish; truffle egg mayonnaise; salt beef and horseradish – alongside scones with jam and clotted cream and seasonal pastries such as a pear and cinnamon éclair. If you find yourself inspired by the sparkle of the 1,001 Baccarat crystals in the chandeliers, upgrade to a glass of brut or rosé Champagne.
When: Mon-Sun 1-6pm
Where: Whitehall Place, SW1A 2BD
What: A more casual sibling to The Wolseley, the Viennese-inspired afternoon tea at The Delaunay swaps out traditional fruit scones with poppy seed gugelhupfs topped with apricot jam and whipped cream. Accompanying them is a selection of classic Viennese cakes, including a pear and blackcurrant millefeuille, and a choice of teas or coffees. You can also choose to add a glass of Champagne for a supplement, while vegan and sugar-free options are available for those following alternative diets.
When: Mon-Sun 3-5.45pm
Where: 55 Aldwych, WC2B 4BB
What: This classically British, oak-panelled snug within St Martin’s Lane Hotel is an ideal meeting place, with its comfortable leather sofas and warm lighting. Majoring in afternoon tea, the selection includes savoury bites such as beef sliders, fried baby squid and a chargrilled barbecue chicken sandwich on toasted sourdough. Sweets-wise, nibble on mini gingerbread loaf cake, panettone or the seasonal tart of the day. In summer, The Den’s terrace is the place to try out the excellent G&T selection.
When: Mon-Sun 12N-6pm
Where: St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4HX
The Ivy Market Grill
What: It doesn’t get much more British than The Ivy, and its Covent Garden offshoot, The Ivy Market Grill, serves up a traditional offering for a mid-afternoon reprieve. On the savoury side of things, you can enjoy the likes of a truffled chicken brioche roll or a marinated cucumber and dill finger sandwich, while sweet-toothed tea lovers can indulge in options including a raspberry tarte Tropézienne, potted chocolate and caramel, and blackberry and Champagne trifle. Looking to upgrade your afternoon? Add a glass of Champagne for a tenner.
When: Mon-Sun 3-5pm
Where: 1 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8PS
The Mirror Room at Rosewood London
What: For a twist on the traditional, try out The Mirror Room’s Art Afternoon tea. The tea includes a selection of finger sandwiches, scones and pastries inspired by Pablo Picasso. These include Valrhona Jivara chocolate mousse with orange almond génoise, passionfruit and mango jelly, based on Picasso's 1932 painting The Dream, and an almond meringue sponge creation based on the guitars that the artist frequently returned to in his work. Served alongside loose-leaf teas, the mirrored-ceilings and walls here make for a glam setting that’s sure to perk up your afternoon.
When: Mon-Thurs 2.30-5.45pm, Fri-Sun 12N-5.45pm
Where: 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN
What: The Charlie and The Chocolate Factory tea at One Aldwych is certainly no ordinary affair. For a start, the tea selection swaps out your standard English Breakfast for more exotic blends, such as ‘Mango Noir’. Even more impressive though, is the bubbling, smoking Cocktail Charlie: a sharp-but-sweet blend of whisky, cherry liqueur, chocolate bitters, grapefruit juice and Champagne. Unsurprisingly, the sweet offering shines too, featuring red velvet cake pops, lemon floss and whipped apple and blackberry mess.
When: Mon-Sun 12.30-3pm (Sun -5pm)
Where: 1 Aldwych, WC2B 4BZ
Portrait Restaurant at The National Portrait Gallery
What: Boasting an enviable view, Portrait is the place to go for a (literally) elevated afternoon tea. While you take in the views of Big Ben and the London Eye, you can scoff on a selection of sweet and savoury snacks. Start with the likes of a Severn and Wye smoked salmon, chive and sour cream bagel, before moving on to sweet fancies including a lavender and chocolate macaron. A wide selection of teas is on hand, but you can also pair your treats with seasonal Bellinis or sparkling wine.
When: Mon-Sun 3.30-4.30pm
Where: National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, WC2H 0HE
The Thames Foyer at The Savoy
What: Afternoon Tea at world-famous The Savoy is an enduring custom, and is about as traditional as it gets (yet that’s no bad thing). A selection of finger sandwiches encompasses herb-roasted sirloin and mustard, coronation chicken, and egg salad varieties, while the selection of pastries is just as enticing. Choose from shortbread topped with Amalfi lemon and caramelised meringue, a Madeleine made with Iranian pistachio praline, or an Earl Grey tea cake with bergamot curd. Of course, you could also go ahead and try all three options…we certainly won’t judge.
When: Mon-Sun 1-5.45pm
Where: The Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0EU
If you love finger sandwiches wherever you are in the capital, scoff away at our pick of the best afternoon teas in London.