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 eight of the best afternoon teas in Covent Garden.
The Strand Palace
What: Just a short walk from Covent Garden, The Strand Palace is home to a decadent afternoon tea experience. Teaming up with Love Cocoa - founded by James Cadbury, great-great-great grandson of the famous chocolatier John Cadbury - this tea offers flavours inspired by Love Cocoa favourites and is available as both a traditional or vegan afternoon tea. You will even receive a delicious Love Cocoa gift to take home with you.
Where: 372 Strand, WC2R 0JJ
Book now: The Strand Palace
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.
Where: Covent Garden Hotel, 10 Monmouth Street, WC2H 9HB
Book now: Brasserie Max
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.
Where: 28 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7JS
Book now: Cinnamon Bazaar
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.
Where: Whitehall Place, SW1A 2BD
Book now: Corinthia Hotel
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.
Where: St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4HX
Book now: The Den
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.
Where: 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN
Book now: The Mirror Room
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.
Where: 1 Aldwych, WC2B 4BZ
Book now: One Aldwych
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.
Where: The Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0EU
Book now: The Thames Foyer at The Savoy
If you love finger sandwiches wherever you are in the capital, scoff away at our pick of the best afternoon teas in London.