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What: Afternoon tea, like the less common “elevenses,” is one of those lovely British solutions to feeling peckish between meals. It likely dates to around the late 1700s, when it became popular among certain fashionable ladies to serve tea and snacks between the typically light lunch and late dinner. Afternoon tea generally calls for tea, of course, alongside such dainty treats as scones, biscuits, cakes, and elegant finger sandwiches (“cream tea,” which originated in Devon but is known all over the U.K., only requires scones, jam, and clotted cream). As opposed to high tea, which is more of an early dinner with meat (and is traditionally more associated with the working class), afternoon tea is a leisurely social activity—a perfect excuse to slow down, sip tea, and snack among company. London has a plethora of places at which to indulge in afternoon tea; depending on your budget, you might pull out all the stops and channel your inner 18th-century socialite or simply sit down and catch up with friends.
Where: We took our tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury (multiple locations including the original at 44 Theobald’s Rd.), a cozy space redolent of home-baked sweetness: From the open-plan kitchen in the rear come all the cupcakes, meringues, marshmallows, cookies, cakes, and more for Bea’s three shops. From what we’ve heard, this place does one of London’s best inexpensive afternoon teas.
When: Afternoon “sweet” teas, like the ones pictured, are available Mon-Fri from 2pm on (no booking needed). Full afternoon teas (which include savory baguettes, £19) are served Mon-Fri, 2:30pm-7pm (bookings required; last booking at 5:30pm); they last 1.5 hours, or 2 hours for groups of 6 or more. (A champagne tea is also offered here, for £26.50.)
Order: Pictured are two servings of the afternoon sweet tea (£16 per), each of which gets you a two-tiered cake stand with one of Bea’s signature cupcakes, a warm scone with clotted cream and jam, mini meringues, fat homemade marshmallows, and other mini desserts, with a pot of tea by the fine Jing Tea Company. If you have less of a sweet tooth, go for the cream tea (£9), which is just tea and scones—our two favorite parts of the whole experience.
Alternatively: For just a few more pounds (£16.95), the excellent Dean Street Townhouse (69-71 Dean St., map) in Soho serves its Townhouse Tea in the afternoon: finger sandwiches, scones and cream, and fancy cakes, and you have the option of adding a savory plate from its High Tea menu (such as Welsh or buck rarebit or a sausage roll). Further up the scale is the celebrated afternoon tea at The Wolseley (160 Piccadilly, map), going for £22.50 a head and including all the traditional elements (a less expensive cream tea is also available, as well as a more expensive champagne tea). Recently awarded best afternoon tea by the U.K. Tea Council (2012), the service at The Athenaeum Hotel (116 Piccadilly, map) in Mayfair starts at £28.50. If you want to break the bank a little more, book well in advance for Claridge’s (49 Brook St., map), a luxury hotel likewise in Mayfair, where the famously lavish, music-backed afternoon tea goes for £40 per person. Note that, generally speaking, most tea spots require or strongly suggest reserving ahead of time and will not permit you to share one afternoon tea order among two people.
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