Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Where to have high tea in London - three places you don't want to miss

Photo by dragonflysky

"Tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country." - George Orwell

I met someone from across the pond some time back and we were walking down Fleet Street towards Strand when he said, "You know what, that's what I like about London. The weather's not perfect but the architecture especially in this part of London is really captivating. I guess the buildings then were made to last, weren't they?". I gave a shrug in agreement as we passed by the Royal Courts of Justice.

"Wife and I made it a point to visit London every year," he continued, "And we'll make sure we have time to squeeze in at least one high tea, always."

'Having tea' is quintessential English. There was something soothing about the drink. As William Gladstone pointed out, "If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you." There was perhaps a time in the country when everyday life would grind to a stop at half past three when everyone would stop for a cup of tea with maybe a biscuit or two, and if one could afford - cakes, scones and sandwiches too. Sadly as the pace of life quickens, the ritual of having tea became almost of luxury.

Contrary to the popular belief, 'high tea' was not reserved for the high society. It was meant to be a more substantial afternoon tea with a hot meal thrown in so as to replace an actual dinner.

Regardless, having high tea is definitely one of the things to do in London. While many London hotels serve their own versions of high tea, there are three places that I would recommend for high tea in London.

The Ritz

The Ritz Hotel with its yellow bulb lit sign is the cream of crop when it comes to English high tea. This institution is the most sought after place even by Londoners. Starting from £40 per head, Ritz high tea must be booked at least a couple of months in advance even for weekdays. Other than chandeliers, ornate adornments and even some cupids plasters, all male customers are expected to turn up in a jacket and tie.

It's not about the scones and sandwiches or even the tea. In fact, I can assure you that you probably wouldn't even remember how the cakes, which are refilled whenever requested, tasted like when you stepped out of the Ritz. But you'd certainly recall with fondness the glitter and pomp.

If you have time for only one high tea, let this be the one. Just be sure that you book way in advance at its official website. Strictly reservations only.

The Wolseley

Sitting just next to the Ritz and a stone's throw from St. James Park Tube station lies The Wolseley. You would never miss it for there will always be a doorman sporting a tall hat and a dark long coat standing outside its almost discreet entrance.

While it lacks Ritz's grandeur, The Wolseley more than made up with it healthy bustle even on a weekday. A simple cream tea set starts from £9.75, a great deal more affordable than the Ritz. The Wolseley has come a long way since the building was commissioned as a car showroom by Wolseley Motors Ltd in 1920s. Currently, it is a full restaurant and a place to either rest your tired feet or to talk shop.

For its entire menu or reservation, head to its official website. While prior reservation is highly recommended, you can try your luck by turning up on that day itself.

Fortnum & Mason (St James's Restaurant)

Fortnum & Mason is known to be the place to go for quality food. In fact, it holds a number of Royal Warrants and have been called upon to supply the Royal Courts since the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, it is said that Fortnum & Mason actually invented the famed scotch eggs in 1886.

High tea is served at St James's Restaurant located on the fourth floor of Fortnum & Mason. Also adorned with Fortnum & Mason's signature colour eau de nil or Water of the Nile. St James's Restaurant is cosier than Ritz and quieter than The Wolseley.

High Tea starts from £36 per person. Unlike Ritz, people turn up in casual clothing. When we were there earlier, a group of student backpackers trudged in with their luggage and t-shirts - not exactly the place to go if it is for a special occasion. For its entire menu, visit its official website.

I would honestly think that going for a high tea is an experience to be had if you are in London, even if you are in town for only a weekend. Yes, it might be a bit indulgent spending at least two hours over tea and scones but that's the whole point, isn't it? Well, the above are my recommendation for high tea in London. Have you been to any? How did you find it? Any other places that I have missed?

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