Close your eyes and think of England.
Of all the thoughts that may have poured into your head, I guarantee that “Tea Time” was one of the first (closely followed by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Jane Austen, and of course anything steamy that you’d want to associate with the phrase “close your eyes and think of England”). A light meal comprised of finger sandwiches, buttery scones, sweets, and of course, an endless amount of hot, aromatic tea, Afternoon Tea has been a staple of British tradition since the reign of Queen Victoria.
According to legend, it was Anna, the 7th Dutchess of Bedford, who first popularized Afternoon Tea in the nineteenth century by offering her guests light meals of tea and snacks to hold them over until dinner. During this time, it was customary for those in the upper echelons of society to make breakfast and dinner, which was typically served around eight o’clock in the evening, their two primary meals. Naturally, for the upper classes, an Afternoon Tea served around four o’clock was not only an excuse to socialize and gossip with friends, but was also a means of keeping one’s blood sugar at a reasonable level. Afternoon Tea, also known as Low Tea, became so popular that the lower classes eventually adopted a version of their own, which was known as High Tea. Unlike the upper classes that had the luxury of snacking during prime work hours, the lower classes had to wait until after punching out on the time clock to indulge. High Tea was typically served between the hours of five and seven; because it was considered a substitute for a working-class dinner, it usually featured meats and other heartier fare.
Today, Afternoon Tea is available between the hours of one and five o’clock, and is a tradition enjoyed by people of all classes, at home, in restaurants, and in hotel lounges. The amount of food you receive at Tea certainly presupposes that you skipped lunch; served on a three-tiered platter, these “snacks” typically include scones with clotted cream and jam, assorted bite-sized pieces of cake or tart, and four or five finger sandwiches, which feature flavors such as salmon and butter, cucumber, egg salad, and ham and cheese. Additionally, many hotels and restaurants offer special “Champagne Teas,” which, for a few extra pounds, include a glass of bubbles.
Although Tea at some London restaurants carries a hefty price tag—sometimes upwards of £45 per person—it is possible to sip and snack like a fine Victorian lady on a student’s budget if you are willing to search around the internet for great deals. A booking website that allows you to compare Tea prices and menus of upwards of one hundred restaurants and hotels throughout London and the United Kingdom, Afternoontea.co.uk is an invaluable resource for those searching for Teas costing around £15 per person. As a bonus, venues offer deals for those who book through this website, which can either bring the price of your check down by an additional 15 or 20 percent, or get you a complementary glass of Champagne.
As someone who has at one point been to Afternoon Tea three times in one week, I like to consider myself a seasoned tea connoisseur. With that assertion, I feel perfectly qualified to give recommendations for some of the most budget-friendly Tea venues in London. Here are a few of my picks:
Although the Strand Palace does not offer discounts on its Afternoon Tea, the price is already low enough to make it affordable for even the most ardent penny pinchers. Served in the Bar-Lounge, the atmosphere favors eclecticism over pretension—you are just as likely to sit on a couch or a tuffet as you are to sit in a chair at a proper table. However, for what Strand Palace lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in exemplary service. The waitstaff is more than accommodating, cheerfully bringing your party unlimited pots of tea or coffee while seeming as if they genuinely care whether or not you are enjoying your meal. The scones are deliciously moist instead of flaky, and the assorted slices of pound cake, although not incredibly extravagant, are rich and satisfying. Reservations can be made online by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 020 7497 4158.
Discounted Price through Afternoontea.co.uk: £12.70 (Regular Price: £16.95)
With crisp white table linen, dainty crystal chandeliers that reflect light onto the restaurant’s pale pink walls, and stunning views of the lobby’s grand sweeping staircase, Tea at the Kingsway Hall is as refined and pristine as a Tea should be. Kingsway Hall is particularly accommodating for those with dietary restrictions—in addition to traditional Afternoon Tea, there is a Gluten-Free Tea menu, as well as a Vegetarian Tea menu. Moreover, the waitstaff was particularly gracious when one of our friends who kept kosher asked to substitute her ham-and-cheese for an extra salmon-and-butter sandwich. Although we were only given one pot of tea each, the variety of breads used in making the sandwiches—pumpernickel, wholemeal, and rye—made up for the minor disappointment. The desserts offered to us were excellent, ranging from strawberry cheesecake bites to fruit tarts to miniature éclaires. Yet despite the impressive dessert spread, our party only received one of each offering, causing us to fight over the fruit tart and strawberry cheesecake. Despite this, Tea at the Kingsway Hall is a satisfying experience that will leave you feeling prim and extravagant for relatively little money.
Reservations can be made through AfternoonTea.co.uk or by calling 020 7309 0909.
Discounted Price through Afternoontea.co.uk: £12.00 (Regular Price: £28.00)
Tea at the Kensington Close is served in a relaxed yet modern, mirrored lounge with chic blue armchairs and coffee tables. Although it was difficult to get the attention of the waitress who initially served us, the waiter who took over for her halfway through our Tea was very obliging when we asked for additional tarts and after-Tea cappuccinos. To our delight, the waitstaff gave us free reign over their case of Twinings, allowing us to take as many tea bags as we wanted. The tea selection itself made it worth the trip, boasting various Indian teas such as Darjeeling and Assam, fruit infusions such as White Tea and Cranberry, and classics such as Earl Grey and English Breakfast. Reservations can be made through AfternoonTea.co.uk or by calling 087 0751 7770.