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By Margaret M. Johnson
Whoever suggested that teatime in London was a crotchety affair enjoyed by middle-aged ladies in hats and gloves obviously has not paid a visit to the British capital in decades. Fashion teas, "wicked" chocolate teas, pink teas, theatre teas, and champagne teas are currently all the rage in this hip city, with as much attention being paid to the service, china, cake trolley, and guy in designer duds sitting next to you as to the tea itself.
I paid a purposeful visit to London in June, when the weather was sunny, the crowds not yet at their summer peak, and the teapots were a-gleaming. Silver service aside, I noticed some terribly trendy teapots as well, and learned that designers like Zandra Rhodes and Paul Smith are putting their mark on pots, cups, and linens all in the name of the famous beverage.
For those not as familiar with the ritual of afternoon tea as, say, someone like myself who's writing a cookbook on the subject, you might wonder about its origins. Briefly, the ritual was "invented" by Anna Maria, seventh Duchess of Bedford around 1840, a time when lunch was eaten quite early in the day and dinner wasn't served until 8 or 9 o'clock in the evening.
The story of its creation says that when the duchess was feeling a bit hungry late one afternoon while on summer holiday at Woburn Abbey, she asked her maid to bring tea and a tray of bread-and-butter sandwiches to her room. Anna Maria enjoyed her "taking of tea" so much that she started inviting her friends to join her for this new social event, one that gradually expanded to include assorted fruit breads and small pastries. Having tea became somewhat of a national institution in Britain, and today you can plan an entire London itinerary around where you'll have your next cup.
Start with a shopping trip to Harrods (Brompton Road) and you're in the thick of tea country, with Laduree, the well-known Parisian patisserie now located on the first floor. French tea service is generally limited to a cup of tea and a decadent pastry (try the rose-flavored macaroons or the chocolate- or pistachio-filled religieuse, a two-layered cream puff shaped like a nun's bonnet), but light meals are also served amid elegant pastel surroundings.
If you want the full English treatment, head up the road to the Caramel Room at The Berkeley Hotel (Wilton Place) for its afternoon Fashion Tea. Dubbed Pret-a-Portea, the menu features designer-inspired pastries duplicated by the chef to resemble anything from a Jimmy Choo high-heeled cookie to an Alexander McQueen tartan chocolate cake.
While you're in the neighborhood, you might want to visit Kensington Palace, home to the late Princess Diana. An audiovisual exhibition, "Diana: a Princess Remembered" -- photographs, film footage, interviews, and a selection of her dresses -- will be on display until January to mark the 10th anniversary of her death. You'll also enjoy a stop at The Orangery, originally designed as a greenhouse in Kensington Gardens and approved by Queen Anne. A long brick room lined with statues and Corinthian columns houses a brunch buffet, and classic English teatime treasures, including crust-less finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets like Sticky Toffee Pudding and Carrot Cake served on a three-tiered tea stand. If the weather is pleasant, walk through the park around The Serpentine to Hyde Park Corner and the Wellington Arch.
You could easily spend a few days in the Piccadilly and St. James' area of London, strolling through Green Park, Buckingham Palace Gardens and St. James's Park; waiting for a parade or a protest to march along The Mall; or catching the daily changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (11:30 a.m. in summer; alternate days in winter). When you tire of royal watching, stop in at
The ultimate indulgence, according to some, is having tea in the Palm Court at The Ritz (150 Piccadilly), the legendary hotel founded by Cesar Ritz 100 years ago. The first steel framed building of any significance in London -- with French chateau-style architecture and Louis XVI interiors -- the hotel was, according to Ritz, "a small house to which I am proud to see my name attached." After recently being restored to its original glory, the landmark hotel is the place to enjoy "Putting on the Ritz," although some critics feel the "assembly line" five sittings do not lend to the leisure atmosphere for which afternoon tea is known.
While you're in the neighborhood, a short walk will bring you to Trafalgar Square, location of the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where you can catch concerts by candlelight Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., or pose for a photo op in front of Lord Nelson's statue or the famous four lions that surround him. If you head back down Whitehall, you can also tour Westminster Abbey, check out Big Ben, and take a ride on
For on-the-day theater tickets, try TKTS (www.tkts.co.uk), the half-price ticket booth in the Clocktower Building on Leicester Square, but if you've no need for bargains, head to Old Bond Street, New Bond Street, Savile Row or Burlington Arcade, places for serious bespoke clothiers and high, high priced jewelry and fashion.
The neighborhood bordered by the Bond Streets, Piccadilly, Park Lane, and Oxford Street, Mayfair is home to shops, embassies and lovely homes on tree-lined mews, Berkeley Square, and an even wider assortment of lovely hotel tearooms. The English Tea Room at Brown's Hotel (Albermarle Street) seems a unanimous favorite. Dark paneling, working fireplaces, comfy seating, and impeccable service from waiters in coat tails even bring out locals to Sir Rocco Forte's newly refurbished historic hotel (it first opened in 1837 in a series of adjacent town houses).
At The Chesterfield Mayfair (35 Charles Street), the Chocolate Lover's tea was my hands-down favorite, where you can start with either hot chocolate or a chocolate milk shake, follow with chocolate scones, miniature chocolate pastries and cakes, and a luxurious take-away chocolate bar to tide you over till dinner. If you haven't indulged in champagne and chocolate lately, don't delay.
At The Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane), they're shaking off the fussy, old-fashioned reputation for teatime by introducing the "Wicked" Chocolate Tea, where a unique chocolate tea -- a special blend of Grand Cru Cacao beans from South America -- joins a chocolate martini (they wouldn't part with the recipe), crispy cannelloni, and all manner of chocolate mousses. Another innovative twist on tradition is a Hendrik's Tea Time Martini, a heady brew made with gin, rose-petal jam, lemon, and mint. These special occasion "teas" are served in The Bar, but traditionalists can still enjoy a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling in The Promenade, the U.K. Tea Guild's 2007 winner of the "Top London Afternoon Tea Award."
Two neighboring hotels on Piccadilly -- The Athenaeum and The Park Lane -- are also fond of "themed" or "special occasion" teas, especially in spring when strawberries are widely available and important flower events take place in London. At The Athenaeum, "Petals and Pekoe Tea" is inspired by the gardens of the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flowers Shows. During the weeks of homage to floral designs (Chelsea in May, Hampton Court in July), the chef serves floral teacakes, strawberry tartlets, rose-scented macaroons, cheesecake with edible frosted flowers, and orange blossom scones.
In the Art Deco surroundings of the Palm Court at The Park Lane, an all-strawberry tea features pink champagne, strawberry and elderberry sorbet, berry tarts, and -- what else -- scones with strawberry jam. Year-round, a chocolate tea is served, and couples can partake in an over-the-top event that features
ACROSS THE RIVER
If your travels bring you across the Thames to Southwark and Bankside, do walk over the Millennium Bridge, the pedestrian walkway that links the Tate Gallery with
TEN FOR TEA
Laduree at Harrods (www.harrods.com) is open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Reservations suggested; 207-893-8293.
The Berkeley (www.the-berkeley.co.uk) serves tea from 2 to 6 p.m. daily. Reservations required, 207-235-6000.
The Orangery (www.hrp.org.uk) is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reservations not required, 207-376-0239.
The Ritz Hotel (www.theritzlondon.com) serves tea five times daily -- 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. (according to some, well ahead of the preferred serving time), 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Reservations, as well as jacket and tie, are required, 207-493-8181.
The Park Lane Hotel (www.sheraton.com/parklane) hosts afternoon tea daily from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Palm Court. Reservations are recommended, 207-499-6321.
The Athenaeum (www.athenaeumhotel.com) serves afternoon tea on the ground floor lounge daily from 2:30 to 6 p.m.
The Dorchester (www.dorchesterhotel.com) serves traditional afternoon tea in two sittings -- 2:30 and 4:45 p.m. daily. Reservations are recommended, 207-629-8888.
Brown's Hotel (www.brownshotel.com) offers three kinds of afternoon tea daily from 3 to 6 p.m. Reservations are recommended, 207-493-6020.
Chesterfield Mayfair (www.chesterfieldmayfair.com) serves afternoon tea in The Conservatory from 3 to 5 p.m. daily. Reservations are suggested, 207-491-2622.
WHERE TO STAY
The Athenaeum Hotel and Apartments, 116 Piccadilly, is one of the few five-star family-owned hotels in London. Overlooking Green Park, the hotel has 111 stunning rooms and suites, and the ground floor, with a restaurant, lounge and whiskey bar, was recently refurbished. There are 33 one and two-bedroom luxury apartments crafted from a row of Edwardian townhouses connected to the hotel that offer the privacy of apartment living combined with the amenities of a hotel. Most London attractions are within walking distance. Weekend break, with rooms from 150 pounds to 220 pounds (without breakfast) is the best value; apartments range from 380 pounds to 430 pounds. Phone 207-499-3464 or visit www.athenaeumhotel.com.
Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, was originally opened for the service of the nobility and gentry. The original premises were extended to include St. George's Hotel, and the original sign advertising "Brown's and St. George's" is retained on the facade. Now its owned by Sir Rocco Forte, who closed the hotel for 18 months for complete refurbishment and redecoration. Olga Polizzi, his sister, supervised the design. The hotel's 117 rooms and suite are decorated in soft, muted colors with a charming blend of contemporary and antique furnishings. Room rates range from 310 pounds to 615 pounds, suites from 800 pounds. Phone 207-493-6020 or visit www.brownshotel.com.
The Chesterfield Mayfair, 30 Charles Street, is part of the Red Carnation Collection of boutique hotels. Like others in the group, it draws on the charm of the original building and then styles accordingly -- this one much like a private club. A stone's throw from Berkeley Square and Bond Street, the hotel offers 97 guest rooms and suites, some specially designed in pinstripe fabric reflecting the hotel's proximity to smart tailoring from Savile Row. Butler's Restaurant was recently picked as one of the best British restaurants in "Tatler's Restaurant Guide." Room rates range from 225 pounds to 315 pounds, suites from 460 pounds. Phone 207-491-2622.
Before you go, get up-to-the-minute travel information online at www.visitlondon.com or www.visitbritain.com. When you get there, you can also book hotels and tours at the Britain and
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© Margaret M. Johnson
Travel | London Suits Everyone to a Tea