“Come along inside . . . we’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place.” — from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
When we come to the end of time, whoever is still left standing might find themselves with a spare minute to tally up the triumphs and tragedies of human history. On the positive side of the ledger, I’m confident they will note one of the greatest contributions the English made to advance the cause of civilization: the invention of Afternoon Tea.
A really nice prix fixe tea can be had all over London in countless hotels, museums, department stores and cafes. They can be expensive – you can pay as much or more as you would for dinner with wine at a fancy restaurant – but I happen to think the return on investment is so superior to any comparably priced experience that I would recommend visitors concentrate their food budget on the hours between 3-6pm, and “take tea” as many times as possible, wherever possible. In reflecting on some of my favorites, I found myself speculating which would be the preferred destination of some of the characters from Downton Abbey:
Brown’s: The English Tea Room at Brown’s Hotel is awash in tradition and history (a favorite with Queen Victoria, their website proudly observes). On my first visit, I stumbled in without a reservation and little realized how lucky I was to be immediately seated. The atmosphere is like every Masterpiece Theatre “I’m dining at my club” scene you’ve ever watched. A room paneled in rich mahogany (or so it looks), a cozy fireplace, low chairs. I can easily visualize the Earl of Grantham tucked into a corner, perusing the newspaper. The sofas lining the walls are stiff enough for you to perch in dignified comfort rather than wallowing amongst cushions – something the Countess Dowager would appreciate. The menu offers the usual three-tiered array of sandwiches, scones and sweets (you eat your way from bottom to top), and just when you think you’re fit to burst, a man in a beautifully tailored jacket and waistcoat will slide forward with the dessert trolley to see if you might enjoy a slice of Dundee cake.
Claridge’s: If Brown’s represents a traditional bastion for the older generation of Crawleys, Claridge’s seems aimed straight at Downton’s aristocratic flapper, Lady Rose. The hotel serves afternoon tea in its Foyer and Reading Room, a spectacular Art Deco space that manages to feel both intimate and epic. The Foyer’s most stunning feature is the massive light sculpture at the center of the room, descending in a tangle of tubes from a glass-covered ceiling, casting Medusa-like shadows onto the walls around it. The tea service at Claridge’s continues the whimsical theme, with china pots and cups in alternating vertical stripes of white and sea-foam green. Rose and her “set” would certainly feel right at home here. It’s not advertised on their website, but at the conclusion of my visit the server presented me with a small, complimentary tin of the same brand of loose-leaf tea I had selected for my beverage from among the twenty-four on offer. I thought it was a nice touch and I hope they still do it.
The Orangery: Although set smack in the middle of the grounds of Kensington Palace, the Orangery has an elegant simplicity that I think would appeal to the tastes of the ever-practical, no-frills-please Isobel Crawley. If it feels a little like a palatial greenhouse, that’s because it was. Queen Anne had it built very early in the 18th century to house her greenery, and for the staging of “candlight suppers” and such. Bright with natural light streaming in from the surrounding gardens, its wrought-iron furniture and sprays of vegetation in a long, high-ceilinged space creates the sense of being outdoors without risking the changeable English weather. I went to the Orangery with a friend and former business colleague that I had not seen in a long time, and we celebrated our reunion by ordering the “Royal Afternoon Tea”, which comes with strawberries and a glass of Champagne. I’m not sure Isobel Crawley would indulge herself in such a way. I picture her abstemiously sticking to the “Ordinary Afternoon Tea” before heading out onto the grounds for healthful exercise. My friend and I opted for a second glass of Champagne.