There is perhaps no dining experience more quintessentially British than a proper high tea. And when one has so many fine tea rooms to choose from, how does one do so? Discover how here!
A truly great high tea experience has been on my bucket list since my first trip to London 15 years ago. I finally had the experience about which I’d dreamt: It was worth the wait.
The Telegraph put together a great list of London’s top teas, highlighting the best of particular themes. On this list for best “London-themed teas” was the Oscar Wilde Bar at Hotel Cafe Royal. Scoring a reservation for one with short notice while on a business trip, I walked about five kilometers from my hotel through rain , sun and hailstorms – no, I’m not making that up – to earn that tea and soak up my very short time in the city.
I have to say, I hadn’t really done my research about Hotel Café Royal, located near Picadilly Circus. I went in blind, other than the research as to the high tea itself. The venue’s history is rich with celebrated figures and intrigue. Founded by fugitive French tax evaders in the mid 19th century – oh, those French! – the café was a new stop and architectural novelty on the developing Regent Street. Over the years, it found itself playing frequent host to elite patrons from literature, celebrity, royalty, and even boxing legends. Celebrated authors such as Oscar Wilde (for whom the tea room was recently renamed) and Virginia Woolf, royalty including George V and his disgraced older brother, Edward VII and later, Princess Diana, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali have numbered among its patrons.
Approaching the hotel from the tourist laden Picadilly Circus, I wasn’t sure what to expect in such proximity to all these tourists. Once I walked inside, my opinion changed dramatically. The hotel’s mix of modern decor among its elegant 19th century architecture creates an exclusive feel. As I stepped into the restored Oscar Wilde Bar, the decor stepped back a century. Rose-colored walls are covered with gilded, ornate wood; its ceilings equally busy but stunning with painted floral scenes. It is exactly as one might expect a Victorian high tea for the wealthy of that era.
While the dining experience centers around tea, Laurent-Perrier champagne is just as much an ubiquitous beverage, as most patrons choose the option of adding a glass of the brut. And why not? There’s always an occasion to celebrate – and on the day of my visit, at least two birthdays were celebrated by the mix of English and foreign clientele. So of course I, too, imbibed.
For my tea, I chose a caffeine-free hibiscus and berry herbal tea. It was my sidekick throughout the experience, along with my own glass of champagne. The attentive staff were kind to offer me newspapers and magazines to read during my solo tea, as I observed they did with another patron dining solo. It was a lovely touch that enhanced my tea (and kept me off of my mobile phone).
Next came the savories, presented elegantly on a tiered silver tray. The amuse bouche was a goat’s cheese and “pickled apple” muffin topped with a rosette of goat cheese and an odd syringe-like dropper full of cucumber juice. It sounds (and looks – as you can see in the photo) odd, but it was perhaps the second best item I ate during the meal.
Crustless tea sandwiches included the traditional (for a reason – simple and delicious!) English cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, smoked salmon, chicken, ham, and prawn. Attentive to allergies, the staff substituted my choice of vegetarian option for the prawn. I opted to try a cheese and chutney combination – a whimsical and indeed, British sweet and savory duo. Should you care for more of a particular variety, they will bring you more. Dangerous!
I moved on to the sweets. First came a palate cleanser, a subtly sweet, chilled beverage made from the same hibiscus and berry tea that accompanied my food.
Scones and tea are inseparable in England. One cannot have a proper tea without scones, though the requisite toppings are a matter of regional taste and tradition. Clotted cream (no, it’s not butter; it’s better!) and strawberry jam are most popular, as I learned when taking a decidedly more humble high tea at a brasserie in the town of Windsor on the previous day with a local friend.
Personally, I’ve never cared much for scones. Now, however, I am a convert. The memory of the scones I had at Hotel Cafe Royal will stay imprinted on me for a long time – the dainty, airy scones serving as a vehicle for a thick smear of clotted cream and a slathering of oozy, sweet jam as my friend had taught me. I was too full to eat 10 of them, but really, I would have liked to eat 10 of them.
In fact, they were so good that me, the dessert-aholic, found the scones more memorable than the delicious and beautifully presented sweets also on the tray. A large Cherry and vanilla macaron was adorned with a cute chocolate top hat that makes Paris’ Ladurée look like amateurs. A buttery, mandarine almondine cake (like a financiér) was another memorable delicacy. The yuzu and blueberry filled choux was a little earthy for my tastes and the outside texture a bit crunchy, but the a pear and goat cheese tart could put any New York cheesecake to shame.
A wonderful feature is the generous ability to box up and take away any uneaten delicacies. I resisted to ask for more for my box, but happily took them back to my hotel with me for delayed gratification.
Though it was a bit of a splurge, the ambience, the service, the tea, and best of all, the food are every bit worth it. My high tea wishes fulfilled, I could happily move on from London to other exploits.