By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff ...
— Joe Jackson, “Down to London”
LONDON — Any visit to Britain’s sprawling capital requires a proper cup of tea or two, or 10. To leave London without having tea is like going to Seattle and not having coffee or fleeing Paris without having wine. The question is only this: What kind of tea drinker are you?
Centuries after British nobility infused the tea habit throughout their culture, tea drinking in today’s London can be enjoyed two ways: dressed up or dressed down. The daily teatime tradition still thrives throughout the city — unadulterated but also with some creative, sometimes wacky, twists. Whether you take your tea with pinkies out in the afternoon or at other times of day (early morning, late night, as part of happy hour) with no jacket required, Britain’s megalopolis still offers teatime tastes for every palate.
On a recent well-steeped jaunt, we found everything from classic tea at the Ritz (all silver pots and tuxedoed waiters) to more casual afternoon teas with whiskey, gin and nearly naked burlesque dancers. Old-fashioned or newfangled, here are two different paths through the world’s capital of tea.
Where to stay: If you’re going this way, go all the way. Avoid the bustling locations of most Mayfair hotels and splurge on the five-star glory of the Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane, 44-20-7319-7139, thedorchester.com) on the east edge of Hyde Park. The old girl has been renovated recently, and the spacious rooms and suites received a nice touch of brightness in addition to all the posh. Check the hotel’s site for frequent package deals.
Shopping: Start with some shopping along Piccadilly, an easy walk east of the Dorchester. Everyone will tell you to head north for the famous Harrod’s department store; do not listen to them. Harrod’s is a zoo, so crammed with tourists it’s nearly impossible to shop, or breathe. On Piccadilly is the more stately and elegant Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly, 44-20-7734-8040, fortnumandmason.com). Each floor, from housewares to fashions, is roomy and easy to roam, and the store’s tea department beats Harrod’s hands down. Gaze at the big, gold canisters full of oolongs and darjeelings, then ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
History: Check out the first known Western-style teapot, from 1670, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington, 44-20-7942-2000, vam.ac.uk), a splendid way to spend a few drizzly London hours. The collections here focus more on everyday art and crafts, including quite a bit of teaware, such as a lovely display of pots on two shelves in the Asia gallery. Then catch a cab due east and visit the Twinings tea store (216 The Strand, 44-0207-353-3511, twinings.co.uk/footer/our-shop), on the site of the original shop Thomas Twining opened in 1717. It’s a tiny little place but contains the full array of Twinings tea offerings, including new flavor blends and teas from South America, as well as displays of historic family artifacts, from paintings of the tea dynasty’s leaders to old advertisements and tea boxes.
Afternoon tea: Throw a teacup in central London and you’ll hit at least three hotels offering a traditional afternoon tea. Book your afternoon respite at one of these two (well in advance — like, weeks). There’s the Ritz (150 Piccadilly, 44-20-7493-8181, theritzlondon.com), allegedly the standard by which all afternoon teas are judged. “Tea at the Ritz is the last delicious morsel of Edwardian London,” Helen Simpson wrote about the experience of sipping and supping in the hotel’s golden, glowing Palm Court. The tea is fair (served in wonderful heavy silver pots), the service likewise. Because the experience is entrenched as a London must-do, the Ritz packs in five seatings a day. So you can’t exactly linger. (Seatings daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., from $39 per person)
For the best hotel afternoon tea experience for the price, go back to the Dorchester. Tea in the Promenade is magnificent — excellent food (including my new favorite word: the pre-dessert), superb service (they don’t just bring you hot water to revive your pot, they bring you an entirely fresh pot) and a much more comfortable setting (opulent and formal, of course, but considerably less stiff). A tip: The Dorchester’s tea is booked way ahead, like most hotels; however, the maitre d’ told me that when the weather in London is beautiful (a rarity, granted), he gets “20 to 25 percent no-shows.” The lesson, if you’re in town without a reservation: Stop by on a sunny day; they hold reservations for half an hour, and if a party your size doesn’t show, the table’s yours. (Seatings daily at 1:15, 2:30, 3:15, 4:45 and 5:15 p.m., from $35.50)
Where to stay: Just west of the West End, near the busy shops along Oxford Street, is the Mandeville Hotel (8-14 Mandeville Place, 44-20-7935-5599, mandeville.co.uk). For a small, boutique hotel, the Mandeville is smartly appointed, classy and comfortable. Its central location (and close to the Tube) makes it an easy home base for exploring London, but it also has a restaurant and full services for when you return. Check the website for holiday specials.
Shopping: For a contemporary view of the tea world, do not miss Postcard Teas (9 Dering Street, 44-20-7629-3654, postcardteas.com), a bright, sunny shop on a small, shadowy lane just off Bond Street. The owner, Tim d’Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? “In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world,” he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like cards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea’s origin. The cheerful, chatty d’Offay cups teas for visitors to sample. Try his hearty Mayfair Breakfast blend, or the cocoa-y flavors of Yunnan Red Cloud, a second-pick summer tea (the first pick is used to make pu-erh).
Afternoon tea: London tea service isn’t all starched collars and prim protocol. Several places offer twists on the tradition, many of them geared toward attracting men. The Mandeville Hotel, in fact, offers a Men’s Afternoon Tea (3-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun., $23.50). Instead of dainty finger sandwiches, you get stick-to-your-ribs appetizer fare, such as a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer and chicken satay. Choose a stout tea to stand up to the stronger food flavors, like the smoky Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London’s Jing. It pairs beautifully with the whiskeys and bourbons on offer in place of the usual champagne accompaniment. The Palm Court at the Langham Hotel (1C Portland Place, Regent Street, 44-20-7965-0195, palm-court.co.uk), an easy walk east of the Mandeville, offers a daily G&T (seatings daily at 2, 2:30, 4:30 and 5 p.m., $41) featuring a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you receive first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it’s a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients, resulting in a strange but enticing tea, musty and musky, tasty with the munchies.
For something completely different, the Volupté Lounge (9 Norwich Street, 44-20-7831-1622, volupte-lounge.com), a self-described “decadent little supper club” hidden away in a basement near Chancery Lane, offers Tea & Tassels (about once monthly, $42), an occasional Saturday afternoon tea with entertainment: 1930s-style burlesque show. Dolores Delight belts show tunes (a stunning achievement given the tight corset), while Millie Dollar emerges in stunning gowns and then emerges from the stunning gowns, down to her pasties and tattoos. Through it all, a traditional afternoon tea menu of sandwiches and scones is served. Sounds odd? Zoe Fletcher, who created the program, says, “Well, that’s me. I like to have a gossipy tea with my friends, and I love burlesque, so it just fit.” Even stranger: I was the only male in the joint one Saturday. The rest of the crowd: all bachelorette parties. Don’t come for the tea (it’s not great) or the food — through, bizarrely, the pair of scones we got at Volupté was the best of anyplace we visited. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.