British afternoon tea can be a stodgy affair. When the 7th Duchess of Bedford dreamed it up in the 19th century, people only ate two meals a day. Afternoon tea became the stopgap of choice for society ladies, with cakes, sandwiches and buns to plug the void between breakfast and dinner. Scroll forward to the modern day. My friend Zena had organised a gathering of another set of society ladies. This time, it was at the Waldorf Hilton. And there wasn’t a slab of heavy cake in sight.
Instead, we were treated to a dainty selection of deliciously delicate sandwiches and cakes. London’s Waldorf Hilton lies on the fringes of Covent Garden, so it’s well-placed for a pre-theatre pitstop. Outside, Aldwych is busy, with a throng of beeping taxis, buses, tourists and office workers. Inside, the Waldorf is all smooth, gleaming surfaces, and well-tended pot plants. Afternoon tea is served in the dining room. The place was surprisingly intimate for a room with such grand, high ceilings. Tables were set at a wide distance from each other, and although the chatter at our table was lively, we didn’t feel as though we encroached on anyone else. There’s no doubt the restaurant’s mirrored walls would have witnessed all sorts of inspiring plans being hatched, over the years since the hotel opened in 1908.
Selection of different Afternoon Teas
Food connoisseur Egon Ronay launched his famous hotel guide at the Waldorf in 1964, so you’d expect the restaurant’s fare to be of a high quality. And it was. Possibly the most tantalising afternoon tea I’ve tried, in fact. The hotel served us a Waldorf Afternoon Tea (£49.50), which came with a glass of Champagne. The Westminster Afternoon Tea (£45.50) includes a glass of sparkling wine, and for those who want to save their drinking for the interval, there’s the Classic West End Afternoon Tea (39.50).
To accompany our champagne, the waiter brought us a light, creamy raspberry and lemon mousse concoction, in a mini flagon.
The bursts of flavour from this tiny dessert were accompanied by the light, elegant tinkle of the dining room’s harp, and the chink of cutlery on the Royal Crown Derby tableware. Royal Crown Derby is the last of the original fine bone china still made entirely in England, with a history of being the preferred supplier of tableware to the aristocracy since the 18th century. Our table certainly felt very elegant, despite the array of phones and cameras that are a blogger’s tools of the trade.
Choosing a tea
Next, we chose a tea. The Waldorf’s menu contained no less than twelve options, with white and black teas, as well as oolong and green tea. For traditionalists there was the ‘Full English’, with an exotic addition of golden tipped broken orange pekoe. I was tempted by the Rosy Fig White Tea, with sweet fig and floral rose notes, but in the end I plumped for a Nutty Chocolate. This Assam tea turned out to be an accompaniment to nuts and chocolate rather than a tea flavoured by them, but its heavy, earthy richness was perfect for cutting through the sweetness to come.
But first, the sandwiches. These can be the most uninteresting element of an afternoon tea. But the Waldorf Hilton managed to take a traditional formula – tuna, ham, egg and cress or coronation chicken sandwiches – and transform them into delicate morsels by using melt-in-the-mouth bread. Ham with Dijon mustard was served enveloped in an onion slice. And a basil loaf accompanied the free range egg with watercress. A cheeky mini blini, topped by oak smoked salmon and cream cheese, perched on the side of the plate. It was all very moreish, and delicious.
Waldorf Hilton’s cakes
Luckily, I still had a smidgen of space left to sample the cakes.
These were astonishingly good. It will be while before I forget that most delicate of chocolate ganache, with a pop of flavour from its edible flower adornment; the melt-in-the mouth macaron and the moist, buttery scones, smothered with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
If you’re in London and looking for an archetypal English afternoon tea experience, the Waldorf Hilton’s must be hard to top. There’s no dress code as such, but the hotel suggests smart casual as a general rule. Most people looked as though they’d made a bit of an effort, but aren’t dressed up to the nines. Children are welcome, although it’s such a genteel affair, you might want to save it until they’re older.
Have you taken afternoon tea in London? Where did you go, and what did you make of it?
You can read about another of our London afternoon tea experiences – this time at the Reform Social and Grill – here.
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