A Tale of Two Teas: Grosvenor's Victorian Tea and Fortnum & Mason [London]

I’ve been a guest for two afternoon teas within a week in London. It was a great opportunity to compare and contrast (and to eat clotted cream).

Fortnum & Mason’s tea was easy to book on opentable.co.uk. The tea salon is on the top floor of the Piccadilly store; there are two large rooms on either side of the central waiting lounge. The two main options are afternoon tea and high tea (high included a choice of savory main, with options like welsh rarebit and lobster omelette). We both had the afternoon tea and agreed that the highlight was the tea sandwiches. Coronation chicken usually isn’t one of my favorites, but this version tasted fresh and bright. Scones were tender and served warm.

Cakes didn’t impress me as much as the scones or sandwiches; despite the enticing jewel-like colors, the flavors felt muted. I could see from other tables that there must have been a large prepared selection of patisserie in the kitchen–other tables received different cakes, so perhaps it was just luck of the draw that we got a few that weren’t to my taste. Overall, the vibe in the salon was tourist/fancy day out; the servers asked each table if they wanted a photo snapped, and most tables did. Afternoon tea was 44 pounds with classic blend tea.

The Grosvenor advertises a Victorian Afternoon Tea you book by phone. Tea is served in a beautiful, sun-lit room linked to their bar and buffet breakfast room; on the wall of the tea room are portraits of various famous Victorian women–actresses, royal mistresses, all the greatest hits.

Because the servers were shared between the tea room and the bar/buffet, service was scattered. The food was delivered almost immediately, but we had to repeatedly hail a server to request tea. We never got a top up of hot water. The tier felt sloppy–some of the sandwiches had fingerprints; others had bread sliding off. Scones were dry and cold. Cakes didn’t impress. Champagne afternoon tea was 37 pounds. Though the price is a good bit cheaper than Fortnum’s, the value felt much less.

After eating my weight in clotted cream, it will probably be some time before I book another afternoon tea, but only the Fortnum’s will linger pleasantly in my memory.

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Really good thread. Thanks.

What particularly interests me is the reference to high tea. There were fairly regular posts from Americans on Chowhound’s UK board asking about “high tea” as if it was interchangeable with “afternoon tea”. It isn’t and it’s good to see Fortnum make the difference. The difference, as you note, is a hot savoury main course. In essence, traditonally, “afternoon tea” is a middle class affair of sandwiches, cake and scones, served in the lateish afternoon. “High tea” is more a working class meal, of a hot main course followed by cake, served very late afternoon or very early evening - a family meal eaten together very soon after Dad got back from the pit or factory.

I’ve been to a few teas in Manhattan over the years, and none were the,‘high tea,’ that the Americans ask about. I think they’ve heard the term in movies or on TV and there’s never any difference mentioned. It wasn’t till I moved here that I even came to know that some families called their evening meal,‘tea.’

I think most of the large hotels in NYC now serve an afternoon tea. My favorite was at the Waldorf Astoria’s.

This differentiation isn’t the only thing we Americans are confused about. :smile:

Ah, yes. Our different names for the evening meal. I reckon a decent summary (which I’m sure someone will shortly be along to knock down) is :-

tea - mainly working class and/or northern

dinner - mainly middle class and/or southern

supper - definitely southern and a bit posh (northern suppers involve a couple of biscuits just before going to bed).

By the by, none of this is static. In my current life I am a military historian of sorts, with a particular interest in the Great War. If you read accounts from that time, everyone is pretty much having a main meal of “dinner” in the middle of the day and “tea” in the early evening of a snack like bread and jam.

FWIW, I generally have lunch and dinner - although some evening meals seem to stick with them being tea. The mix may be because I’m northern but middle class.

Tea-sized rarebit was served as part of our afternoon tea at Browns. Some Americans like to say “high tea” because it makes them sound toff to Americans who do not know the difference between afternoon tea and an evening meal.

Afternoon tea is one of my most favourite things. I think the last one I had in London, was at the British Museum, though I’ve also gone to the Wolseley. I shall bookmark Fortnums for next time - I’m sure I’ve got their book on afternoon tea somewhere.

I would definitely recommend Fortnum’s, but I have my ear to the ground for recommendations that are a bit more low-key.

The problem with an afternoon tea that has so many fiddly bits is that you probably hit the poles easily: specialists that do tea well but feel a bit cold and are quite expensive, or hotels that want to capitalize on the tourist market but spend the least time/money possible on grocery-store quality sandwiches, scones and pastry.

It would be nice to find a middle ground but I don’t think my heart can take any more research right now.

There’s a nice, quiet tea room at the Mandeville Hotel close to Marylebone High St. and Oxford St. The room is small and intimate. I found it when my niece stayed at the hotel before moving to London. From what I remember, they offer a few different options as does the Montcalm Hotel near Marble Arch. I loved that one… large room but a delicious tea with different priced options depending on how much one wants to pig out.

http://www.mandeville.co.uk/london-hotel/afternoon-tea/

This website has lots of offers… well worth investigating.

http://www.afternoontea.co.uk/offers/

Oh this is interesting! Mandeville looks great. It’s interesting that they charge for refills of cakes and sandwiches, but if you go for the champagne or sparkling wine options the beverage refills are free.

This is the opposite of Fortnums–the sandwiches and cake refresh for free, but drinks were added to the tab. I’m not sure if refills were free at the Grosvenor or not.

We had leftovers at the Mandeville. They were so nice and put them in my niece’s room. I think Sotheby’s does a nice tea, too…nice atmosphere if nothing else.

My favourite afternoon tea is at Brown’s Hotel on Albemarle Street. Very quiet and intimate, lovely selection of teas and food, nice service. Bookings essential! Haven’t been there in a while - this thread reminds me I’m overdue for another visit.

I doubt if there are many readers who are in my neck of the woods but Septemeber saw us have afternoon at Manchester Town Hall. The review I posted to “another board” at the time:-

"A “proper” afternoon tea at a bargain price (£12.50) in quite elegant Victorian Gothic surroundings. There’s comfy Chesterfields to sit on and you’re surrounded by sculptures of local 19th century worthies - scientists like Joule and Dalton and campaigners like Cobden. Something of an improvement from when I used to work at the Town Hall in the late 1960s.

There’s savouries, of course. Potted ham rillette and toast, smoked trout mousse and Morecambe Bay shrimp sandwich, soft cheese from Longley Farm in Holmfirth on a rye crispbread and a lovely cheese and leek tart using Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire (almost needless to say).

Moving on to the sweet stuff – the ingredients of Manchester Tart are repurposed into a Victoria sponge. And you don’t get much more Manchester than Vimto – in this case in a “delice” – sponge base, topped with Vimto mousse, covered in a Vimto glaze. These work. As does the mini Eccles cake. And, not local, but it wouldn’t be afternoon tea without a scone, jam & cream. "

This sounds right up my street — I much prefer the savoury elements of afternoon tea to the sweet ones, and often you just get sandwiches rather than interesting things like crispbread and tarts. I think I’d really enjoy the above. A shame I’m unlikely to be in Manchester any time soon!

So, relatedly, can anyone recommend an afternoon tea in London that focuses strongly on savouries rather than cakes (scones are acceptable, but I find sponges etc. kind of boring) and isn’t overpriced for what you get?

Brown’s was my first afternoon tea ever… way back in the early 90’s. I think it pretty much spoiled me for anything else throughout the years. I was just a tourist then and very impressed.

Maybe the Goring? I had afternoon tea there a zillion years ago but remember the savory sandwiches. The staff was also very accommodating so maybe you could ask them (or find out in advance) if it is possible to limit the sweets in favor of the savories. I would imagine there are some people who simply shouldn’t eat a lot of sweets for health reasons, so maybe the request is not all that unusual.

I stayed at the Mandeville not long after it was renovated, and while I didn’t have an afternoon tea there, I really disliked their restaurant and bar, including the decor. I’m guessing afternoon tea is served in a area I never saw.

[Edited to add: When I googled up Afternoon Tea at the Mandeville to see if I could find pictures of what part of the hotel the tea is served, this article about Gentlemen’s Afteroon Tea popped up, describing not only a lot meaty fare at the Mandevillle “Gent’s” afternoon tea, but also naming a several other venues where the emphasis is obviosly on savories at teatime, not cake, if you go for the Gentlemen’s menu.]

You’re right. Tea is served in a fairly small room, which I think was off of the bar area. The decor there was fine, but I vaguely remember that the bar area was a bit strange-looking. I forgot to mention the Gentleman’s Tea, so thanks for doing that. We didn’t have that one.

Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve had a look at their website, but the menu doesn’t include anything savoury other than sandwiches; all the pastries are sweet.

Ah-ha, thanks, I’d forgotten about “gentlemen’s” menus. But I’m not massively keen on those either, since they generally include things that I’d be more inclined to see as bar snacks rather than things to go with tea — sausage rolls and the like. What I’m really interested in is savouries of the kind that Harters describes.

We had an excellent afternoon tea at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Wellington lounge. The food was great (and a last minute substitution for a previous not notified food allergy accommodated), but the best but was the long list of teas, and the ability to swap to a different one every time you had a refill.The whole thing was very unhurried, quiet (this was a catch up with friends we hadn’t seen for a long time) and something i would definitely repeat.

Ah yes, your definitions ring true. How confusing when I went to university, from a tea in the evening family (although we were all morphing towards dinner in the evening) and to get an invite to “supper” from a (clearly) much posher person; supper for me being a mug of Horlicks in your pyjamas.

Maybe I am too American but the idea of paying perhaps as much as $70 for tea, sandwiches and cakes is just not very appealing to me. For me (not for anyone else) it would be a near-complete waste of money. We just got back from London and did stop in at Fortnum & Mason’s, and we did have a look at the tea room. But I could not bring myself to go in.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold