Best afternoon tea in London 2023

Best for: a classic in a spectacular historic setting

An offshoot of the Piccadilly original, this is Fortnum & Mason with a twist. The trademark eau de nil is there – on velvet seats and leather booths – but the majestic 16th-century setting in London’s financial district lends it an even grander air, as though tea sippers are members of an elite secret society.

The impressive stone-and-column façade of the Royal Exchange betrays the building’s trade roots. Boutiques sit beneath huge arches; the newest, a mini Fortnum’s, now takes up three shop fronts. At the centre of the wide courtyard is a giant almond-shaped bar, a glittering metal oasis ringed by mint-green stools, each pair lit with individual gold lamps. The bar is bookended by two small seating areas and it almost feels like you’re outside, with light pooling through the glass ceiling.

Tea is, of course, the most important element of the Fortnum’s tradition, given that the brand has been producing its own (and, later, serving it) for about 300 years. But you won’t find its breakfast blend on the menu here; instead, opt for the Royal Exchange, a light Sri Lankan and Kenyan loose-leaf tea that represents this cool new base, or – better yet – Champagne.

Afternoon-tea stands are brought down a flight of stone steps from a faraway corner of the courtyard, almost ‘off stage’; as they are set down on the table, it’s clear this is the main event. First up are five simple finger sandwiches filled generously with egg and cress, honey-roasted ham and mustard, cucumber and mint cream cheese, coronation chicken and smoked salmon. Then soft, warm plain and fruit scones are accompanied by clotted cream, strawberry jam and lemon curd – Fortnum’s own, naturally.

The finale is a trio of patisserie cakes: a tangy red-velvet cube with cream-cheese layers, topped with a cherry-powder crumb and transparent droplets that could be mistaken for pomegranate seeds; a vanilla-cheesecake sphere in smooth white-chocolate casing that sits atop a delicate, buttery biscuit; and a choux bun filled with vanilla cream and adorned with pastel-pink icing and a rose petal.

While the afternoon tea was undeniably pleasant, it’s the historic surroundings that truly make the new Fortnum’s a worthwhile pit-stop. And despite the hushed, exclusive vibe this offering is brilliantly affordable. Make like the City crowd and stop here for a sweet reviver following an afternoon’s hard work, then browse the foodie delights in the enticing shop. Leah Craig

Address: The Courtyard, The, Royal Exchange, London EC3V 3LR
Prices: £35 per person (£48 with a glass of champagne)

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