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Time To Raise Your Pinkies

Taking a proper British afternoon tea in London

The single greatest culinary innovation of the British—not a culture normally renowned for its role in the culinary arts—was the decision to slip a refined, refreshing spare meal into the middle of the afternoon.

Between 3pm and 5:30pm, Brits around the world sit down to a steaming pot of tea accompanied by (at least in more refined situations) a tiered platter piled with slices of cake, teensy tortes, scones with jam and clotted cream, and a selection of delicious finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off—usually a variety, though I believe there's some sort of British law requiring that one of them be cucumber.

(And when I said "Brits around the world," I meant it. I once had afternoon tea in the home of a British couple on a minor island off the Falklands where nesting penguins and albatross outnumbered the handful of people thousands to one.)

A full tea serving can run anywhere from £6 ($12) to £50 ($100), depending if you want to go with something opulent in a fancy hotel or famous department store, or prefer to go for the more homey and sensibly priced approach. (The tea servings themselves are virtually identical in either case; just the settings and bills change.)

Fancy, Famous, Overpriced Teas

London’s classiest—and most expensive—afternoon teas are in the Savoy Hotel ballroom where the Queen was crowned (note: the hotel is closed for massive refurbishment until early 2009), daily 2–6:30pm (the Strand, tel. 020-7420-2669; www.fairmont.com/savoy), and in the foyer rooms of the ultra-traditional Brown’s Hotel Monday to Friday 3–6pm, Saturday and Sunday 1–6pm (29–34 Albemarle St., tel. 020-7493-6020; www.brownshotel.com; Tube: Green Park).

Less pricey—but just as good—are the teas at two of London’s legendary department stores: the inimitable Harrods Georgian Restaurant on the fourth floor from 3:45pm on—though they run out of scones fast (87–135 Brompton Rd., tel. 020-7725-6800; www.harrods.com; Tube: Knightsbridge); and at Fortnum and Mason’s St. James’s Restaurant, Monday to Saturday 2–7pm, Sunday noon–5pm (181 Piccadilly, tel. 0845-602-5694; www.fortnumandmason.co.uk; Tube: Piccadilly Circus or Green Park).

All of those teas cost an average of £35 ($70) per person—and here's a word of warning. If a kind waiter pauses at your table and asks, "Would you like some champagne?" The answer is "No!" This is a (terribly polite) scam some of them run that makes it seems like the flute of bubbly is just part of the whole experience, but in fact what it does is bump up your bill from "afternoon tea" to "champagne tea" status—tacking on an extra £10 to £15 ($20 to $30) per person.

If $70 for some tea and finger sandwiches sounds a bit high to you, read on for something a bit kinder to the typical budget.

Fantastic, Inexpensive, Genuine Teas

You can get a nice afternoon tea for around £5 to £8 ($10 to $16)—if you know where to go.

The Bramah Coffee & Tea Museum (40 Southwark St., tel. +44-(0)20-7403-5650; www.teaandcoffeemuseum.co.uk) is basically a very large room, two-thirds of which are crammed with a small museum devoted to the past 400 years in the history of the Western world's two favorite hot caffeinated beverages (worth popping into on its own, quirky merits; if nothing else, you can load up on coffee and tea trivia to fuel your next conversation at the office coffee machine).

The other third of the room is a modest tea room—just a handful of tables and a serving counter, nothing twee or fancy. The selection of teas is small but considered, and the cucumber sandwiches, hot crumpets, and tea cakes are fresh and tasty. Best part: the full afternoon tea runs just £9 (or take a simpler cream tea—with scones, clotted cream, jam, and cake—for just £7).

Cafe in the Crypt under St-Martin-in-the-Fields church offers TK.

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