Nine not-for-profit, single-cause hotels… and one tour operator
Review: winner of London's best afternoon tea award
When the 'Oscars of the tea world' declares a hotel the best place for afternoon tea - particularly in a city where afternoon tea in hotels is an institution - you sit up and take notice.
And while I don't like to sound insanely high maintenance, I take my tea so seriously that I have theories about what colour the mug's interior should be and how many teabags are needed to get the required strength depending on the type of brand used, and I often don't let other people make me a cuppa because they are just inevitably going to get it wrong.
Several other hotels in London are considered to be must-visits for traditional afternoon tea - Claridges and the Ritz to name two, and others that are very inventive such as the Sanderson, which included tongue-tingling lollipops that explode in your mouth on its menu.
However, from my previous experience of the Athenaeum, the beautiful family-run boutique hotel that sits on Piccadilly, is that whatever the calibre of their cucumber sandwiches, the one thing they will excel at is customer service.
This began before we had even stepped inside. There I was, groaning at my mother for making me take her picture outside the hotel, when the doorman crept up behind her in the shot and gave us a giggle. When we tried to open the door ourselves, he bellowed: "Naughty, that's my job," and let us in with a flourish.
Once seated in the Garden Room, in a little nook next to a window that was framed by leafy plants, we were presented with a heavy wooden menu of teas. The list is impressive, and eventually I settled on a rich, heavy Assam. Everything was impeccable, from the crisp linen to the polished cutlery, and as we christened our afternoon with a glass of champagne, a friendly waiter brought over a tower of delicately-cut sandwiches.
The bread was fresh (not curled around the edges) and the sandwiches very more-ish, the selection ranging from smoked salmon to ham, cucumber to egg mayonnaise. After that was whisked away, our cake stand full of treats arrived - warm scones and crumpets accompanied by homemade raspberry jam, cream and lemon curd.
The scones were blessedly small and crumbled in the mouth, which left room for the final stage - the cake trolley. this would be Augustus Gloop's idea of heaven; the top tier was lined with tiny treats such as chocolate-dipped strawberries, exquisite mousses, fruit suspended in jellies topped off with whipped cream and fruit tarts; along the bottom sat large, sugar-dusted beauties and cakes dripping with chocolate.
Irene Gorman, head of the Tea Guild, said of the Athenaeum's tea that it was "an experience to cherish, aided by delightfully friendly, efficient and knowledgeable staff, and with delicious food and teas faultlessly presented." I couldn't agree more.
Afternoon tea is a tradition and the hotel has quite cannily focused on perfecting the best aspects of that tradition, hence the menu. Cucumber sandwiches may not be pushing boundaries, but then again, the point of afternoon tea is surely its reliability, and inventiveness is evident instead in the variety and elaborate presentation of the sweet confections.
It's also an experience, one you are likely to share with your mother or best friends, and that means more than just good tea or food. The reassuring touch that ensures you're being cosseted without being suffocated, by service staff who know what they're talking about, goes a long way towards creating a good, overall impression. Best afternoon tea in London? I'm hard-pushed to find a place that's currently doing better.
Must know: The Athenaeum's afternoon tea costs £28.50 per person or £35 with a glass of champagne.
The Athenaeum, 116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, W1J 7BJ. For reservations, call 020 7499 3464 or visit the website.