If you’re looking for a world-famous afternoon tea at a landmark London hotel with a fascinating past, then The Savoy London really delivers all this with real style – and a gourmet cherry on top!
Style and substance
Situated in Covent Garden, the hotel offers uninterrupted views of the Thames to the south, while its north side borders the hustle and bustle of The Strand, just a short stroll from Trafalgar Square.
Afternoon tea is served in the Thames Foyer – a light and bright Edwardian salon with a winter garden gazebo at its centre, and an ornate glass cupola overhead. The foyer was added to the original hotel (built in 1889 by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte) in the early 1900s and has since played host to fashionable dinner dances, ‘Tango teas’, live band debuts and classical pianists through the decades.
The famed list of former guests and residents is as endless as it is impressive – Charlie Chaplin, Claude Monet, Oscar Wilde, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Kathryn Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh, Lawrence Olivier, Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Coco Chanel and Marilyn Monroe give just a flavour of the wonderful stories and encounters that must be hidden within the hotel’s historic walls.
On arrival, we were first seated at a low table with comfy armchairs in the centre of the room. While this might have been perfect for a post-meal coffee, it didn’t seem a comfortable place to take afternoon tea as the seat to table height ratio felt all wrong. On our request we were moved without a fuss to one of the more regular dining tables on the outside perimeter – a much better place for people watching, while an imposing portrait of Hitchcock also watched solemnly over us.
With menus delivered, I chose the Traditional High Tea (£55pp), which was a little lighter on the cake selection but included a welcome savoury course of asparagus and poached egg. My dining companion chose the Traditional Afternoon Tea (£52pp), which offered even more fancy patisserie to nibble on.
Our delightful waitress – who hailed from Portugal – started by giving us a very knowledgeable run-down of The Savoy’s dazzling array of teas. The menu had some enticingly entitled blends, such as Organic Bohea Lapsang, Lychee Red, Organic & Fair Trade Dragon Well green tea, and (the Queen’s favourite, we’re told) ‘Oriental Beauty’ Oolong tea.
If our waitress was perhaps a little disappointed that we then decided to start conservatively with The Savoy’s own Breakfast and Afternoon blends, she certainly didn’t show it.
The menu’s flavourful description of the Afternoon blend reads: ‘Light, crisp and refreshing with a graceful citrus lift, a fresh, faintly minty aftertaste and a soft but ample mouth feel’. Her description and story telling went even further, skillfully bringing the aromatic liquid to life before we’d even tasted a drop.
Next to be delivered was a classic three-tiered platter laden with scones (plain, and sultana) kept warm and snug in a linen serviette, a finger-sandwich selection (I’m more of a triangle girl, but never mind) and The Savoy’s special recipe strawberry jam and lemon curd, alongside thick Devonshire clotted cream. The supply was ample, and we were invited to order more when we’d finished.
The sandwich fillings included roast beef sirloin with wholegrain mustard and tarragon cream on brown bread; coronation chicken on olive bread; smoked salmon with lemon crème fraiche, watercress on malted brown bread; egg salad with mustard cress on white bread; and mozzarella, beef tomato, with pesto and balsamic glaze on herb and spinach bread.
They were all perfectly tasty, but as I often say, there’s only so many ways you can make a finger sandwich exciting, and I usually find myself looking forward to the far superior creativity of the cakes and patisserie.
However, on this occasion, as the High Tea-taker, I did also have the anticipation of the savoury plate, which turned out to be a picture-perfect plate of food. Delicious al dente green asparagus, a faultless poached egg, fishy sprinkles of crayfish and a thick and tangy hollandaise sauce. Simply amazing!
It was the first time I’d had a hot course in the middle of afternoon tea and I can’t help but think that this has been the missing element of the afternoon tea experience I’ve secretly craved. Other London afternoon tea establishments, please take note.
For my companion, the sweet pastry goodies were delivered – although as a reviewer I was naturally obliged to taste her course too!
The delicate selection included dark chocolate and coffee layer cake, strawberry and vanilla tartlets, lavender éclairs, a lemon and Italian meringue white chocolate swirl cake, and a cherry and pistachio slice. Visually they were all very beautiful, and taste-wise we both struggled to pick an outright winner, as they were all so good.
As if this wasn’t enough, there was still the ‘cake course’ to come, where we were both served a rich slice of flourless chocolate cake and a classic Victoria sponge with the Savoy’s strawberry jam.
The atmosphere in the room was relaxed and convivial – mostly a mix of couples and female gatherings – and the service was unrushed and really top notch. The Savoy states its dress code as smart-casual and there were both attires around the room – although I did feel the gentleman arriving in his shorts and trainers was taking it a little too far!
There was a heartwarming moment when the pianist – who’d been softly tickling the ivories in the background – broke into a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ while five servers were rapidly dispatched to various parts of the salon with a piece of chocolate cake and a candle for unsuspecting birthday guests. A nice little touch.
On leaving The Savoy, it’s really worth taking a mini tour of the public areas and breathing in its rich history (there’s even a little museum tucked away on the first floor that you shouldn’t miss – ooh and a secret red lift on the ground floor – just ask!).
The hotel closed in 2007 and didn’t re-open until 2010 after a lavish £220m refurbishment under the guidance of French designer, Pierre Yves Rochon. Some feared that the essence of The Savoy might be lost in such a major overhaul, but instead it emerged like an exquisite butterfly, with elements of each of its eras not only preserved, but many feel enhanced.
From the outset The Savoy was a pioneering hotel – said to be the first in the country to have electricity, the first to install electric elevators (imported from the US), and even the first to have what we now call a ‘celebrity chef’, in the form of Auguste Escoffier.
Today, it’s nice to see The Savoy, and in particular the Thames Foyer, still giving a stylish nod to the past. A once-a-month special event is the Salon Couture High Tea with designer Suzie Turner, where guests can enjoy afternoon tea while enjoying a 1950s style fashion show – reminiscent of the iconic couture shows held at the hotel in that era, where the likes of Christian Dior debuted their collections.
The foyer is also a space for ‘Art-Deco’ dinner dances throughout the year, offering a live orchestra modelled on the legendary Savoy Orpheans – the hotel’s resident musicians from the roaring 1920s.
So for an afternoon tea with oodles of style and surroundings that are steeped in history, it’s well worth making a special trip to The Savoy – the fashionable ‘grand-dame’ of London hotels.