Although it was dark and overcast on this late November day in London, the air was unusually warm at 57F / 14C. Walking up Albemarle Street in the heart of Mayfair, I came to the unmistakable entrance to Brown’s Hotel. Built in 1837 by James Brown and his wife, Sarah, who were formerly butler and maid to Lord and Lady Byron, it was the first hotel in London that catered to “genteel” folk.
As of 2003, Brown’s is owned by The Rocco Forte Collection which invested 24 million GBP in refurbishments after acquiring this luxury hotel.
On a historical note, Alexander Graham Bell stayed here in 1876 to demonstrate his new invention, the telephone. The English Tea Room is where Rudyard Kipling wrote much of his famous novel, The Jungle Book. It is also believed that Agatha Christie wrote her novel (At Bertram’s Hotel) while at Brown’s Hotel and modeled the story after the hotel. United States Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both selected Brown’s Hotel for their honeymoons.
Afternoon Tea is served in The English Tea Room, a dark paneled, traditional English style room that has survived largely intact from when the hotel was built. The entrance to this room, on the right as you enter the hotel, has beveled glass windows that remind me of a scene from a Charles Dickens novel.
Taking afternoon tea or holding a serious business discussion would work equally well here. The room has a Baby Grand piano and, if you look closely, a few nods to modern design (see the wall sconces).
On the menu at The English Tea Room are 17 different teas that the staff will be happy to assist you with, if you desire. You can either order everything directly, or place yourself in the very capable hands of The English Tea Room staff.
I had the strong impulse to order Earl Grey, being in one of London’s top institutions for afternoon tea, and also the winner of the Tea Guild’s Top London Afternoon Tea Award for 2009. After discussing the tea menu with the staff, I let it be known that I am partial to Oolong, and they very kindly agreed that oolong would go well with “the tray,” being neither very strong nor very mild.
The steeping tea is brought to you in an antique silver teapot along with a second silver teapot of hot water, in case the tea becomes too strong.
(One feature of Brown’s Afternoon Tea is that, upon leaving, they will provide you with a small plastic pouch of the full leaf tea that you ordered).
I was seated at a low sofa that accommodated two low guest tables, just like the furniture that Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, would have served tea on in her parlour or sitting room. Most guests, I assume, would not notice or appreciate the historical significance of this accurate detail from the originator of afternoon tea (or low tea) in the 1840’s.
The room was buzzing with activity on this Wednesday afternoon; the tables were full and the Baby Grand piano player was entertaining the tea patrons with some soft but lively up-tempo music. A mother and daughter were seated to my right and a white-haired gentleman with his large family was seated to my left. Staff were always visible and available to help with pouring more tea or anything else that might come up.
On the three tier tray, Brown’s serves the classic tea sandwiches – cucumber, ham, smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise/cress, and chicken. I thought the sandwiches were unusually generous in proportion, certainly plentiful in number and filling. They were definitely appreciated by a long distance traveler like me, having recently flown in from the States.
The scones were served warm, and the clotted cream was especially thick and rich. Maybe it was my transatlantic hunger talking, but the raisin scones, clotted cream and strawberry preserve were just about perfect, I thought.
The sweets included a Queen’s apple tart, a pistachio tart, lemon curd on a sugar cracker, an almond cake in glass, and a chestnut tart. As if this weren’t enough, there is also a dessert trolley that comes around with two more cakes to choose from – a Victoria sponge or Dundee Cake, a sort of Scottish fruit cake.
I can plainly see why Brown’s has earned the prestigious honor from The Tea Guild – I felt privileged to participate in a Traditional Afternoon Tea in a 170 year old, dark wood paneled, classic English Tea Room that does everything right. When it comes right down to it, it’s the people that either make or break your experience, and Brown’s staff couldn’t have been more accommodating, friendly or helpful.