Old London classics, such as traditional afternoon tea in a grand hotel, full English breakfast on Piccadilly and the West End theatre play that has been continuously running for more than 60 years, still offer a delightful and appealing experience for visitors and locals alike.
When planning our recent trip to London, I wanted to finally tick some institutional British experiences off my wish list. Part of me worried that these would be quite touristy and boring.
But the classics proved to still have the power to deliver delight and joy.
Breakfast at The Wolseley
The Wolseley suggestion came from a London-based food writer friend. We might have not gone to this cafe/restaurant on our own, as I would have been suspicious of its central location on Piccadilly, just minutes from the Buckingham Palace.
Brits have been perfecting their full breakfast menu from the early 1300s. They take the traditional breakfast so seriously that there exists an English Breakfast Society, a “learned society of fellows” who research the history of bacon and black pudding and have published a breakfast handbook.
“The English” at The Wolseley offers all the traditional fares: bacon, sausage, baked beans, tomato, black pudding, mushrooms and a choice of eggs. What makes the meal delightful is the quality execution, lively atmosphere, swanky interiors, shiny tea set, and efficient staff in classy uniforms.
The Wolseley cafe/restaurant with seating on two levels was built in 1921 as an auto showroom and boasts tall windows, domed ceilings, marble floors, and Art Deco chandeliers. Despite the grand interiors, the place is energetic and informal, as it mixes together tourists studying London maps, investment bankers hovering over PowerPoint presentations and elegant ladies sipping tea before the day’s engagements.
Traditional Afternoon Tea at The Savoy
The Thames Foyer at The Savoy, which has served afternoon tea for more than a century, is expectedly chic. A colorful glass dome fills the room with natural light, and a pianist enchants onlookers with relaxing, mellow tunes from the winter garden gazebo. Large portraits adorning the walls let one know that The Savoy has been a popular place to stay for Hollywood stars.
While some London afternoon tea establishments experiment with the menu, The Savoy’s offering is keenly traditional: finger sandwiches, warm scones with clotted cream, lemon curd and jam, and an assortment of seasonal cakes and pastries.
The Savoy also offers a high tea option — and contrary to what I previously thought, ‘high’ does not mean a fancier ceremony but rather heartier, more filling food. That is because at origin, high tea referred to a high dining table, at which working class families ate their supper, consisting of meat pies, casseroles and baked beans. (Similarly, ‘low tea’ alluded to low coffee tables in upper-class ladies’ drawing rooms.) In The Savoy’s version, high tea is not very heavy at all: one, rather dainty, savory dish replaces the cakes.
We learnt one more curious fact while our waiter was pouring us tea: the afternoon tea tradition, which seems to be so firmly ingrained in the British culture, is by British standards, not very old. The credit goes to the Duchess of Bedford, who in the 1840s found this ingenious way to last through the afternoon until a very late dinner. From the Duchess’s personal habit, tea served with finger food evolved into a social event for her friends, and then quickly spread among British upper-class women.
Our afternoon tea at The Savoy had everything I wanted: traditional provisions, old-school elegance, and distinctively British staff. “Sir, you mustn’t; it gives me heart palpitations” a waiter said, upon my husband’s attempt to pour tea from a hot silver-plated teapot. Surrounded by an equal mix of Brits and foreigners, with many celebrating happy occasions, we felt we were a part of an established tradition rather than spectators at a historical reenactment.
‘The Mousetrap’ at St. Martin’s Theatre
We concluded the day at the adorably old-fashioned St. Martin’s Theatre, which in the past 45 years has featured only one play, Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” The play has broken many records as the world’s longest running theater performance since it was first presented at another West End theater in 1952.
“The Mousetrap” was so delightful, we thought, because it was classically simple: the play takes place in one room of the house over the course of two days. It is Agatha Christie at her best: entertaining, compact and suspenseful. The cast delivered an energetic but measured performance, and no special effects or complicated set pieces were needed for everyone to speculate on “whodunnit” during the intermission.
When at the end of the trip we were naming our favorite things, The Wolseley, the afternoon tea at The Savoy and “The Mousetrap” all came up. All three are steeped in tradition, dependable and charming, and so easy to whole-heartedly recommend to anyone visiting London.