Whether it is for a quick cream tea or a full-blown afternoon tea with bubbles and all, The Wolseley delivers this British afternoon practice with finesse, quality, and ease. Look away from hotels and tea rooms, and focus on this café-restaurant nestled in the iconic site of 160 Piccadilly.
The Wolseley is a swank establishment that emanates style, as one may have deduced from italicised definite article within its name. Situated next to The Ritz and housed in a Grade II listed building dating 1921, The Wolseley has a story to tell.
One thing you would notice when you walk into the venue is its design. The smooth archways and black marble pillars are impossible to ignore. On finer inspection, the geometric black and white flooring, and lacquered fittings of the bar all point to the design influences of Venice, Florence, and Japan that were in fashion in the 1920s. Designed by British architect William Curtis Green, 160 Piccadilly was originally a lavish motor showroom before it became a branch of Barclays Bank in 1927. Green, who was commissioned once again to remodel the space, added a banking counter and office space on either side of the venue's entrance which now serves as the bar and tea room. The space was briefly a Chinese restaurant when Barclays closed its branch in 1999 before two restauranteurs took over in 2003 and restored it to its Art Deco glamour as designed by Green, establishing the tea room as we know it today.
Entering The Wolseley is a little like time-travelling. You feel the British tradition as a porter ushers you in at the entrance before being greeted by the beautiful interior that is reminiscent of Vienna's famous Café Central with its similarly Italian-inspired arches, pillar and ceiling lights. Welcome to early 20th c. Europe.
Echoing many Viennese cafes, The Wolseley's glamorous appearance is softened by its relaxed atmosphere.
Whilst The Wolseley also serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, getting an afternoon tea seems most fitting if you are to properly time-travel to the 20s. So, let's get down to business.
The afternoon tea
It's a simple affair really. Once you've committed to the full-blown afternoon tea menu, all that's left is the choice of tea and the surprisingly short tea menu can be easily navigated. You will find the usual afternoon classics such as the Afternoon Blend, Earl Grey, Assam, and Darjeeling on the list, as well as oriental green teas on offer. Keeping with tradition, and to help cut through the 3 layers of food that you will devour, a black tea is a safe choice.
The 3-tiered set-up is filled with British classics, and some European ones too. Starting with the savoury layer at the bottom, rectangular tea sandwiches of cucumber cream cheese, smoked salmon and butter, coronation chicken, and egg and cress are neatly lined on the plate. These British classics are lightly seasoned and like miniature pillows that provide strangely comforting flavours and soft textures. The middle layer is filled with a selection of cakes that changes on every visit. It is a carousel of lemon meringue tarts, fruit tarts, Victoria sponge cakes, macarons, and cheesecakes. Though, you will always find a slice of Battenberg and Sachertorte in the mix - a proper nod to British and Viennese tea traditions. Last but not least, raisin scones sit on the top layer, kept warm with a cloche, crowning them quite literally as the stars of the show. The scones are served with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam.
One can often tell from the scones the quality of the afternoon tea. At The Wolseley, the scones are warm (a good sign), moist (another telltale), and most importantly, fluffy in the centre. They are easily split open and turned into saucers best for slathering on clotted cream and jam. A bite of the warm scone topped with cold cream and sweet jam is exactly what you need at 4pm on a rainy London afternoon. A sip of Earl Grey laced with milk, and, you've just tasted the best of Britain.
If the afternoon tea is too large of an afternoon affair, I do recommend the cream tea - you get straight to the best bit of a tea this way. Where the scones don't tickle your fancy, a slice of Sachertorte, Battenberg, or carrot cake with a tea from their all-day menu could also do the trick.
Finding your cup of tea
It's always hard to sift through options for afternoon tea, especially when so many places in London offer it. However, the one at 160 Piccadilly is truly exceptional.
It differentiates itself with its stickler for tradition and excellence.