Compared to many other countries and cities in Europe, London isn't exactly known for its cuisine. However, that hasn't stopped me from finding some fun food locations alongside my sightseeing adventures.
The first half of this blog will be general, and for the second half I will focus on our two afternoon tea experiences.
Our first night in London was nothing special, as we ordered in. As much as I wanted to venture out into the city, I knew that I needed to listen to my body, get a good night's sleep and be ready for a full adventure the next morning.
It was a lovely crisp morning and we were grateful to duck into Gail's wonderfully warm and cozy atmosphere. The mountains of bread and pastries were enticing and it was difficult to choose. Ultimately I decided on a baked egg and cheese dish with crusty bread and a thick hot chocolate.
Speaking of breakfast, we got to visit one of our favorite breakfast spots in London: Regency Cafe.
Unlike so many popular Instagram-worthy spots, Regency Cafe is a no-frills diner-type restaurant with comfort food. There is often a line out the door, and there was definitely one when we arrived (even though we went quite early!).
There's an orderliness to Regency Cafe that I find so representative of London - you get in line, order, then sit down. If you try to grab an open seat prior to ordering, the loud boss man will swiftly let you know that is not acceptable.
The main reason I come to Regency Cafe is not just for the atmosphere, it's for the fabulous Full English.
I like to order the breakfast set, a very reasonably priced Full English breakfast, which is one of my favorite meals. Every place does their Full English a little differently, but in general they are very hearty, perfectly warming meals. I mean how can you turn down crispy hashbrowns (the triangle ones are superior), salty rashers, juicy sausage, a rich egg and perfectly sweet beans? The answer is, you can't.
Our last breakfast experience in London was the morning we were flying to Prague. I made a reservation at the Dior Cafe last minute, actually while we were at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. I knew it would be a little bit of a rush since we had to run off to the airport, but the photos of gingerbread I'd seen were way too enticing.
We arrived for our 9AM reservation at the cafe. It took us a while to even find it - if you have been to Harrods, you know it is gargantuan and pretty confusing.
The decor was creative and great for anyone who loves gingerbread. I loved the details in the chandeliers the most.
However, I'm not sure this was worth the cost. The menu was limited and quite pricey. The atmosphere was pretty casual considering the theme was such an elegant, well known brand. In my opinion, the best part was the downstairs gingerbread counter where guests could actually purchase gingerbread.
The displays were beautifully crafted and incredibly delicate. I wish the service and atmosphere had reflected the craftsmanship of the cookie displays.
I feel like we did not eat a ton of meals while we were in London (primarily because the afternoon teas were so filling), so I am going to jump right to documenting our afternoon tea experiences.
I love tea. I have loved tea before I even visited England. I've always loved the idea of tea parties, and I've attended my share of high/afternoon teas in several places.
In 2014 on my first trip to London, I was carrying the heavy burden of deciding on the perfect afternoon tea. How could I not? It was my first ever trip to glorious London and not having afternoon tea seemed like sacrilege. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a blog that had a list of unique and quirky afternoon teas in London. After scouring the list, I decided on Sketch.
Prior to this 2022 trip, I'd had afternoon tea at Sketch 3 times - Jennifer had accompanied me on the most recent time. We knew what to expect. We knew about the cost. We budgeted accordingly and were excited as usual.
My excitement dissolved before we even got our towers.
Sketch has the appearance of a high end, whimsical afternoon tea experience. Heck, they even have a Michelin star in their establishment. They are located in the bustling shopping Mecca of Oxford Circus, promising a very London experience. Their afternoon tea is held in The Gallery, a Millennial-pink room full of plush, modern chairs and warm light.
We checked our coats in (I am mentioning this as it becomes important later) and were shown to our table after dodging fast-moving servers and maneuvering our way around the tightly-packed tables.
A string trio played pop songs in the corner while we ordered our afternoon teas. This is where the drama began.
The amuse bouche arrived first - already a downgrade from the last time we'd come. Though the dish was beautiful, it was far less luxurious than what we had expected. There was a soft scrambled egg with crab salad, a langoustine gelatin sheet topped with caviar.
As I went to enjoy the dish, I noticed the only spoon I had was my tea spoon. Correct me if I'm wrong, but at a high end tea I should not be expected to use my tea spoon to eat with. Jennifer flagged down our server and asked for spoons to eat the dish.
Instead of acknowledging the request and fulfilling it, our server was clearly not listening (or was it racial profiling?) and decided to describe the dish yet again, despite the fact that we had already received the description when it arrived, as is customary. She then proceeded to pick up Jennifer's fork and lean it on her plate, saying, "You can eat it with this."
I was beyond irritated. How is it appropriate to randomly touch someone else's eating utensil? We politely asked for spoons to eat a very soft egg with... I mean, who eats caviar with a fork? I ended up using my tea spoon to eat the egg.
Once they cleared our plates, the unthinkable happened.
They placed two plastic spoons on the table.
Our towers arrived shortly after the infuriating spoons. I was already stewing in anger when the same server came by and "explained" our towers, which is also customary. She explained Jennifer's regular tower easily, but when it came to mine, the allergy tower, she literally forgot what one of the desserts was and proceeded to tell me so. I believe she said something like, "Oh and I don't remember what that one is," before she walked away.
This was 5-star service? Plastic spoons, no attention given to guests, and simply hoping the person with allergies is going to be okay with no food description?
There was also a ballerina that came in every hour. She was beautiful and the first time I was completely enthralled. What a fabulous over-the-top surprise! After that however, companied with my rapidly declining experience, she was not as entertaining the next two times.
We were there for almost four hours. The pacing was not great, so it felt like we had been there for longer. Finally someone who looked like management happened to be checking on each table. She asked how our meal was, and I casually answered, "It was fine." No Michelin establishment is thrilled when you describe your experience as 'fine.' We ended up getting a small discount but it didn't make up for the 4 hours I could have spent elsewhere in London.
The bathrooms were still interesting, although this time I learned they are not as beautiful when there isn't any natural light outside.
I know my privilege is showing, but there has been a real decline in service and quality at Sketch. I'm not sure if this is due to Covid, but for that price I expect better quality and better service.
The cherry on top of the cake was something that happened our our way out. We went to collect our coats from coat check, what should be a perfectly normal, pain-free experience. I presented our number and two coats came back, but my shopping bag did not. I mentioned that there was an item missing, described it in great detail (I had bought 2 vinyl records in Islington), but no luck. I began to panic, and the woman working coat check opened the huge door and literally sent me to the back to find my bag. I had to dig through strangers' belongings to find my bag. I could not leave Sketch fast enough after that.
The good news? We did another tea in London and it was superb. Sadly it was actually before our dismal Sketch experience, but I wanted to end this post on a positive note.
I present to you, Hotel Cafe Royal's Afternoon Tea in the Oscar Wilde Lounge.
Hotel Cafe Royal first caught my eye when I saw they did a Van Gogh-themed tea. While that theme had long since passed prior to our arrival, I was interested in doing a themed tea in general. Upon further research, I learned some of the fun history behind this particular tea and booked a reservation.
This afternoon tea is located in a 5-star hotel. I felt underdressed when we arrived, and I feared that we'd encounter some sneers or snooty service since we didn't exactly look the part. However, my fears dissipated when one of the hotel staff walked up to us and asked if we needed help. Instead of just pointing us in the right direction, we were escorted to the Oscar Wilde Lounge, and that staff member stayed with us to ensure everything went fine with our reservation.
Another one of the staff asked if we wanted to check our coats - we didn't even have to walk to a coat check. They took our coats on the spot and handed me a beautiful embossed leather number. I was already impressed as we were escorted to our table inside.
The heavily gilded and highly ornate room is almost more impressive than any photos you'll see. Soft piano music drifted through the space so delicately, a different atmosphere from the loud chatter and string trio at Sketch. There was also a seating map on our table (it looked like a menu) and it showed us all of the historical figures that have been seated at each table. Our table had seated Virginia Woolf at one point. Pretty amazing, huh?
We were asked about allergies, and I always feel guilty about listing off the foods I can't eat. Our servers took my allergies incredibly seriously and showed care at every part of our tea - even my tea selection became a concern to them! I felt very much taken care of and understood why this was considered a 5-star experience.
There was not a trace of a plastic spoon anywhere in this establishment.
The price tag on this experience was not as steep as Sketch, and we did add a glass of champagne to celebrate our first full day in London (keep in mind this happened before the atrocity at Sketch). While Sketch promises a unique, quirky experience, Hotel Cafe Royal presents a stunning traditional tea experience.
Since we were attending during the approaching holiday season, we chose to do the "Festive Tea," which featured some holiday flavors and theming.
The sandwiches looked plain but were actually some of the best tea sandwiches I've had. The desserts were perfect and were so delicious that we were sad that we were so full!
Afternoon tea at Hotel Cafe Royal doesn't need gimmicks and does not need to reinvent afternoon tea. It presents a perfectly elegant, delightful tea experience with a broad range of teas and wonderfully crafted bites. The experience and service speak for themselves; I didn't need to be distracted by a random ballerina to enjoy myself.
The verdict? The next time I am in London, I will definitely be going back to Hotel Cafe Royal for afternoon tea, and I am officially retiring Sketch as my go-to spot!
So there you have it, our major meals in London. What do you think? Would you try any of these places?
Until next time,