London Stories and Tips

Tea at the National Cafe

March at Trafalgar Square Photo, London, England

It may be that only tourists think a full tea is a necessary part of a London afternoon. But there was no telling that to my kids: such an experience ranked high on their to-do list for London, and as the days ran down, they were pushing to make sure it was part of our last two days.

We wouldn’t be enjoying this custom at the Ritz, Fortnum & Mason, or any other place where it might run £30 a person or more. On Monday, we’d had a fairly quick tea and a snack at the Tate Modern, and were looking for something in between this low-end version and a full wallet-bashing experience. I’d read any number of suggestions for places to have a good experience and incur only a moderately painful bill, and as the day grew colder and rainier in Hyde Park and the lunch hour faded, I suggested we board the bus for Trafalgar Square and have tea at the National Dining Rooms in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

The no. 9 bus we boarded was a ‘heritage’ route, served by the classic Routemaster double-deckers. The traffic through Knightsbridge was terrible—the only time we were stuck in traffic all week—and I watched everyone nod off during the longer than expected ride. We arrived at Trafalgar just before 3, and dashed through the rain into the Museum and followed the signs for the Café (not the Dining Rooms).

I’m not highly picky about service, but our experience was terrible. The tea and the food were very good, but the service was abysmal. Our waitress clearly had no interest in seating or serving us at the end of our shift: first, she said tea wasn’t available yet, even though it was 3 pm; then she seated us and ignored us; then she went off-duty and left us without any server. The person we finally recruited to bring our bill apologized, especially for the mandatory tip that was already added.

Before going missing in action, our server did help us make just a little sense of the menu. I’d heard that a ‘full tea’ might serve as a replacement for a meal, and she said it wasn’t necessary for everyone to order one. We ordered two, and a somewhat incongruous plate of chips, but I wasn’t going to threaten family unity with an insistence on sticking to form. Heck, we even had an order of hot chocolate and a coffee thrown in.

The food came on a pair of three-tiered silver servers: the sandwiches (cucumber, salmon and egg), with a few scones and a few slices of cake. Oh yes, and my new favorite, clotted cream, which is everything cream cheese ought to be. All in all, it wasn’t the feast I’d been expecting, but it was tasty and welcome (especially the salmon). I could see my wife evaluating whether this was £14 worth of food—actually £28, since we had two orders—but I used this time to spear a few chips off my daughter’s plate.

The tea was excellent—a green China tea that made me happy to have a full pot of my own. I kept trying to focus on everything but the service, and largely succeeded. But late in the hour we spent there, I realized that we weren’t in the National Dining Rooms, which made me lose that focus. As I look back over my credit card bill, the £53 bill (with 15% service charge) makes that focus slip away all over again.

I also realized that a full day of sightseeing—particularly if you’re extending it into evening hours, as we were about to do—can really benefit from a time out. On any future trip to London, I’ll be happy to stop for tea in late afternoon, but I’ll probably settle for a simpler cream tea. Thankfully, it does include a scone with clotted cream.

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