How better to honour Oscar Wilde, playwright, poet, novelist and total lush, than to savour tea named after him in a gilded room just around the corner from Piccadilly circus in the heart of London’s West End. In his old haunt you’ll find some of the fanciest tea snacks and opulent walls in the city known for its love of afternoon tea.
Who was Oscar Wilde?
One of the most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He was known for his wit and flamboyance as well as his tragic imprisonment for being gay. He wrote ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. After prison his life went downhill and he died destitute in Paris at the age of 46 (c’est la vie boheme).
Wilde was known for his indulgent lifestyle and loved writing dandies like the idle bachelor in The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon Moncrieff, who can’t help but wolf down cucumber sandwiches and muffins at every opportunity.
Speaking of cucumber sandwiches — like all good British boys, Wilde enjoyed a spot of tea.
Tea and the Oscar Wilde Bar
The Oscar Wilde Bar at the Café Royal is a spot whispered through history, where Oscar Wilde used to take his dinner and (allegedly) fell in love with Lord Alfred Douglas. It’s also where David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust, and Mick Jagger, the Beatles and Elizabeth Taylor have all hung out. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even used it as a backdrop for an attack on Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.’ Nowadays, they serve a mean afternoon tea.
I first caught sight of this place on Flora The Explorer’s Snapchat a few weeks before I went to London. I’m lucky enough to have friends who don’t mind indulging my tea craziness, so I messaged and met up with Andrea. She’s super smart, kind and studying in London. I’ve known her since we were both flute teenagers at band camp. Never knock band camp.
Being from Canada, the age of these institutions in London always takes my breath away. For scale, Canada is 150 years old, born in 1867. The Oscar Wilde Bar dates back to 1865, so it’s actually two years older than Canada. It’s also a Grade II listed building, which is a British way of saying, ‘buildings that are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.’
Tea in Britain
The story of afternoon tea in Britain is long, but let me try to condense it for you:
Britain was one of the last European countries to get on board with tea, despite its popularity and cultural significance there today. Tea was a drink loved by both the poor and wealthy and so became a class-bridging cultural activity for the English.
Afternoon tea became popular in the 1860s. The ritual started when Anna Maria, the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, started eating snacks with her tea to bridge the gap from lunch to supper (a girl after my own heart).
Anna Maria started inviting friends over to join her and afternoon tea caught on from there. Traditionally, British tea is black tea, often a blend, from India, China or Kenya.
When you walk into the Oscar Wilde Bar, you’re engulfed in a warm amber glow, thanks to the golden walls. After shaking off the feeling that I’d just walked into Ziggy Stardust’s palace, our waiter came over and showed us to our seats.
I’m always awkward about service culture. For example, when a waiter pulls out my chair:
Me: “Oh, it’s okay, I can do that.”
Them: “It’s my job, just let me do it.”
Me: “Oh, okay.”
We had a great waiter. He read the menu like he was telling a story.
The menu of sandwiches and sweets is pre-determined, so we only had to decide with or without champagne (with) and what kind of tea we’d like.
I tried a house blend called ‘Oscar.’ It was a lapsang souchong, Chinese black tea smoked over pine needles, that evoked library studies and pipe smoke. I had a bit of a laugh as the menu refers to it as ‘a masculine tea’ which I hear so often with lapsang souchong. Like it’s supposed to be tea for the manliest, cigar-smoking man, but ultimately, it’s still just leaves in water (and enjoyed by a lot of women too).
Once we made our decisions, our server briefly disappeared into the kitchens and then reappeared with a three-tiered silver platter full of delicious surprises.
He then explained it all to us in pornographic detail — the delicate Atlantic prawn buns, the syringe full of tomato juice to squeeze into a small brown muffin moments before eating, with a swirl of fresh cream cheese on top. The Scottish smoked salmon stacked with horseradish, the small fingers of thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches, the swirls of pastry filled with minced meat, and of course the traditional scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
Then with a coy smile he said, “And now you have to eat everything and enjoy.” For reference, this is the sexiest thing anyone can say after setting down a platter of treats.
Part of the sell of a place like this is the attention — the server pays care to your every move, the piano player in the corner, the copywriting on the menu that makes every tea description dance before your eyes. It’s all designed to make you feel like you’re a lord or lady, and you pay in kind.
After the savoury course came the homemade hibiscus iced tea, then the sweets, including macarons, three different kinds of cakes, some kind of cake pop and basically at this point I’m done — totally stuffed and on a sugar high, basically a kid at Christmas.
Speaking of the menu, the physical menu itself was impressive — offering a brief history of tea, a glossary of tea serving terms and the helpful suggestion about how to drink your tea. After all, unless you’re a tea nerd like me, how would you know that Darjeeling might be best enjoyed without milk?
A Less Expensive Option
At the Oscar Wilde Bar, afternoon tea with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut champagne cost £55. It is on the $$$ end of afternoon teas. Here’s their menu and prices.
Just next door to the Oscar Wilde Bar is The Café at Hotel Café Royal. It’s a café that delivers a similar experience (without the fancy room) at a friendlier price. Here’s their menu and prices. You can also just go there and grab a coffee and cakes and enjoy the atmosphere.
I love finding tea spots that have a historic connection or cultural significance. Have you ever had tea somewhere historic? Where was it? How was it?