Afternoon tea, an enduring English institution, is not a place where one often thinks of food as fashion design.  Started in the mid-19th century as a tide-me-over meal to satisfy the hunger pangs of famished ladies between the lunch and dinner hours, afternoon tea evolved into established ceremony well into the 20th century. Now it is more novelty for the tourist classes rather than ritual for social-set habitues.

For a typical afternoon tea look for finger sandwiches, petit fours and scones placed on tiered plates along with, of course, a selection of teas. Varying from budget bagged tea and boxed baked goods to luxury loose leaf tea and fine patisserie, a bad afternoon tea is any permutation of the former and a great afternoon tea is the rare combination of the latter.   At a hefty price – upwards of of £30 – choose wisely as an afternoon tea can be a very expensive midday snack.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you get with an afternoon tea, the question is where to find an exceptional one when in London town. Look to the hotels that remain tradition bound (The Ritz and The Lanesborough), the classic specialty food purveyor (Fortum & Mason) and, the exceptional patisserie (French at La Duree and Japanese-edged at Yauatcha). For a restaurant with tea service that shines, head to the Wolseley for the rare combination of formality, stellar fare and au courant style.

Moving away from tradition, some afternoon teas take you on a bit of a fashion ride.  At the Berkeley Hotel celebrity fashionistas have lent their names and designs to the petit fours. Here style may play prominently but it does so without effect to the quality of the fare –  while oddly quirky, these are truly tasty treats.

Head in another direction and you encounter the fashion-tea-victim.  With Lulu Guinness showcasing her Summer/Spring 2010 designs at the Metropolitan Hotel’s Met Bar, the afternoon tea goes bold. In fact, too bold for the too-old-to-be-tweenile crowd.  Clutch bags, red lips and lipsticks cookies share plate space with low-fat cupcakes. This is fashion-to-run-from lest you want to play into the the tasteless world of the calorie conscious and cupcake consumed.

And, about those calories Lulu: forget fashion-laden and diet-minded edible designs. I’ll take my rich dowdy scone with a big dollop of clotted cream over slick couture anytime.

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