On a freezing cold late November afternoon, a luxury afternoon tea in a historical setting was the perfect respite from Christmas shopping on the busy streets of London's West End. 

'Have you been here before?' I was asked, as my friend and I checked in to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, for a Christmas-themed afternoon tea. 

'I have,' I replied. 'In 1984, to see 42nd Street.'

What I didn’t add was how that show, watched almost 40 years ago, ignited my love for the theatre.  And that somewhere between then and now, I’d also developed quite a passion for afternoon teas, too, so to say I was excited at combining the two, is something of an understatement.

The Theatre Royal is the West End’s oldest, (there has been a theatre on the site since 1663) and arguably most iconic theatre, and the pleasure of afternoon tea there isn't just about the food - more of which later.  It’s about the fact you are stepping into history, and also seeing the theatre as you probably never have done before; quiet and still and without throngs of people milling around. 

And because of that, you suddenly have a breathtaking moment when you are hit by its opulence and all details that you would perhaps miss when attending a performance; the beautiful marble pillars, the sweeping staircases, the stunning chandeliers, the tantalising glimpses of deserted red carpeted corridors.  It’s almost like you are somewhere you shouldn’t be, having an illicit, behind the scenes peek.

Great British Life: The menuThe menu (Image: Kelly Rose Bradford)

Afternoon tea is served upstairs in the Grand Saloon, which we were escorted to by a charming member of staff, who then handed us over to yet another charming member of staff. Everyone at the theatre seems full of joy and so pleased to be there, which makes for a genuinely welcoming reception for guests. 

The Grand Saloon is extremely grand indeed, but also comfortable and relaxing, and with none of the stuffiness you can sometimes find when taking tea in a hotel, where you can end up feeling more awkward than enjoying the moment. 

The salmon pink walls, green marble pillars, and row of twinkling chandeliers overhead make the room palatial in the extreme, but the vibe is most definitely warm and relaxing. 

The tables were immaculately set with the theatre’s character-themed tea-sets and laid out for a traditional afternoon tea.

We were visiting to experience the Christmas-themed afternoon tea, and despite our myriad dietary requirements, (one uber-strict vegetarian, one gluten-free pescatarian) we could not have been happier with the selection of food that was put in front of us, and the fine selection of teas on offer. 

Great British Life: Tea for twoTea for two (Image: Kelly Rose Bradford)

Unlike some afternoon tea menus, the Theatre Royal’s does not contain sandwiches, but instead, a selection of warm and cold bite-sized savouries as a first course.  My vegetarian tea consisted of a pie with butternut squash, a crumpet with vegetarian salmon (made from soya), and a savoury madeleine topped with feta.  All were delicious, and of just the right quantity. And to be honest, who wants sandwiches in the middle of winter, when you can have a mini pie stuffed with a seasonal vegetable?

My scone was airy and delicious, and despite not being a jam or a cream person, I piled on both and relished every mouthful.

Then came the cakes. Oh my.

The almost-too-pretty-to-eat treats are the work of celebrity baker Lily Vanilli, and are wonderfully presented with quirky adornments. My richly butter-creamed vanilla and passionfruit sponge was topped with a gilded chocolate wreath, and giant piece of sticky toffee popcorn sat atop a decadent mini chocolate pudding, while my salted caramel ice cream slice was the perfect palate-cleansing finale. 

Washed down with unlimited tea (from a vast menu which included Darjeeling, Earl Grey, and jasmine to name but a few) and a glass each of Taittinger, the whole experience was a complete and utter pleasure from the first sip to the last mouthful.

But our visit didn’t end with those final crumbs of cake and a final swig from our champagne flutes… One of the theatre’s management team stopped to speak to us, and when I relayed my tale of first having visited the theatre some 40 years previously, told us of all the recent renovations and changes to the building; it underwent a £60 million renovation project in 2019, which has not only upgraded it entirely, enhancing the experience of theatre-goers, and opening up areas of the building for other uses, but also restoring many of its original features to their 1812 Regency glory.

This conversation led to us being given an impromptu tour of some of the private hire facilities in the building; a suite of rooms with a terrace overlooking Covent Garden, perfect for intimate parties and special occasions, with plush velvet seating, stunning original artwork, and yet more glittering chandeliers, as well as the Grand Saloon’s terrace - perfect for al fresco dining in the summer months.   

'You should do tours,' said my friend, as we finished our ‘behind the scenes’ walk through.  And apparently they do, several times a week on days when there are not matinee performances.  

We couldn’t rate our afternoon at the Theatre Royal highly enough. Sure, afternoon tea venues are ten a penny in central London, but to be in a theatre - and one of such historical importance - at a time you usually wouldn't, and to experience it in a kind of ‘after hours’ way - so quiet, so calm, yet still so very, very exciting and theatrical - really is something very special indeed.  

The tea isn't cheap at £59 per person, but that’s a typical afternoon tea price in the capital, and as a treat for someone who loves the theatre, or who is captivated by London's historic buildings, it is worth every penny.