Pausing for a relaxing afternoon tea service in an elegant setting can be a delightful indulgence, whether you’re in your hometown or visiting another city. The Duchess of Bedford started the tradition in the mid-1800s when she began inviting friends to share tea and a snack in-between the two meals a day customarily eaten by the aristocracy. Now people enjoy the ritual to celebrate memorable birthdays or anniversaries, or for no special reason at all.
Most afternoon teas include an elegant three-tiered plate with finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and sweet pastries—to be eaten in that order—along with an assortment of teas and other beverages. The cost for this luxury isn’t cheap. Be sure to ask about the cost of any extras (e.g. alcoholic drinks, taxes, and gratuities, etc.) before you go.
The six venues below provide a unique twist on the tradition, but there are specialty teahouses and hotels everywhere that feature their own afternoon teas:
Not just for grownups
The Palm Court in the Plaza Hotel (New York)
Fifth Avenue at Central Park South
Hours: Daily from 2-5PM
Cost: $48-78 per person; $28 for children under 12
Afternoon tea at the legendary Plaza Hotel is served in the elegant Palm Court (originally called The Tea Room.) The space, recently renovated at a cost of $6.5 million, has marble columns, mirrored Palladian doors, and a lighted ceiling with 25,000 pieces of stained glass restored to look as it did when the hotel opened in 1907. There are four tea menus: The Classic, The New Yorker (infused with a taste of the city, including black and white cookies, organic roast beef on a pretzel roll, and New York cheesecake), Chocolate Tea, and the child-friendly Eloise Tea. The hotel was the setting for Kay Thompson’s character, 6-year-old Eloise, who was said to live on the top floor of the hotel. The tea is a perfect outing for little girls and their moms. Located across the street from Central Park and the flagship Apple Store, iPads are available for the use of all dining guests.
An iconic twist
Tres by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel (Beverly Hills)
465 South La Cienega Boulevard at San Vicente
Hours: Daily from 3-5PM
Cost: $32-36 per person
Afternoon tea at Tres is served in a room that offers a mix of cozy nooks, comfy couches, and fireplaces—as well as a high marble counter for communal seating under crystal chandeliers. The space is located off the guest lobby of the luxurious SLS Hotel, whose contemporary interior was designed by Philippe Starck. The tea service showcases the gastronomic whimsy and magic of celebrated Spanish chef and James Beard award-winner, José Andrés. The playful menu is a departure from the classic: It is divided into the categories of savory and sweet, with surprises such as beet macaroons with goat cheese, guacamole cones, chocolate pop rocks, and hazelnut volcano cookies.
The royal treatment
The Lobby at The Peninsula (Chicago)
108 East Superior Street
Hours: Monday-Friday, 3-5PM, Saturday seatings at 2:30PM and 4:30PM; Sunday 4-6PM
Cost: $40 per person for traditional, $18 for children and $25 with a Peninsula teddy bear; $110 per person for the Royal Tea (requires 48-hours advance registration)
Tea is served in the fifth floor Lobby of The Peninsula, with its 20-foot floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue. When the hotel opened in 2001, the afternoon tea made famous at the flagship Peninsula Hong Kong was exported to Chicago. To celebrate its tenth anniversary, the hotel is offering a Royal Tea, which includes champagne, caviar with blinis, lobster soufflé, seasonal macarons, and ten chocolate truffles to take home. There are special menus for children as well as vegan, gluten-free, and a la carte options.
An authentic original
The Grand Atrium at The Brown Palace Hotel (Denver)
Hours: Daily from Noon-4PM
Cost: $30-38 per person
The historic triangular-shaped Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver has served afternoon tea in the Grand Atrium since 1892. This was the first hotel with an atrium design; the stained glass skylight is above the eighth floor. The impeccable service is accompanied by the soothing sounds of a harpist or pianist. Royal Doulton bone china graces each tea table, along with engraved silver teapots. The Devonshire cream for the scones is imported from England and the tea is made with pure artesian water drawn from the hotel’s own well located 750 feet below the foundation. Honey comes from a rooftop bee colony.
The Long Gallery at The St. Regis (Atlanta)
88 West Paces Ferry Road
Hours: Daily from 2:30-4:30PM
Cost: $48 per person, $102 per person with a souvenir Ferragamo leather credit card case
Located in the suburban Buckhead area of Atlanta, the balcony-level Long Gallery of The St. Regis, serves afternoon tea overlooking the lobby. The mahogany furniture and plush upholstered pieces are reminiscent of a private living room. Themes vary monthly: For Fashion Month in September, the hotel has partnered with the Italian designer Ferragamo for a tea called Stiletto and Scones. White-gloved waiters in tuxedos will serve a fashion-themed tea menu. The October event will be an In the Pink Tea honoring breast cancer awareness.
Be like a Brit
BOND Restaurant/Lounge at The Langham (Boston)
250 Franklin Street
Hours: Daily from 3-5PM
Cost: $30 per person
The historic Langham London has served afternoon tea for more than 140 years. The Langham Boston is housed in a former Federal Reserve Bank building designated as a national architectural landmark. Tea is served in its BOND restaurant, once the bank lobby, which has limestone walls and still displays the Federal Reserve seal. The service has a contemporary flair, serving Tea Forte and individual courses rather than the customary 3-tier plate. In a nod to Beantown, the menu includes asparagus tart with Maine lobster salad and Boston cream pie.
[Previously published in the Chicago Tribune – September 20, 2011]