It has all the hallmarks of high society: opulent surroundings, exotic beverages, dainty delicacies, a rarefied crowd… but afternoon tea actually has a much more down-to-earth derivation.
We owe this institution of imbibing to the iconoclastic seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, who used to find herself lagging mid-afternoon between what was no doubt a gourmet lunch, and flurry of evening social engagements. To curb her cravings, she decided to invite some of her lady friends over for tea and snacks… and gossip (of course), and thus was born that most British of customs: afternoon tea.
Here are a few of the most decadent establishments around the world carrying on this grand tradition in the most delightful of ways.
1. At.Mosphere, Dubai
Where better to start our round-the-world look at high tea than at the highest tea in the world? Literally. At.Mosphere is located 1,450 feet up in the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa. There, on the 122nd floor, guests can select either lounge or window seats (splurge on the window ones) and settle in for an hours-long experience sipping tea and leisurely making their way through a coursed parade of house-made specialty finger sandwiches, sugary confections, English scones, and even an array of Arabic sweets. The restaurant serves white and black teas created specially for its afternoon service, as well as a selection of classic blends like Assam, Royal Darjeeling, Earl Grey, green tea, and more. Stick around for a while to indulge in à la carte plates like terrine of foie gras, cured Bømlo Fjord salmon, and Ossetra caviar; as well as signature cocktails like the 21 Karats made with Veuve Clicquot, crème de cassis, and gold leaves.
2. Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong
One of the world’s most famous high teas takes place at the Hong Kong hotspot Peninsula Hotel that’s been serving up steaming cups since 1928. Guests can filter in through the main doors to the imposing colonial-style lobby (try not to gawk at the gilt crown molding and the grand staircase), complete with potted palms and white-jacketed waiters. A veritable symphony of service whisks teas and pasties to and from your table, all accompanied by the strains from a live orchestra. Along with your selection of teas sourced from all over China and the known world come plates piled high with fresh selections of finger sandwiches, petits-fours and those famous freshly baked raisin scones… with healthy dollops of Devonshire clotted cream and organic strawberry preserves to slather on them. You’ll be here for a while, so why not add a glass of champagne to the mix?
3. Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles
Swans languidly paddling through ponds, verdant garden paths, airy outdoor pavilions… what more could you ask for from an afternoon tea setting? Cozy up in one of the semi-circular booths on the alfresco patio at Hotel Bel-Air and prepare for palate-pleasing plates like Maryland blue crab rolls, house-cured smoked salmon with dill cream on brioche, sour cherry and buttermilk-almond scones with Devonshire cream, and an “assiette of sweets” like pistachio financiers and huckleberry cheesecake. To drink along with them, there’s a selection of famous champagnes — oh, and yeah, the tea! Among the dozens of varieties to choose from, there are exotic hits like hand-picked Nile delta chamomile, green Sencha, Sicilian bergamot-oil Assam and chrysanthemum blossom. But if you do bring the tots along, there’s even a special “Little Royals” menu for the kids.
4. Langham Hotel, Sydney
Australia’s most extravagant yet elegant tea takes place in the Langham Sydney's Palm Court. The hotel was recently rebranded, renovated to the tune of $30 million, and reopened as a Langham in 2015. Its Palm Court is named after the tea salon in the original Langham in London, the veritable birthplace of afternoon tea as a public social gathering. The tea at this Sydney outpost seems rather civilized as well, thanks to homemade pastries and tea cakes like black sesame-raspberry macarons, lavender cake, crab-avocado “ice cream,” butternut squash tartlets, and a selection of teas that includes a floral orange-blossom oolong. And it’s all served with specially created Wedgwood tea service and china. Well, except for the optional glass of Laurent-Perrier champagne, that is.
5. Claridge’s Hotel, London
They’ve been serving afternoon tea at Claridge’s for nigh on 150 years now. So… yeah, they kind of know what they’re doing. The experience includes a mix of finger sandwiches, warm scones with Cornish clotted cream and Marco Polo jelly, sumptuous pastries, and loose-leaf teas curated by the hotel’s on-staff tea connoisseur. All are served on jade-and-white-striped signature china in the 1930’s Art Deco atrium. The elements converge in a sort of aristocratic alchemy that will have you aphorizing like Oscar Wilde while fueling up for an Oxford Street shopping spree.
6. The Russian Tea Room, New York
The Russian Tea Room has all the sophistication and grace you’d expect of an establishment that was founded by former members of the Russian Imperial Ballet. There are the usual inclusions like finger sandwiches with curried chicken, raisins, and pecans, and turkey-truffle croquet monsieur, but the Royal Afternoon Tea version also comes with blinis heaped with Siberian Ossetra, Russian Ossetra, hackleback, and paddlefish caviars that will impart just the right hint of the high life to your afternoon idyll. As for teas, you have your choice of Darjeeling, Formosa oolong, mint verbena, and South African roiboos chai, among others. Go all out and add a glass of Perrier-Jouët or Moët & Chandon rosé to cap it all off.
7. Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The landmark 1864 Galle Face Hotel is one of the oldest east of the Suez Canal. It recently underwent a facelift, as many a grande dame is wont to do, and is looking fresh and vivacious in her pride of place on the waterfront in Colombo. Even better, guests can now enjoy one of the former Empire’s best afternoon teas on a gorgeous colonnaded colonial verandah with picture-perfect views of the Indian Ocean (and even a sunset flag-lowering ceremony complete with bagpiper). Wade your way through a pages-long tea list featuring some of Sri Lanka’s best leaves (there’s a reason Ceylon tea is so famous), and then sit back as a tower of tasty treats arrives at the table. You’ll find finger sandwiches, vegetable hand rolls, English scones with clotted cream and mango jam, and classic tea cakes like Battemburg, almond and a layered chocolate-espresso financier. Don’t wolf it down too fast, though, because every few moments, the staff will arrive with even more finger foods from the hot buffet, including samosas and spring rolls. And before you ask — no, you won’t need dinner after.
8. Temple House, Chengdu
Of course some of the most venerable teas and tea traditions originate in China. So it should be no surprise that one of the world’s most interesting tea services takes place at Swire Hotels’ (Upper House, Opposite House) design-driven Chengdu property, Temple House. Though the hotel itself is new, it occupies the site of a 1,000-year-old former temple complex. Tea is served in the hotel’s Teahouse restaurant, adjacent to the spa. The plant-based menu here is inspired by traditional Chinese medicine and apothecary treatments, with an emphasis on the healing power of plants. Guests can select a tea from the dozens of entries on the menu, including Bi Tan Snow, which is a blend of jasmine and green teas, and the pale, crisp Bi Chi Orchid Green Tea, which incorporates flower petals with green tea leaves for a fresh, aromatic drink. Depending on which tea you select, you will be served in a specially chosen tea seat (there are five possibilities in all). The staff will then undertake a traditional Lu Tong Seven Bowls of Tea ritual that brings you through the stages of quenching your thirst to more thoughtful steps like soothing melancholy, purifying the body and bringing the soul into communion with the universe. Oh, and there are also delicious little tea cakes available in typical Sichuan flavors like purple sweet potato, mulberry leaf, and green bean.
9. Alvear Palace Hotel, Buenos Aires
They may speak Spanish in Buenos Aires, but it was the British who had the most impact on high culture in this South American metropolis. And it shows in the grand tea service at the landmark Alvear Palace Hotel. Tea is served in the L’Orangerie restaurant. Though the interior setting is all marble and chandeliers, the indoor garden has more ambiance, with leafy plants here and there, tons of natural lighting, and just the right amount of snobbishness. Guests can select from dozens of limited-edition teas or just settle on the house specialty, Alvear Blend, which includes toasty black tea leaves, citrus notes, rose petals, and even almond. All to accompany three-tiered plates piled with house-made cakes like maracuya-fruit pound cake, scones with cream and lemon curd, fruit tarts, pastries like a dulce de leche napoleon, and savory finger sandwiches like one with smoked salmon, and that classic, cucumber and cream cheese.
10. Mt. Nelson Hotel, Cape Town
This refined redoubt in South Africa’s cultural capital has all the trappings of colonial grandeur without the fraught pretension. Tea service takes place in the lobby lounge and on the garden terrace at Mt. Nelson Hotel. Guests are served their choice of loose-leaf teas or offered the hotel’s signature blend of Darjeeling, Kenya, Assam, Keemu, Yunnan, Ceylon, and rose-petal tea made from blossoms in the hotel’s own garden. Sort of like an herbal cross-section of the former British Empire. To munch on, there are myriad finger sandwiches with smoked salmon, cucumber and cream or rare roast beef, a specialty South African meltert, or creamy, custardy milk tart, as well as scones with clotted cream and house-made preserves, not to mention a buffet sporting a profusion of little tarts, cakes, and fresh-cut fruit.
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