The Most Agreeable Hour
Afternoon Tea Remains an Elegant Affair, Even as New Twists Add an Edge to the Edwardian Tradition
Cucumber sandwiches, silver pots filled with exotic blends, decorative porcelain and snowy-white scones topped off with cream and sweet strawberry conserve—the ceremony of taking afternoon tea all seems a little anachronistic in our high-speed, coffee and Wi-Fi culture. Yet, for anyone who has paid a visit to the Palm Court at the Ritz London or the Imperial Hotel in Vienna, they will have witnessed the theater of footmen, chandeliers and silver trays—a little pocket of Edwardian tradition kept alive by a few gentle folk.
Standing on Ceremony
It was Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who can lay claim to the inspiration behind the whole occasion. In 1840, tired of the long wait between breakfast and dinner, she ordered a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake to be served. The habit became custom and within a few decades Edwardian Britain, fueled by entrepreneurs such as Josiah Spode, who invented the bone china that kept the tea hot in fine cups, was sitting down at five o'clock for a ritual that included music, servants and its own etiquette.
Tea had arrived in Europe a few centuries before, when the Portuguese began importing it from China, and eventually became a popular drink. It was introduced to the English court in 1662, when Charles II married Portugal's Princess Catherine of Braganza and received a dowry of a large chest of tea, author Helen Simpson writes in "The Art & Pleasure of Taking Tea" (2006). By the 18th century, tea drinking was commonplace, but the practice of taking afternoon tea remained the preserve of the few. Today, it may feel like a discarded dinosaur from the past century but tea remains a surprisingly popular event at many hotels and venues, where bookings must be made weeks, if not months, in advance. Moreover, a swathe of establishments has introduced a modern twist, with exotic blends, designer crockery and innovative pastries.
In a world full of uncertainty, it seems we still find comfort, sympathy and more than a little pleasure in a warm cup of tea.—Will Lyons in London, Lennox Morrison in Paris and Helen Young-Chang in Vienna.
Traditional London: The Ritz
Head to the Palm Court at the Ritz hotel, where afternoon tea is served by waiters in tailcoats on Louis XVI chairs and marble tables. So popular is tea at the Ritz that it has to be booked weeks in advance. Guests are ushered to their tables under chandeliers and belle époque nymphs, accompanied by the dulcet strains of a pianist. The sense of formality and occasion are enhanced by the dress code: jacket and tie, and strictly no jeans or trainers.
Tea begins with crustless finger sandwiches and a selection of 17 different teas. The highlight, though, is freshly baked scones, served warm with generous pots of Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam. If the third tier of the silver tray, replete with small pastries, isn't enough, fruit cake and Victoria sponge are offered from the trolley. A faultless experience.
The Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly; Afternoon tea is served in five sittings daily in the Palm Court; £42 per person; +44 (0)20 7300 2345; www.theritzlondon.com/tea.
Buzzy London: Sketch
Sketch serves afternoon tea with a twist. No booking is required at this fabulously eclectic set of dining rooms based in a sprawling Regency-inspired building in central London. Guests are led through the dimly lit main hall, decorated with kinetic art installations, down the stairs to the Glade, a psychedelic room tucked behind a pair of spectacular gold curtains. If the revolving mirrors and tangled, bird's-nest-like chandelier aren't distracting enough, tea is served in a traditional-looking cup and saucer made of rubber.
Afternoon tea arrives on a cake stand assembled from various pieces of crockery. Finger sandwiches, a ham roll and two mini rolls with smoked salmon complete the savory course. Two scones and a generous helping of jam and clotted cream served on a large spoon come next, followed by a handful of pastries and cakes. The whole experience is quirky, fun and informal. There is even the option of leaving with a little doggy bag for those who cannot manage to complete the menu.
Sketch, 9 Conduit St., Mayfair; Afternoon tea is served Monday to Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.; £27 per person; +44 (0) 20 7659 4500; www.sketch.uk.com.
London's Hidden Gem: The Berkeley
Fashion is high on the menu at the Berkeley's catwalk-inspired afternoon tea. Served in the intimate Caramel Room, just a short hop from Knightsbridge designer boutiques, the hotel's chefs have devised a menu inspired by the very latest collections. Guests are treated to a silver cake stand containing a collection of small, intricate cakes created in the style of Stella McCartney (polka-dot sponge-cake dress), Valentino (orange and ginger clutch cake, with chocolate bow) and Miu Miu (a spicy biscuit shaped as a high heel). Such is the level of detail that they are almost too pretty to eat.
Tea is served in colorful Paul Smith china. Below the cakes and sweets, savory canapés are arranged on shell-shaped saucers, while traditional tea sandwiches arrive on a small platter. Like something bought from the catwalk, the bill can feel a little steep.
The Caramel Room at the Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge; Prêt-à-Portea is served between 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily; from £37.50 per person; +44 (0) 20 7107 8866; www.the-berkeley.co.uk.
Traditional Paris: Mariage Frères
Founded in 1854, luxury-tea importer Mariage Frères offers more than 600 teas and, at its salons de thé, there are sommeliers in white linen jackets to advise on variety, harvest and blend. Our favorite branch is on a quiet street on the Left Bank; a 17th-century residence with a tiny tea museum and a ground-floor shop selling the full range of Mariage Frères teas.
Afternoon tea is taken in high-ceilinged upstairs rooms decorated in French Colonial style. Served in porcelain cups, the teas are made with purified water and brewed for a precise number of minutes and seconds.
Arrayed on a Colonial cake trolley is a display of macarons, muffins, scones and cakes, made by their own pastry chefs and most of them delicately flavored with tea. For example, the 24-carat Carré d'or—a sumptuous gâteau wrapped in gold leaf—is a dark-chocolate mousse with a hint of Black Magic tea.
Mariage Frères Rive Gauche, 13 Rue des Grands-Augustins, 6th arrondissement; 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily; from €18 per person; +33 (0)1 4051 8250; www.mariagefreres.com.
Buzzy Paris: Shangri-La's La Bauhinia
In Paris, the very British rite of afternoon tea benefits from the savoir-faire of French pastry chefs and from a history of importing the finest teas from the Far East. The accent isn't so much on English coziness, as Gallic elegance. One of the chicest new addresses is close to the Trocadéro, at the former residence of Napoleon Bonaparte's grandnephew Prince Roland, transformed recently into the Shangri-La Hotel.
Within this 19th-century mansion, afternoon tea is served in La Bauhinia, a restaurant and salon de thé, which, with its Eiffel-inspired glass cupola and willow-green walls, has the air of a winter garden. Pastry chef François Perret offers traditional treats such as scones and finger sandwiches, as well as seasonal collections of cupcakes, which for the winter include caramel and black sesame, and chocolate and yuzu. The range of teas is from Betjeman & Barton.
La Bauhinia at the Shangri-La Hotel, 10 Avenue d'Iéna, 16th arrondissement; 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily; from €35 per person; +33 (0)1 5367 1991; www.shangri-la.com.
Paris's Hidden Gem: Jacquemart-André
A few minutes' walk from the Champs-Élyseés, the Jacquemart-André Museum is housed within a splendid classically inspired mansion that, upon its completion in 1875, drew much public admiration. Today, the museum café has been installed in the former dining room—a beautiful wood-paneled salon, where a stunning Tiepolo ceiling immediately draws the eye. The walls are lined with 17th-century tapestries from Brussels, depicting the legend of Achilles. Locals have cottoned on to the fact that the café is open to the public, whether or not they pay to visit the museum.
The cakes and pastries come from Michel Fenet's La Petite Marquise and from Pâtisserie Stohrer, the oldest pastry shop in Paris, established in 1730. The teas are by Benjamin.
Afterward, tour the rest of the mansion to see how the haute bourgeoisie lived and to view the rich collection of artworks, including those by Mantegna, Bellini and Botticelli.
Jacquemart-André Museum, 158 Blvd. Haussmann, 8th arrondissement; 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; from €9 per person; +33 (0)1 4562 1159; www.musee-jacquemart-andre.com.
Traditional Vienna: Haas & Haas
Vienna has thousands of kaffeehäuser churning out whipped-cream traditions, but only a handful of places dedicated to tea. Luckily, this didn't stop Eva Haas from opening Haas & Haas 30 years ago. It's now an institution, yet Ms. Haas says she has a ways to go: Many of her compatriots still associate tea with the upper class, intelligentsia or, even worse, grandma's thick, medicinal brew against the cold.
Ms. Haas still mans the counters at her shop, the vaulted former horse stalls of the knights of the Teutonic Order, who settled here in 1204. And she'll gently tutor guests in the adjoining tea garden on how to properly drink an Ostfriesen tea: first crackle the sugar, then drizzle cream over the back of a spoon to create wulkje, or cloudlike, profusions like those at the North Sea, and finally drink, don't mix. Guests can choose from three other lavish (and lavishly accompanied) tea services at 3 p.m. daily, including British, Russian or a Moroccan thé à la menthe.
The teahouse stands in the shadow of the Stephansdom cathedral, meters away from the hordes. But that's easily forgotten in the garden, with its vine trellises, genteel white rattan and a century-old canopy, hanging from a cast-iron frame. Here, one may drink in perfect quiet.
Haas & Haas, Stephansplatz 4; from €14 per person; +43 (0) 1512 2666; www.haas-haas.at.
Buzzy Vienna: Süssi
Here, Parisian tea salon meets turn-of-the-century Viennese drawing room in a campy explosion of maroons and golds, vaguely royal insignia and china and lace. Best of all are the sober-faced portraits of Empress Sissi (whose name the café's plays on), Marie Louise, her alleged lady-in-waiting (and the distant aunt of one of the owners) and, finally, Süssi herself, the owner's long-haired Dachshund. The only moment of visual respite in the shop comes from a shrine-like display case of black-tinned Mariage Frères teas. Meanwhile, the window and vitrines pop with a combination of home- and ready-mades: tortes and dessert cups decked with berries and fruits, squares of chocolate bars and M&Ms. Most popular is the Espagnole, a hazelnut chocolate crème with a chocolate-chip cookie on top for good effect.
Süssi, Operngasse 30; served daily; from €5 per person; +43 (0) 1 943 1324; www.suessi.at .
Vienna's Hidden Gem: Imperial Hotel
When Queen Elizabeth II visited here in 1969, the hotel staff was aghast. Her Royal Highness was sure to want tea, but how were they to serve it? Thus the Imperial Tea was born: a blend of Darjeelings with Sencha, Bergamot and rose petals, steeped in Alpine spring water.
This being Vienna, however, the real draw of teatime is cake. Originally crafted for Emperor Franz Josef, the Imperial Torte, with layers of chocolate crème between almond parchment and topcoats of marzipan and chocolate, easily beats its more famous cousin, the Sachertorte.
The café interior of marble and damask surfaces is lit by chandeliers and mirrors. It's surprisingly intimate, with its long series of small rooms offering privacy to royals and commoners alike.
Imperial Hotel, Kärntner Ring 16; served daily; from €5 per person; +43 (0)150 1100; www.hotelimperialwien.at.