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Trendy, Tasty Tea

Trendy, Tasty Tea

A soothing cup of tea at the city’s top emporiums and tea houses.

Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, inside the Inn at Irving Place. Photographs by Kathy YL Chan.
Bellocq Tea Atelier in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The Palm Court in The Plaza Hotel. “The Classic” afternoon tea for two.
Alice’s Tea Cup has three locations in New York. Bring the kids.
A Taro Latte at Radiance Tea House and Books. Photographs by Kathy YL Chan.

The heart loves a good cup of tea. Whether you’re enjoying the company of friends or seeking comfort after a hard day in the office, hot tea, fragrant and subtle, complements life’s heartfelt moments.

That’s always been so, but these days tea is trendy, too. According to a recent New York Times report, some of Paris’s trendiest spots such as Colette and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon are now serving a variety of fine Japanese green teas. And tea emporiums in New York are stocking hundreds of unusual flavors, from Radiance Tea House & Books’ herbal “Beauty Queen” (rose hips, hibiscus, apple, pineapple, hawberry) to Harney & Sons “Cranberry Autumn” (black tea, dried cranberry, and orange bits). Brooklyn-based Bellocq Tea Atelier offers handcrafted blends such as “The White Duke” (organic Chinese white tea buds, bergamot essence, blue cornflowers) and “Etoile de L’Inde” (passionfruit, rose, green tea and marigold). Even Zabar’s, which for more than 35 years has been known for its fresh coffee beans, introduced a new collection of loose leaf teas.

After you’ve settled on a couple (or a couple dozen) favorites, set aside a special hour in the afternoon for enjoying them. Maybe have a nice proper cup of tea on Sunday before settling in to check on the latest episode of Ray Donovan. Invite some friends to join you—for tea and sympathy, laughter and bonding. Here’s a teatime primer to get you started.

Whom Should We Thank

The credit for afternoon tea usually goes to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. The upper crust dined late in those days, around 8:30 pm, and bridging the gap from a light lunch to dinner was a challenge. Anna complained of a “sinking feeling” every afternoon. One day she instructed her servants to slip her some tea, bread and butter sandwiches, and small cakes in the privacy of her boudoir. Soon other ladies were joining her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and gradually it became fashionable and proper to take tea in the afternoon. Over time, the public got in on a good thing, and Anna’s sly snack became a venerable tradition.

A Teatime Typology

Afternoon tea is traditionally served at about four pm and consists of whatever the hostess fancies. It is sometimes called “low tea” because the British upper crust often took it in a sitting room at a low table (like a coffee table) rather than a formal dining (“high”) table. The usual goodies include finger sandwiches, scones, cookies, and other dessert items. For a romantic, five-course afternoon tea, head to Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon at the Inn at Irving Place. Or try the four styles of afternoon tea at the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel.

In recent years, the term high tea has been used outside of Great Britain to refer to an elegant afternoon tea. Actually, however, high tea (also known as “meat tea”) often substitutes for dinner. Historically, working class people would come home from working in the factories and would be hungry for a hearty meal such as steak and kidney pie, fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and desserts, with tea as the beverage. Today, high tea is a perfect treat for early evening when your friends are trekking home from work, famished and bushed. Revive them with a couple of hot dishes, and some cold items such as sandwiches and desserts. Not interested in cooking? Head to the Greenwich Village tearoom, Tea & Sympathy, for British dishes such as shepherd’s pie or bangers and mash, along with a steaming cup of tea.

Full tea is great for special occasions, like celebrating a new home or new job for someone in your circle. It is often, though not always, served on a three-tiered tray. The bottom holds savories like finger sandwiches, quiches or cheese and crackers, and the top two tiers hold two types of sweets (like scones or petit fours). To make it a “royal” tea, include a glass of champagne, sherry, or other spirit. For a truly elegant and pricey tea experience, head to the St. Regis Hotel, The Russian Tea Room or the Hotel Plaza Athénée, now in partnershp with Le Palais Des Thes, where you can choose from nine different varieties of teas. 

When you or your buddies could use some comfort food, throw a cream tea. Featuring scones, jam, and Devonshire clotted cream (available in specialty groceries), cream tea is not about caloric restriction. It is about scrumptious tastes and textures that soothe the soul, and bonding with friends who, for the afternoon at least, have all fallen off the same wagon of dietary virtue. Want to bring the kids? Head to Alice’s Tea Cup for fabulous scones, whimsical design, and any of its 140 teas.

Atone for cream tea with a light tea the next day. It’s afternoon tea with just a scone, along with some sweets such as cookies. If you’re feeling truly guilty, skip the sweet. But don’t skip the occasion! Think of teatime as a mandatory luxury, a tonic for the spirit.

Slideshow photographs by Kathy YL Chan.

Rona Cherry has written about health and wellness for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Vegetarian Times, and many other publications. She was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity. She is currently an editorial and PR consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.