It’s an ancient Chinese legend. The very first “cuppa” came about in 2737 B.C., when a leaf from an overhanging tea shrub drifted into a Chinese emperor’s pot. The English began sipping in earnest in the 17th century, and by the 1840s, no British afternoon was complete (in society’s upper echelons, especially) without a steaming pot accompanied by dainty sandwiches, scones with jam, clotted cream and an array of cakes and pastries.
This tea-time tradition endures. In fact, the second week in August is officially Afternoon Tea Week.
Tea has less caffeine than coffee and is loaded with antioxidants. It may even reduce your risk of heart attack and boost your immune system. For your own pleasure or your group’s, plugging into the ritual of afternoon tea will bestow a note of elegance to the day. Here’s a sampling of places where it’s done.
Palm Court at The Drake Hotel, Chicago
Afternoon tea service in this all-white, astonishingly ornate setting has been a Chicago hallmark for nearly a century, featuring 17 selections (including a Palm Court blend of Indian Assam, Chinese Keemun, Ceylon and a toasty Formosa Oolong) with traditional and gluten-free noshes, accompanied by a live harpist on most days. Groups can savor a guided History Tour & Tea, a dramatic narration of Palm Court tea services dating to the 1920s, replete with tales of celebrities and the occasional ghost.
Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans
Why are we not surprised a N’Awlins tea service begins with Cajun milk punch or a glass of sherry? Followed by a properly brewed pot of tea (choose from 26 loose-leaf varieties), perhaps a crustless sandwich of truffled egg or lobster salad, then scones with Devonshire cream. Soothing live music further mellows the mood. Available Friday through Sunday, with special themed services (as in, Princess Tea for girls and Prohibition for wanna-be speakeasy molls) throughout the year.
Park Hyatt Washington, Washington, D.C.
It took five years of negotiation for the rarest of Pu-Erh teas served at this luxury hotel to be hand-carried from China. It goes for $300 per potful. But you can begin exploration of the 37 single-estate teas for only $8 per freshly brewed pot. “It sells out every week,” says Tea Specialist Christian Eck of his Sunday tea service, while extolling the pleasures of savory bites, macaroons and seasonal jams from the hotel’s Michelin-starred kitchen (suspended for summer, resuming in September).
The Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, Florida
In the ornate lobby of this 1920s landmark, you can have your petit fours or English scones with clotted cream, but, hey, this is South Florida. Go wild and be tempted by a turkey tea sandwich with guava, mango and kafir lime aioli. Or try the smoked salmon, pickled cantaloupe, salmon pearls, basil-scented cucumber and anise fronds on rye. Tea is served Wednesday through Sunday, to the lilting melodies of a harpist.
The Kitano, New York City
Each guest room in this very Japanese hotel comes with a traditional tea set, but groups can also enjoy an Eastern cousin to afternoon tea, a Tea Gathering Ceremony. It’s a high cultural experience, set either in a tatami suite with shoji screens or a room equipped for ryurei-style tea rituals. The most recent ceremony was presided over by the next grand tea master of the Mushakouji-Senke School of Tea. A light lunch (tenshin) followed, prepared by the hotel’s Michelin-starred Hakubai restaurant.