“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
- C.S. Lewis
Move over, Kate Middleton. We can’t all marry a prince, but we can all enjoy the oh-so British tradition of afternoon tea. The gilded teapots, white glove service, mini-sandwiches, and clotted cream are all a reminder of a bygone era. But tea services have not gone the way of so many cultural and culinary staples from back in the day. Instead, they’ve modernized by adapting to a changing society — from gluten-free menus to Japanese-British fusions and the option for full meals, rather than just finger foods.
These six “alternatives” honor the tradition of afternoon tea while updating themselves to fit their guests’ needs. From coast to coast and, of course, in London, these afternoon teas forge a new standard in a time-tested ritual, making them just right for travelers seeking out the cream of the crop.
Speaking of royalty, the Peninsula’s much-loved (and well documented) afternoon tea currently has a special promotion (good through the end of the year) to commemorate the big wedding. It’s called Royal-Tea, and in addition to all the usual details, such as three tiers of scones and tea cakes, smoked salmon and egg salad mini-sandwiches, a string duo, and orchids on each table, Royal-Tea includes caviar with blinis, lobster soufflé, a trio of macaroons, a take-home gift box with 10 truffles, and Cuvée Grand Siècle Brut Champagne. With 20-foot floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Magnificent Mile, the Peninsula’s afternoon tea also offers mini Louis Vuitton or Escada fashion shows on Fridays and, for those who call ahead, vegan and gluten-free teas. (Photo courtesy of the Peninsula Hotel)
The Chado Tea Room (cha, the Chinese word for tea, and do, the Japanese word for tea) has three very distinct Los Angeles locations — one is situated within downtown LA’s Japanese American Museum, one sits on a buzzing block in West Hollywood, and the last enjoys the charm and quaint feel of Pasadena. With more than 200 loose-leaf teas and larger sized dishes on offer, theirs is an affordable, less pretentious, and substantial tea service. They fuse Asian and British tea traditions to create a new kind of afternoon tea with a menu that boasts smoked salmon and souchong chicken sandwiches, homemade clotted cream, fresh fruits, and mouth-watering tea cakes.
British transplant Nicky Perry’s tiny eatery in the West Village not only serves traditional English tea with scones, clotted cream, and watercress sandwiches, but there’s also bangers and mash, Cornish pastries, and a treacle pudding so irresistible that Kate Moss asks for seconds. The selection of teas is likewise impressive ranging from classic options (Earl Grey, English Breakfast) to the more exotic (Seville orange tea and Vietnamese French vanilla). With mismatched china and whimsical teapots (every one different), Tea and Sympathy is so popular that even British ex-pats like Judi Dench and Julie Andrews have to follow the rules, printed neatly on the front door. Perry’s New York British empire has expanded to include a much-loved fish and chips shop (it’s called A Salt & Battery, wraps orders up in London’s Daily Mail and delivers to parties in an old English taxi) and a grocery where old Britannia rules. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/seventyoneplace)
Situated above a New Age bookstore, this tearoom boasts more than 100 varieties of tea in a cozy, stuffed chair, and tin-ceilinged space that also offers vegetarian, vegan, and Fairy Tea menus. Fairy Teas are family-oriented complete with petits fours, costumes, magic, and real-life fairies. When fairy teas aren’t scheduled (they’re usually only once or twice a year), there are tarot card readers and other psychics that show up for $1 per minute readings, Witches’ Night Out events (with Witches Brew tea), and on weekends, the tearoom hosts acoustic concerts. Like many businesses in Ann Arbor, Mich., Crazy Wisdom has an adorable (and functional?) six-inch fairy door.
Don't clink your cup while stirring, make sure the teapot spout faces the hostess, and lose the raised pinkie. That’s just a bit of the etiquette (there’s more) that afternoon tea drinkers will learn at the iconic five-star hotel. Serving high tea since 1865, when none other than the Prince of Wales christened it, this hotel claims to be the spot where the British tradition was born. That doesn’t mean they haven’t kept up with modern times, though. Their gluten-free menu promises specialty sweets like Champagne jelly with gold leaf and their dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, diabetic, and no-nut tea menus have equally as enticing and allergen conscious items. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/tatsuhiko_a)
Still held today in the posh Palm Court, the Langham's traditional afternoon tea remains quite the fête with complimentary Champagne, cakes inspired by famous jewels (delices de Cartier, anyone?), hibiscus and rose tea, and a resident pianist tickling the ivories while guests nibble away on scones with preserves.
The Tea Room, Savannah, Ga.
Modeled after Glasgow’s renowned Mackintosh tearooms, this tearoom in historic Savannah features white linens, fresh flowers, beautiful china, and teas steeped to perfection. Pair all that with touches like PB&J or grilled cheese sandwiches at the Children’s Tea, freshly made soups, refreshing sorbets, and full meal options (think roasted pork tenderloin sandwich and tuna tartare) and you’ve got yourself a Southern tea service to remember.