Travel, Food & Drink

Where—and How—to Enjoy Afternoon Tea in New York City

Luxury Defined spotlights the English culinary classic and offers a few suggestions on where to take afternoon tea in the Big Apple

Afternoon tea, that singularly English custom, is a ritual set to the music of conversation, clink and clatter of bone china cups and silver spoons on gilt-edge saucers, accompanied by a tiered stand layered with cucumber sandwiches, buttered scones with lashings of strawberry jam, and dainty cakes.

Afternoon tea has been a staple of the English afternoon since the 19th century.

Tea drinking came into fashion in the British Isles thanks to a Restoration interloper, the Infanta Catherine of Braganza, Queen Consort of King Charles II. Her dowry included a chest of tea favored by her Portuguese royal court. Two centuries later, the more elaborate ritual of taking “afternoon tea” came into existence, devised by another aristocrat, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, friend and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria.

In the mid-19th century, it was customary for the English upper classes to dine between eight and nine o’clock. One afternoon, during a stay at the Duke of Rutland’s castle in Leicestershire, the duchess complained of a “sinking feeling.” (We can imagine her delicate swoon onto a convenient divan.) She then ordered a tray of bread and butter and a hot cup of tea brought to her rooms. That light refreshment to ward off her mid-afternoon hunger pangs eventually moved into the grander drawing room, and added delicate cakes, fruit scones, and crustless sandwiches for the delectation of London society.

There’s no shortage of whimsy at Alice’s Tea Cup. The family-friendly Upper East Side tea salon, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was founded in 2001 by sisters Haley and Lauren Fox. Photo credit: Alice's Tea Cup

Thus began the genteel affair that would become a staple of the English afternoon, from country house drawing rooms to the palm courts of the nation’s smartest hotels. Since then, London’s great hotels have become famous for the most formal afternoon teas: The Goring (a favorite of the royal family), Claridge’s, the Langham, The Savoy, and grandest of all, The Ritz. Just a few steps along Piccadilly is Fortnum & Mason, another institution famous for its formal afternoon tea service, a tradition since 1926 (the department store has been importing and blending tea leaves since 1707). Today, just about every five-star hotel and tearoom in the UK and, indeed, across the globe, serves an elegant permutation of the late-afternoon English culinary classic.

Janam Tea at Garfunkel's is the only tearoom in the United States serving pure, single-origin Indian teas. “You won't find English Breakfast, Earl Grey, or any of the usual suspects,” says Amy Dubin, Janam’s tea curator, who has spent nearly 20 years traveling to India and building relationships with tea producers there. “This is a forum for India's best and brightest teas. The top-caliber teas are seasonal, handpicked, and designed to be enjoyed without milk, sugar, and other additives.” Photo credit: Eric Emerick

Afternoon tea can be enjoyed in many neighborhoods of New York City, mostly in five-star hotels, but always in beautifully decorated rooms dedicated to tea service, at least during afternoon tea times. Just to clarify, the terms “high tea” and “afternoon tea” are not interchangeable. They are quite different experiences.

The names of each type of tea service are both literal and counterintuitive. High tea is called “high” because it’s served at a high table such as a dining table or counter. High tea is served in the early evening and includes hearty savory dishes accompanied by bread and butter, followed by pudding. It is essentially supper served with a cup of tea. Quite the contrary to the elegant affair known as afternoon tea, which takes place at around 4:00 p.m., between lunch and dinner. It is served at a low table such as a coffee table, and often referred to as “low tea”. Afternoon tea includes finger fare served in three courses: small sandwiches sans crusts with savories; then scones with clotted cream and jam; followed by cakes and pastries.

Afternoon tea, that singularly English custom, is a ritual set to the music of conversation, clink and clatter of bone china cups and silver spoons on gilt-edge saucers, accompanied by cucumber sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and lashings of strawberry jam.

Here are some etiquette tips for those not steeped in the protocols of afternoon tea service. Typically, all three courses will be presented at once on a three-tiered curate stand. The tiny sandwiches will be on the bottom tier and should be eaten first. The second course, scones—dry, crumbly quick bread—will be on the middle tier. Eat the dessert, cakes, or petits four from the top tier last.

In Manhattan’s West Village, Bosie Tea Parlor serves a traditional afternoon tea. Customers can choose from 100 different varieties of tea accompanied by handmade pastries and macarons made by their in-house French pastry chef. Photo credit: Sarah Kleist

Be sure you’ve designated one person to pour for everyone. Add milk first, if that’s how you like your tea, never after the tea is poured. Never stir your tea in circles, but swirl it side to side. Hold the cup with your thumb and index finger looped through the handle, with the handle resting on your middle finger. And never lift the saucer from the table. If you are having Royal Tea, Champagne or sparkling wine will be served along with the tea.

There are more than 20 establishments throughout New York City that serve afternoon tea, in varying degrees of pomp and tradition. We present five of them here, with a longer list at the end of this article.

Directly across from the Museum of Modern Art at 28 West 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan is the Baccarat Hotel New York. The five-star hotel reimagines the elegance of the French crystal maker into a luxury hospitality experience. Afternoon tea is served in the Grand Salon. Reflective of the elegant Baccarat heritage, the décor includes a magnificent 64-arm crystal chandelier and walls adorned in silk. Champagne and cocktails are sipped from cut-crystal flutes or tumblers, and tea from fine bone china cups. The inventive afternoon tea service is inspired by several historical personalities long associated with the Baccarat brand: Tsar Nicholas II, a Caviar Tea for Two at Tsarskoye Selo; the Prince of Wales, an English Tea at Windsor; King Louis XV, a French Tea at Versailles; and the Sultan Abdülaziz, a Turkish Tea at Dolmabahçe Palace. The Prince of Wales tea is served daily; all other tea services are offered from Wednesday to Sunday.

The Prince of Wales Afternoon Tea at the Baccarat Hotel is a grand affair. It is served in the grand salon under a 64-arm crystal chandelier. In addition to the décor, the tea service also reflects the company’s heritage: Champagne and cocktails are served in cut crystal flutes or tumblers, and tea in fine bone china. Photo credit: Baccarat Hotel

Ten blocks farther uptown on the Upper East Side is The Pembroke Room in the Lowell Hotel. The five-star hotel serves afternoon tea in three permutations: The Classic Pembroke; The Pembroke Royal, which includes a glass of rosé, port, or sherry; and The Lowell Imperial. As is typical for afternoon tea, the menu is set, but there is a choice of teas. The Pembroke Room is old-world elegance, with heavy silk valances and draperies with sheers at the windows, banquettes in the corners, and lovely silver cutlery, teapots, and white Wedgewood china place settings on white linens. The room is used only for afternoon tea, which is served Wednesday through Sunday, from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

For an upper-crust afternoon tea, there’s the Astor Court at the St. Regis, at 2 East 55th Street. The historic Beaux Arts five-star hotel was built in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV. It has survived numerous eras of downturns and renovations yet retained its aura of opulence through them all. The Astor Court’s latest remodel has gone from bridal shower pinks to more sedate but equally elegant neutral grays and blacks, but the beautiful cloud-painted ceiling remains. Two tea service options are available from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily: the classic Lady Astor’s Tea and the opulent Caroline’s Tea. Sandwiches and savories are served first, followed by the three-tiered curate stand with scones and sweets.

Lady Mendl's Tea Salon, situated at the Inn at Irving Place, is reminiscent of a bygone era. The opulent five-course afternoon tea is served in an ornate 19th-century parlor by a doting staff. Flowers arranged and provided by The Color of Magic. Photo credit: Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon

The quintessential New York afternoon tea is offered at the iconic Plaza Hotel, just across from Central Park. Three elegant tea services are available at the hotel’s famous Palm Court, which has been serving afternoon tea for over a century. The tea offerings include The New Yorker Tea; The Champagne Tea, which, in addition to bubbles, includes foie gras and lobster; and The Children’s Eloise Tea—named for the elusive and mischievous Eloise, a fictional resident of the hotel who featured in a series of children’s books by Kay Thompson. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches replace the savories, and cotton candy is included in the sweets course for the children’s tea. Afternoon tea is served every day from noon to 4:45 p.m.

We would be remiss if we did not include The Russian Tea Room in this list. Synonymous with afternoon tea, it’s worth at least one trip in a lifetime just for its Eastern European grandeur, forest green walls, and red-leather banquettes, not to mention its formal tea service. Located at 150 West 57th Street next to Carnegie Hall, since its founding in 1927 by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, the four-story building features continental dining, party venues, a not surprising extensive menu of fine vodka, and an elegant, though non-traditional, afternoon tea. The menu is set, but the options at the Russian Tea Room are varied, and each course is served separately. There are five tea services to choose from: the traditional Russian Tea Room afternoon tea; the Royal Afternoon Tea, which includes Champagne; the Vegetarian Afternoon Tea; the Gluten-Free Afternoon Tea; and the Children’s Tea, for those 12 and under.

Afternoon tea is served daily at Tea at the Morgan Café, situated in the glass-enclosed central court of the Morgan Library & Museum in Midtown Manhattan’s historic Murray Hill neighborhood. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200—the café offered a specialty Frankenstein exhibition-themed tea. Photo credit: Graham S. Haber

Here is a list of other notable establishments around the city that also offer afternoon tea, each with its own discrete charm:

  • Bergdorf Goodman
  • Chanson
  • Kings’ Carriage House
  • Hôtel Plaza Athénée
  • Tea and Sympathy
  • The Carlyle
  • Crosby Street Hotel
  • The Peninsula
  • The Pierre
  • The Ritz-Carlton
  • The Whitby Hotel