Long before Americans were lining up for double lattes and no-whip cappuccinos, there was tea -- and teatime.
And although New York, home of the double-espresso high, may strike one as an unlikely place for a relaxing afternoon tea, few places appreciate teatime more than the Big Apple. Oh sure, there are people to meet, museums to browse, shopping to be done and shows to see. But in the midst of all that razzle-dazzle, why not kick back over a pot of Darjeeling and a few watercress sandwiches?
From the gilded stoops of Gramercy Park to the ivy-crusted Upper West Side to the sidewalks of Chinatown and the outskirts of Greenwich Village, we sampled four great places for tea. Whether you're in the mood for old-fashioned cucumber sandwiches or new-wave Euro "toastites," New York excels at tea, the beverage that defines civility.
LADY MENDL'S TEA SALON
Located between the East Village and Union Square, Lady Mendl's Tea Salon extends an invitation to experience life in the 19th century. In a restored 1834 brownstone on Irving Place in Gramercy Park, the opulence of the Victorian period remains intact. Here, the magnificence of old New York provides a buffer from the more indelicate realities of urban life.
Named for a New York society decorator, Lady Mendl's offers high tea as an affordable luxury.
Antique silver pots are brought to the table filled with tea varieties from lemon verbena to Egyptian chamomile, Earl Grey or Darjeeling. The first course features a petite plate of greens. Then the waiters serve three sandwiches (cucumber on brioche, open-faced salmon on pumpernickel with creme fraiche, goat cheese and chives on raisin-walnut slices).
Save room for the scones served with Devonshire cream and a variety of petit fours. The piece de resistance is a seasonal dessert, such as an apple or pear tart served with cinnamon gelato.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a place that's as casual as Lady Mendl's is steeped in formality. Tealuxe, a block from Columbia University on the Upper West Side, represents the egalitarian arm of the teatime movement, advocating a "tea for all" philosophy.
Tealuxe has so many teas it keeps track of them by numbers -- starting at 100 and ending at 236. Three categories determine potency, quality and price: premium, rare and exotic. A guide leads drinkers through several classes of tea: classic, green, oolong, black, Earl Grey, chai, herbal and medicinal.
Personal pots (about three cups) and party pots (great for two) bearing the Tealuxe symbol accompany clear glass mugs that give imbibers a view of the swirls of color in each pour.
Darjeeling silvertips ranks high on the list of teas, scoring with its subtle blend of naughty and nice. It's light but has a satisfying flavor. Vanilla and jasmine tea hit the spot as well.
Tealuxe specializes in sandwiches called toastites, which lend a Euro-air to the environs. Honey and peanut butter pressed between two hot pieces of bread tastes mighty good. Some traditions are carried out well -- crumpets served with sweet cream butter and a choice of strawberry or raspberry preserves were a nice starter. Splurge on dessert: Devon Cream Scone Shortcake. (The dessert is big enough for three, but be prepared to ask for more whipped cream.)
On a recent Saturday, the place was packed. Soft lighting amplifies the shadows on exposed ceilings and mirrors. Self-service at the long bar may be the way to go; as pleasant as our waitperson was, the wait itself was intolerable.
TEA & SYMPATHY
Time bends again, but this time it's mid-20th century England that beckons at Tea & Sympathy, tucked in a small side street in Greenwich Village.
Inside, it feels just like a village pub. But before you get a table, you'll need stamina; you have to wait outside in the cold until a seat opens up in the tiny dining area. Everyone in your party must be present and accounted for before they'll let you in.
Comfort food is the specialty of the house -- no fancy trappings, just wholesome goodness. Shepherd's pie, bread pudding, sweet cream, scones and other items bear the stamp of the Union Jack. Finger sandwiches include delectable egg salad, watercress and tuna served on crustless, thick multigrain bread.
The monarchy is alive and well within these walls, with framed photos of the queen and her brood hung by shelves of knickknacks that include a variety of teapots.
Though many of Manhattan's eating places have clamped down on smokers, this one hasn't. It even displays a take-it-or-leave-it attitude:
"We're a smoking restaurant," says the menu. "If you don't like it, on your bike!"
Next door, pick up British goods at Carry On Tea & Sympathy.
SAINT'S ALP TEAHOUSE
Saint's Alp Teahouse, with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, gives old favorites fresh twists.
Intricately carved oak tables with glass tops seem traditional enough, but what Asian-American hipsters come here for -- besides the Top 40 Taiwanese tunes on the sound system -- is anything but traditional: dessert teas served hot or cold, and served with originality. Frothy teas -- green, milk and black -- come in soda-fountain-style glasses or mugs, complete with big pink straws, and a treat on the bottom: scrumptious pearl tapioca balls (giving the drink its nickname, "bubble tea").
Jumbo personal pots for hot tea were winners for those who liked how the tea softened the tapioca balls. As for food, skip it, unless your idea of fine dining begins and ends with toast or "Authentic Taiwanese Delicacies" such as "deep-fried chicken chunks with spices."
WHEN YOU GO
Lady Mendl's Tea Salon, 56 Irving Place between 17th and 18th streets, New York, N.Y. 10003 Phone: 212-533-4466 Online: www.innatirving.com Hours: 3 p.m. seating (Wednesday through Friday), 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. seatings on weekends; parties are encouraged to make reservations at least a month in advance Prices: $30 per person or $35 to $45 for parties of six or more
Tealuxe, 2955 Broadway at 116th street Phone: 212-749-8966 Online: www.tealuxe.com Hours: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; open until midnight Saturday Prices: Tea starts at $2.75
Tea & Sympathy, 108 Greenwich Ave., between 12th and 13th streets, behind St. Vincent's Hospital Phone: 212-807-832 9 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends Prices: $18.95 for afternoon tea; $35 for tea for two
Saint's Alp Teahouse, 39 Third Ave. between ninth and 10th streets in Manhattan (call for other locations) Phone: 212-598-1890 Online: www.saints-alp.com.hk Hours: 1 p.m. to midnight weekdays and until 1 a.m. weekends Prices: Tea starts at $2.95
MORE TO POUR
Here are some other options for teatime in New York. Keep in mind that weekends are busy, so reserve ahead or plan a weekday visit if possible. Though you'll find some afternoon tea bargains at $16 a head, snazzier digs will cost upward of $30 per person.