The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Taking tea – and time out - Start a genteel tradition, perhaps for Mother’s Day.

Rose Ciotta - Inquirer Staff Writer

May 12, 2006


Fancy linens, fine china, soft music, luscious pastries.

Step into the world of the afternoon tea, a graceful and enjoyable late-afternoon event that is becoming increasingly popular in this region in fine hotels and tearooms.

Mother’s Day, as a special event, offers an obvious opportunity for afternoon tea.

For our family, the tea is a special way for the women and little girls to celebrate Easter. Since my family lives in Buffalo and visits here for Easter, we’ve been able to sample the fine tearooms in Philadelphia and Wilmington. 

This year, we visited the historic Hotel duPont in Wilmington, where afternoon tea is served from 3 to 5 p.m. daily in the Lobby Lounge, a relaxed and cozy area of cherry wood tables and chairs arranged to give each party some private space.

The tables are covered with white linen cloths and set with white Rosenthal china. 

As our server, Emily Chen was attentive and knowledgeable about the rituals that make afternoon tea the special experience it is. Unlike other “grab a bite” kinds of meals, afternoon tea has its origins in another time, when women dressed up and gathered at a private home to sip tea and nibble on tiny crustless sandwiches and tarts or cakes. 

Historians say the practice was invented in England by Anna, Duchess of Bedford, who in 1840 began taking tea with bread and butter and cake in the late afternoon to tide her over under the 8 o’clock evening meal. She began inviting her friends to join her. 

“We feel it’s on the upswing,” said Carolyn F. Grubb, spokeswoman for the Hotel duPont. 

“Afternoon tea has been popular here ever since the hotel opened” in 1983, said Ruth Hirshey, spokeswoman for the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. “We see ladies in hats, we see people enjoying themselves, and we see people taking business, too.”

Because it happens in late afternoon, tea offers patrons “a lovely time of day to indulge and to take a break,” Hirshey said. “It’s not lunch, it’s not cocktails. There’s a ritual to it. You have to think and take your time.”

The first decision is selecting teas that will steep in the small china pot set before you. 

The hotel duPont last year started only serving Mighty Leaf Teas, a premium brand from San Francisco. “It’s a high-quality tea,” said Patrick A. D’Amico, executive sous chef, referring to the “whole leaf first flux,” or first picking, brand.

He has selected these for the menu: Organic Earl Grey (regular and decaf), Organic Hojicha Green; Chamomile Citrus; Darjeeling Choice Estate; Mountain Spring Jasmine; and African Nectar. 

Mindful of his clientele’s preference for the classic English tea experience, D’Amico said the sandwich selections complement the teas: egg salad and chives; chicken salad and fresh tarragon; smoked salmon and dill butter; watercress and boursin cream cheese; and diced cucumber, minted mayo and fresh red pepper. 

This is afternoon tea. Some tea rooms also serve high tea, which traditionally is served later in the day with heartier fare such as meats and cakes and has its origins among English farm workers.

My nieces, who at 9 and 11 are veterans of afternoon tea (their first was the Ritz-Carlton at ages 4 and 6), enjoyed the finger foods but were equally impressed with the Hotel duPont’s presentation. Served on a three-tiered silver tray, the sandwiches were accented with sliced strawberries and purple and white delphinium orchids “that made the tray look elegant,” offered Elena, 9.

“The tea china was beautiful but it wasn’t fancy,” said Melina, 11, of the classic white china service. 

Each hotel or tea room has its signature way of offering afternoon tea. At the Hotel duPont, the sandwiches, which are made daily and then wrapped in moist towels to keep them fresh, are served first. Next comes a basket of warm scones, followed by a tiered tray of French pastries. 

At the Four Seasons, patrons are serenaded by a harpist and served chocolate-covered strawberries along with traditional fare. At the Ritz-Carlton, tea is served in the Rotunda, where patrons can relax on Federal-style couches.

If it’s afternoon tea, regardless of the setting, you can count on taking time to sip slowly, chat and, if you want, start a new tradition. 

For our family, it’s a tradition that involves three generations. “It’s something special we look forward to and it’s a special treat,” said my sister-in-law, Deborah.