A dramatic pot of tea at Mandarin Oriental's Empress Lounge. (Courtesy Mandarin Oriental)
Tea came to England from China in the mid-1600s and soon became a fashionable social drink among the wealthy. When the industrial revolution gave rise to the middle class, serving tea ceremoniously at home was a way of showing that the hostess was a person of means and gentility.
According to Caroline Hope, a London-based social historian and tea expert, bread and butter were served along with tea, because it was believed that it was dangerous to drink the powerful brew on an empty stomach. She adds that the sumptuous, three-tier plateaus of sandwiches, scones and sweets that we enjoy at afternoon tea service were a 20th-century innovation of hotels.
In Washington, D.C., hotels and tearooms preserve and expand the delightful English custom. It’s no longer just for mothers and daughters dressing up or friends taking a shopping break. Millennials, too, are discovering that “this little ritual offers a nice pause in the afternoon,” as Patrick O’Connell describes it. He offers an indulgent tea at his fabled Inn at Little Washington as a welcome to guests.
Not only are young people seen enjoying a “time-out” at posh services around town, they are enriching the tradition. Tea-based cocktails and the international flavors that are now found in tea-time savories and desserts reflect their adventurous palates. Afternoon tea in Washington, D.C., honors tradition, while defining it anew.
(Prices are for regular teas; holiday and other themed teas may differ)
For many, the highlight of an afternoon tea party is the parade of delicacies that accompany the beverage. Indeed, the charming Georgetown tearoom, Lady Camellia, had its start because its owners, Culinary Institute of America graduates, Deborah and Han Kim, discovered that their signature, seasonally flavored macarons are “wonderful with the lemon and citrus notes” of Earl Gary tea. Their pink- and white-trimmed cottage with ornate mirrors on the wall offers a picture-perfect setting for the intimate parties, showers and get-togethers that fill its nooks and crannies.
PRICE: $16-$36, children (12 and under) $14-$18
TIME: Tues.-Fri. 1-5 pm, Sat. 11 am-6 pm, Sun. 11 am-5 pm
GO: 3261 Prospect St. NW, 202.333.2308, www.ladycamellia.com
At this urbane hotel’s Empress Lounge, weekend tea service features subtle Asian accents and festive themes for the holidays. Expect high-end ingredients like foie gras, duck and caviar.
TIME: Fri.-Sun. 2:30-4:30 pm
GO: 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, 202.787.6148, www.mandarinoriental.com
The swank Tea Cellar, with its extensive collection of rare and limited production teas, is a magnet for leaf-lovers. Its certified tea sommelier, Christian Eck, guides afternoon visitors through the room’s many teas, including the rare fermented pu-Er and flowering types, as well as herbal infusions and the increasingly popular macha offerings. On Sundays, an indulgent formal service is priced to encourage experimentation.
PRICE: $55, children (ages 6-12) $30
TIME: Sun. 3-4:30 pm
GO: 1201 24th St. NW, 202.419.6755, www.washingtondc.park.hyatt.com
Tea times on weekends here are family events. Aster Tesfazgi, the hotel’s long-time tea hostess, has seen the “children getting older, going to college, then bringing their own children” and, of course, their grandmothers lead the way to tables laden with classics like fresh fruit tarts and flaky scones. There’s lots of texting and Snapchatting before everyone digs into the lavish spread. Festively themed holiday teas (Teddy Bear and Nutcracker) are staged in banquet rooms for children of all ages.
PRICE: $46-$58, children (12 and under) $36
TIME: Wed.-Sun. all day; daily beginning mid-December
GO: 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean, Va., 703.506.4300, www.ritzcarlton.com/tysons-corner
Daily afternoon teas in the opulent lobby continue a custom established by hotel founder J.J. Astor’s wife. Weekdays, its sumptuous lounge offers inviting nooks, plush ottomans and elegant tables set with fine china, Christofle champagne flutes and scrumptious treats. There’s no space for laptops and no one seems to miss them. Food and Beverage Manager Salim El-Khayati says he plans to offer food and tea pairings for a younger generation discovering tea culture.
TIME: Daily 2-5 pm
GO: 923 16th St. NW (at K St.), 202.509.8000, www.stregiswashingtondc.com
Washington is an international city, so it’s no surprise that the laid-back Teaism cafés, with their wide-ranging tea collection, serve non-traditional Indian, Moroccan and Japanese set teas. These substantial, relatively inexpensive food and tea pairings, along with vegan scones and their signature oat cakes, draw tourists as well as locals taking a break. Indeed, its Lafayette Park location serves as a “waiting room” for the White House press corps awaiting summons to news conferences.
PRICE: $25 ($30 with glass of Prosecco at Lafayette Square, Penn Quarter locations)
TIME: Daily 2:30-5:30 pm
GO: Dupont Circle: 2009 R St. NW, 202.667.3827; Lafayette Park: 800 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.835.2233; Penn Quarter: 400 8th St. NW, 202.638.6010; www.teaism.com
This legendary hotel’s Peacock Alley, dripping with rococo atmosphere, boasts a century-old ritual of afternoon teas. Now held on weekends and during Christmas and Cherry Blossom season, the hotel’s lavish spread has long been popular for multi-generational celebrations and showers. Tea-based cocktails draw young strivers, while traditionalists nibble on savory profiteroles and strawberry-meringue kisses.
PRICE: $49, children (ages 3-12) $22
TIME: Fri.-Sun. 1-4 pm; holiday tea daily 1-4 pm, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve
GO: 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.628.9100, www.washington.intercontinental.com