In 1840 England, the 7th Duchess of Bedford realized that she got a bit groggy in the late afternoon hours (in those days, lunch was served at noon, dinner at 8 p.m.). To combat the fatigue, she began telling servants to bring tea, pastries with cream, finger sandwiches and scones to her room between 3 and 4 p.m. As this became a regular practice, the Duchess began inviting friends to her daily soiree. By the late 1800s, the idea had taken off, and afternoon tea became a widespread ritual for the wealthy. These days, the tradition is carried on in tearooms and upper-echelon hotels across the world...and in Chicago.
Drink to Old World charm at Russian Tea Time
Started Klara Muchnik and her son, Vadim, Russian Tea Time is a nook-ish spot located within a two-block radius of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jewelry Row and the Art Institute, making this a wise choice for an afternoon breather. The mahogany mirrors and candelabras on the wall evoke a true sense of the gothic Old World, and the sweets (sesame crunch and walnut cookies and mini crepes) are fantastic. Tea service, available from 2:30-4:30 daily, costs $19 per person and also includes scones with cream and lemon curd and a savory course of tea sandwiches. Since it is small, reservations are recommended, but the selection of 30 teas is worth it, with the blood orange and passion fruit varieties as standouts.
Sip on the North Side at Unique So Chique Tea & Chocolate Room
Tea drinkers first pass through a charming clothing, jewelry and gift boutique to reach this small tearoom, which seats 22 in a plant-filled space artfully decorated with vintage English undertones. In addition to the more than 35 standard varieties of earl grey, green, fruit, peppermint and decaf brews, Unique goes the extra mile by offering a variety of organic teas and a yerba mate blend (a plant known for its gentle energy boosting quality). Tea, available from 3-5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, takes on a pleasant mix-and-quality here. Options range from the cream tea service (just scones and tea) for $6.95 to the $15.95 full tea exotic service, which steps up the traditional sandwiches with varieties like chicken with apricot and walnut.
Take a break from shopping at The Drake Hotel
Located on the Magnificent Mile, the Drake's afternoon tea provides a haven for overworked shoppers. Standout teas include the chamomile, mint, and Irish Breakfast, and the delicate sandwiches (roast beef and tomato, egg salad, ham and asparagus) are light and hit the spot. In addition to the formal (and pricey, at $28.95) afternoon tea service, an unobtrusive harpist plays classical tunes and jazz standards; champagne is available for an extra $7 per person. Tea is taken daily from 1:30-5 p.m. in the elegant Palm Court room, which has a fountain in its center and a mixture of Eastern and British decor like folding screens with painted birds, antique furnishings and an elegant mahogany bar.
Ladies who lunch should do tea at the Walnut Room
There's no mistaking the ladies-who-lunch glamour of Marshall Field's seventh-floor room. The afternoon tea service, available seven days a week from 2:30-5 p.m. (but call to verify), costs $19.95 and offers a champagne option. The Walnut Room pours sturdy teas (green, black, oolong and herbal) from the Whittard of Chelsea line that come sided with the requisite light savories, imported Devonshire cream, cakes and raisin scones. But the real story is the Old-World crowd that turns out for this event. Field's has always been a haven for well-manicured European ladies (rich and poor) who both work and shop there, and one hopes that their no-nonsense and elegant presence won't be lost with the upcoming change of ownership.
Try the grandiose option at The Peninsula Chicago
The Peninsula hotel offers similar ambience (cellist, pianist) and menu (extensive green, black and herbal teas and finger sandwiches) as other afternoon teas, but the location in the majestic Lobby room gives the Peninsula an advantage over smaller or more humble locales. The enormous room's sipping setting comes complete with pillars, tall windows, high ceilings, golden draperies and attentive servers. The divine lemon tarragon scones are a perfect match with the gunpowder Chinese green tea. Order this combo, daintily sip and tea, and enjoy the indulgence. The $26 tea service offered 3-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 2:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and 4-6 p.m. Sunday; champagne costs an additional $9 to $11.
Do It Yourself
Though high teas have a reputation as fancy affairs, it's easy to host one. Gather a selection of black and herbal teas, spread some cream cheese, dill and cucumber on white or wheat bread with the crusts cut off, and make or buy tea biscuits to serve alongside some fresh fruit. Scones from a bakery are optional; serve with an assortment of jams and preserves. Sugar cubes provide another nice touch, and soymilk with honey is surprisingly good in almost any variety of black tea. Arrange a buffet table along with some flowers, plants and reeds, for a decadent feeling. Serve around 3 p.m. to stay within tradition.