What makes an afternoon tea extra special?

In case the very existence of this blog doesn’t give it away, tea – and afternoon tea – is kind of my thing. I claim no other expertise other than I’ve experienced more than my share of them with good friends and family members in a number of geographies, many of which I hope to elaborate on in the Reviews.

However, I thought it would be good to start with what exactly made certain afternoon teas really stand out for me? Why were they so memorable? What’s the “level” you hope your selected place will strive for?

I mean – a tea in an unassuming hole-in-the-wall can be as memorable as the finest hotel tea. There are just certain things that can make them stand out (or not!). Here are some of those things that made it special for me (in no particular order).

The service – the best service I ever had, and the one that I hold up as “the standard” for keeping the tea filled (which no other experience has yet been able to stand up to), was at the Empress Hotel on Victoria Island, eons ago. I will never forget how the waiter kept my cup of tea always hot. Somehow, he was always there filling up my cup exactly at that moment when I needed it! Seemed like he was omnipresent, yet unobtrusive at the same time – I didn’t feel over-observed yet his timing was impeccable and my tea always a nice hot temperature. It. Was. Perfect.

The second aspect of service that made for one of the consistently best experiences (as I and my friends were there every Christmas for years, and sometimes for a spring tea as well!), is when the head tea maître d’/waiter, the lovely Charles, remembered what tea we had the previous time! Even though we went twice a year at the most. Sadly, Charles is no longer there, but he told the best stories, timed his service perfectly around when he could see we were deep in conversation, and always made us feel completely special when we were there (thank you, Charles, and St. Regis Houston!). And the service there is still always top-notch.

Ambience and companionship – Of course, the ambience and companionship at all the teas I’ve been to have been wonderful, and I’d repeat any one of them in an instant if I could. And while the hotels have their beautiful surroundings, when I think about one setting that made me feel most homey and cosy I think of just one time I went to tea with my aunt/godmother-cum-big sister in Stratford – not the full three+ course tea, just a pot of tea and a very good piece of traditional British cake. It was your typical Tudor house with low, wonky ceilings, white walls and dark wood beams, and small meandering rooms where you might have to duck your head to get through the door. It was the perfect place to have a comfortable, intimate family natter accompanied by tea and cake!

So don’t hesitate to go for the small and less formal (plus, you won’t roll out the door, completely overfed from the full “afternoon tea” menu!).

The tea – The tea must be excellent – the choices, the house blend, the pairing with the different courses, being encouraged to try more than one. Though the most memorable tea from the tea aspect that my friend and I had was at the St. Regis Abu Dhabi in the Crystal Lounge – they actually blended the tea for you at the table. Amazing. Amazing choice of ingredients, and when the first blend attempt was not what my friend was looking for, they promptly made her another. That was something we’d never seen anywhere in any other of the many teas we’ve had together!

Food – So, of course, one has to talk about the food – it can make or break an experience overall. When going for a full afternoon tea, I still think the scones are the key – they’ve got to be good, or it’s just not a quality experience. For that, I have to again say the St. Regis Houston has cracked it. They have the most delicious scones I’ve ever had at afternoon tea anywhere in the world (apologies to my British friends, but it’s true). (And for those places that think smaller versions of the scone are just as good – trust me, they are not!).

The quality of the scone has sometimes been the deciding factor when my friends and I debate where we’ll go for our annual Christmas tea. We actually crave those buttery, crumby, curranty, luscious scones, always served warm just out of the warming pot.

Other standout features – There are other things that can make an afternoon tea stand out – the addition of a cocktail or amuse-bouche, or the creativity of the theme teas, of which there are a plethora in London.

So I’ve rattled on for awhile on this topic…regardless of the tea, food, place, or service, taking tea somewhere new is an adventure – there is always something interesting to see, taste or talk about with your friends later!

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