High tea in DC


Uncivil discourse might be on the rise in Washington as November’s election nears, but there’s a decidedly dignified destination for those seeking respite.

Brits and American Anglophiles alike have long enjoyed the tradition of high tea, an afternoon repast between lunch and dinner that typically includes both sweet and savory nibbles. And several hotels and restaurants in the city now offer afternoon tea service during the week or on weekends.

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Less a meal and more an event, high tea blends dining with decompressing in a relaxing, luxurious setting. But it doesn’t come cheap.

High-tea service in the city can range from $30 to $50, and can last from an hour to several, depending on how long guests would like to stay. For those looking for a more potent dose of de-stressing, many establishments also offer champagne service at an additional cost.

One of the most traditional experiences, and the one most steeped in history, is at Café Promenade in the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel. Located near Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW, the hotel was built in 1925 and has since been restored to much of its original splendor.

Dining at Café Promenade is a bit like going back in time. The luxurious great room is marked by mint-green walls, plush banquets and crystal chandeliers. 

Served daily from 3 to 5 p.m., high tea is a flat $28. There’s also a $35 option that comes with a glass of bubbly. Diners can choose from nearly a dozen loose tea options, ranging from the familiar (Earl Grey) to the foreign (Orchid Oolong, Mountain Spring Jasmine). 

Tea is steeped in individual pots, and all diners are served the same three-tiered silver tray of goodies, which are small in size but big on flavor. Savory sandwiches include smoked salmon with dill crème fraiche and crab salad with saffron aioli.

Though a tad on the dry side, the variety of flavors is intriguing. The sweets are similarly diminutive but pack a bit more punch.

The mini chocolate éclair and raspberry fruit tartlet are tasty treats, but the classic British baked good, the scone, is the real star. Slathered with clotted cream and lemon curd, it’s a rich, buttery delight.

Wait staff at Café Promenade are attentive and solicitous, and an afternoon whiled away in such opulent splendor is time well spent. 

Across town is Peacock Alley at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. Built in 1818, the hotel — located at 14th and F streets NW — rivals the Mayflower for sheer grandeur and opulence. But the hotel lacks a designated room for high-tea service, offered Fridays through Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m.

Instead, tables run the length of the hotel’s main hallway. Though well-appointed with fine linens and china, the tables abut a busy thoroughfare for hotel guests. 

The Willard’s high tea is $39 (an additional $10 for champagne). Though given assurances that guests could stay and relax for as long as they desired, wait staff began breaking down tables and clearing the hallway close to 5 p.m., forcing those in the last meal service to rush through their treats.

The tea selection at Peacock Alley rivals that of Café Promenade, and drinks are served in similar teapots with a comparable selection of treats displayed on a three-tier tray. The savory sandwiches are a tad tastier at Peacock Alley, where egg and chicken salad sandwiches were elevated to new heights. 

But the true test of high tea, the scones, were lacking. Tiny in size and far too dry, they were no match for those at Café Promenade. Wait staff at Peacock Alley also appeared disorganized and was inattentive.

Those in the market for a more modern iteration of high tea might be tempted to try Empress Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental. Located at 12th and D streets SW, the hotel is contemporary in design and décor. 

The Empress Lounge, off the main lobby, features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over a lush green lawn. Though it lacks an old-world British feel, the lounge retains a posh European vibe with plush, deep chairs and contemporary furniture and place settings.

High tea here is served Thursdays through Sundays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and costs $35 for tea service, $45 with a glass of champagne. The tea and coffee service is greatly expanded, however, from Café Promenade and Peacock Alley.

Diners can choose black, white, green or caffeine-free teas with exotic selections including White Lotus and Mandarin Rose Petal. 

Instead of the traditional three-tier tray, Empress Lounge presents its high-tea treats on a buffet. Guests can gorge themselves on tuna sandwiches with watercress and smoked turkey sandwiches with apple compote. Seemingly endless trays of mini-sweets, including fruit tarts, cheesecakes, cupcakes and pound cakes, abound, each more sinfully delicious than the last.

But once again, the true test of a high tea, even if not necessarily traditional, is the scone. Here they are perfectly light and crumbly, and are ideal when slathered with homemade strawberry jam.

Hours can easily slip by here sipping tea and grazing from the bountiful buffet, and wait staff are more than happy to keep refilling teapots. It might not remind guests of Great Britain, but the pleasure derived from this high tea would make even the queen happy.

At roughly $40 per person on average, high tea in D.C. is not an inexpensive endeavor. But when done right, it can be a revitalizing experience that goes way beyond a standard meal.

Relaxing in a comfortable chair in a luxurious space, sipping tea from fine china and nibbling on tasty treats can whisk one away to a more civilized, dignified time. The only drawback to high tea in D.C.? The eventual return to the present.