Boston Tea Rooms

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson leads you on a delicious tour of Boston – with tea on his mind.

The City of Boston recently opened the new Tea Party Ships and Museum, but the tea party is already in full swing all across Beantown.

I recently took a survey of the afternoon tea scene in the area.  It was a four-day adventure that consisted of 14 pots of tea, a dozen or so scones, countless cucumber sandwiches, and more sweet morsels than my doctor should know about.  I know what you’re thinking – you want my job!

Fortunately for my heart, Boston is a great walking city and I worked off those calories crossing the beautiful Boston Common each day. This is the city’s front yard and on my sunny spring weekend, every Bostonian seemed to be taking advantage of the abundant sunshine and green grass.

The Boston Public Library

I started in Back Bay at one of my favorite Boston landmarks, The Boston Public Library. This impressive Charles McKim-designed building is home to the  richly colored mural paintings of The Quest of the Holy Grail by Edwin Abbey, and the third floor John Singer Sargent gallery. Be sure you ascend the palatial grand staircase to see these great treasures. This will help burn off a few more calories before teatime!

The first floor Courtyard Restaurant is housed in a handsome barrel-vaulted room lit by brilliant palladium windows. Afternoon tea unfolds here Wednesday through Friday from 2:00 until 4:00 pm. This literary tea is composed of just the right amount of favorites teatime sandwiches such as cucumber, salmon, and chicken; as well as fresh adaptations of tomato and crumbled back or watercress and lemon aioli. While the tea list is not extensive, it does contain a balance of classic and flavored blends.

There is something very gratifying about celebrating afternoon tea in this literary sanctuary. It is very quiet and soothing, yet you just feel a bit more alive and connected to civilized society upon leaving.  Much like reading a good book, this is an experience you want to share with like-minded friends.

L’Espalier

Boston’s only tea sommelier is responsible for the well-crafted tea blends and refined afternoon tea service found at the acclaimed French restaurant L’Espalier, located just a couple of blocks up Boylston Street from the library.

Sommelier Cynthia Gold, author of Culinary Tea, looks after the tea program here. And you can see her attention to detail in such unique blends as L’Espalier Afternoon Blend, a satisfying combination of black teas from Darjeeling and Sri Lanka with Chinese jasmine green tea and subtle notes of bergamot.

L’Espalier is the only independent restaurant in New England to receive thirteen consecutive AAA Five Diamond Awards and also has earned fifteen consecutive Mobil (now Forbes) Four-Star awards. You don’t receive that many accolades without attention to detail.

Afternoon tea service here is as beautiful as the original art on the wall. The tea experience begins with a blooming tea placed in a wine glass of warm water. In just a few minutes, the tea and encased flower has blossomed and come back to life.

Tea meal choices include the Little Red Riding Hood’s Basket, a combination of savories and sweets, and Make Way for Ducklings, a decadent assortment of pastries and tea. If a sophisticated, artful afternoon tea is on your bucket list, you can’t do better than this.

Taj Boston

With its prominent view overlooking Boston Common, the grand hotel Taj provides the perfect sanctuary for enjoying an elegant afternoon tea in the heart of Old Boston. Tea is served Friday through Sunday in the elegant French Room located on the second floor.

This comfortable gilded salon is lit with tall windows and crystal chandeliers. An afternoon here reminds me of a London lobby tea with beautiful porcelain tea pots placed upon silver warmers, curved three-tiered silver servers, comfortable high-backed chairs and live music provided by either a harpist or violinist.

Over 22 selections of tea are included. This is one of the largest selections in the city with choices from all the tea families, as well as herbals and tisanes.

Did I mention the food?

Two meal choices await you – either The Duchess, for those who want just a few sweets and pastries accompanied by a pot of tea, or the grand Taj Royal. This is the “Full Monty” of afternoon teas. It comes complete with all the expected English tea sandwiches and a few bright surprises, such as a lobster profiterole (this is New England) and a wonderful prosciutto and melon canapé. The scones are accompanied by blueberry curd and traditional Devonshire cream.

Be prepared to request a take-away box because there are more fantastic desserts than a mere mortal can consume in one two-hour meal. I tried, and failed.

The Langham

The name Langham has been synonymous with afternoon tea since it was first served in the Palm Court of the London Langham Hotel in 1865. That celebration of tea history continues today with the Boston edition of the Langham brand.

This handsome property, once the Federal Reserve Bank, is a national architectural landmark. Built in 1922 in Renaissance Revival style, the bank was converted to a hotel in 1981. Two original N.C. Wyeth murals, commissioned by the Federal Reserve Bank still hang in their original third floor location.

Afternoon tea is currently served in the second floor Bond Restaurant and Lounge. This palatial setting was the original main lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank. It is a grand marble room reminiscent of a Roman temple. The tea service is very contemporary and, in a positive way, unlike any afternoon tea in the city.

All that will change by the fall of 2012 when renovations are competed for a new lobby tea service that will pay homage to the long tradition of Langham’s London teas, complete with specially-designed table settings by Wedgewood. After all, London’s Palm Court Afternoon Tea was awarded the UK Tea Guild’s Top London Afternoon Tea 2010, the OSCARS of the tea world.

That is a great honor that deserves to be transplanted in Boston. I can’t wait to see what they create!

Upstairs on the Square

Tea patrons frequent tea rooms for myriad reasons. Some go for quiet, serenity, and that calm repose that sweeps over you after the first sip of Darjeeling. Then there is Cambridge’s Upstairs on the Square

This is a three-story Pee-Wee’s Playhouse tea experience meant to stimulate the senses. From the purple and green color scheme highlighted with zebra fabrics to the pumped up Indy music and mirrored bar, this is an environment created for tea folk who need a bit of adrenaline infused into their lives. They are, after all, located a block from Harvard and goodness knows a girl can’t study all the time!

You can’t argue with success. They have been meeting the needs of customers for over ten years after moving from the Hasty Pudding Club. And on the day I arrived, they were packed with bridal showers, baby showers, and avid tea partiers dressed in frilly hats and clutching white gloves. Everybody was having a good time.

But don’t let this playful facade fool you. Owners Mary Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes are serious about making good tea and delicious food. Their tea list is extensive and each pot was well made.

I visit hundreds of tea rooms and it is a rare event when I encounter something new on the tray. I was happily surprised to find homemade Meyer lemon marmalade. Wow! Scones never tasted so good as when topped with clotted cream and this tart accompaniment. Included with the usual afternoon tea sandwiches was a mini Gruyere cheese quiche which helped bring a satisfying savory balance to the sweets and pastries. Bravo!

Upstairs on the Square is located a block from the Harvard station on the subway’s Red Line. Afternoon tea is served every Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 pm in both the Monday Club Bar and the Soirée Dining Room. Gloves and hats are tolerated and not required.

 

Tea Master Bruce Richardson is the author of several tea travel books including The Great Tea Rooms of America and The Great Tea Rooms of Britain.

http://brucerichardson.brandyourself.com/