Tea lovers will argue that it’s always time for a cuppa, and they might be right, especially at this time of year when the weather is cold and holiday festivities rev up the schedules to head-spinning speed. But sit down for the quintessentially British ritual of afternoon tea and things immediately take a Zen-like turn for the calmer. A few scones and finger sandwiches later, you might even start believing that this really is the most wonderful time of the year. The rite of afternoon tea is believed to have begun with Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, whose afternoon hunger pangs between the midday meal and evening dinner had her summoning the servants to fetch a pot a tea and some sweet and savory snacks. The late-day nosh proved popular with friends, whom she began inviting to join her before afternoon walks. When the Duchess brought the tradition with her to London, society ladies took note by hosting afternoon tea with friends in fashionable drawing rooms around the city, a tradition that remains an integral piece of British culture.
Though there are often creative variations, customary afternoon tea is typically composed of three tiers of savories and sweets displayed on fine china. A variety of sandwiches — egg, cucumber, salmon and cream cheese, ham among the usual suspects — are served, often crust-less and cut into little squares. Scones with clotted cream (sometimes called Devonshire or Cornish cream), jam and lemon curd are essential, as are buttery biscuits and other sweet confectionaries. Of course, you can count on dainty cups filled with endless supplies of hot tea, which you can sweeten with milk and sugar. Pinky lifting while sipping is totally optional.
Contrary to popular belief, the entire United Kingdom does not screech to a halt every day at 3 p.m. for a lazy afternoon tea, though isn’t it lovely to think so? Formal afternoon tea is a special occasion event and fortunately, you need not be a duchess, or English for that matter, to indulge right here in The City. Steep in the time-honored tradition, or better yet, create your own, at these hotels where afternoon tea celebrates the season — San Francisco style.
InterContinental Mark Hopkins
This Nob Hill hotel celebrates its annual Holiday Tea through the end of the month at Top of the Mark, the hotel’s signature lounge, for $50 per person. From 2:30 to 5 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays until Dec. 18, and Mondays and Tuesdays from Dec. 22 to Dec. 29, delectable desserts like mini yule logs along with classic cranberry scones and traditional tea sandwiches will be served, all prepared by InterContinental Hotels Group’s executive chef Nenad Stefanovic.
For a pumped up family-friendly version of the above, opt for the hotel’s Magical Tea, $60 per person or $56 per person with a toy donation for the San Francisco Fire Department’s toy drive. The event takes place from noon to 2:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday as well as Dec. 26 and Dec. 27. Seating times are at noon, 12:30 and 1 p.m.
For more information and reservations, visit www.topofthemark.com or call (415) 616-6941.
Sir Francis Drake Hotel
Sit by the fireplace under the 27-foot Christmas tree and dig into a nostalgia-inspired spread of holiday goodies at the hotel’s Be-A-Kid-Again Tea. In place of traditional cucumber or egg tea sandwiches, tuck into ageless favorites such as crust-less peanut butter and jelly, Nutella and banana, or cheese panini. The Be-A-Kid Again Tea takes place from 1 to 4 p.m. today, and then every day between Dec. 18 and Dec. 23. $75 for adults, $45 for children.
For more information and reservations, visit www.sirfrancisdrake.com or call (415) 395-8554.
Afternoon Tea at the Palace Hotel has become a San Francisco tradition, held under the glass dome of the elegant Garden Court every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 2:30 p.m. ($49) since the early 1900s. This month, the sophisticated Holiday Afternoon Tea service has beefed up hours from Monday through Saturday, 2 to 3:30 p.m. ($75 per person), and is served on fine china. It includes traditional tea sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and jam, holiday treats, a glass of Champagne, and a selection of teas.
For reservations, call (415) 546-5089.
Kimberley Lovato has been writing about travel, food and drink for the last 20 years and has never met a happy hour she didn’t like; www.kimberleylovato.com