A Time for Tea
San Diego Union-Tribune, 1999
by Jeffree Wyn Itrich
"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."
- Henry James
Afternoon tea. Just the sound of the words elicits fanciful thoughts of fragile teacups, wondrous pastries, company-best linens and an unparalleled sense of time and place. In short: an experience.
While it might have been difficult 10 years ago to find a place that properly served afternoon tea, these days, lovers of tea and its social traditions have quite a choice throughout the county. San Diego has solidly embraced England's divine afternoon diversion. Invitations to teas at friends' homes or intimate gatherings at any one of the dozen or so establishments serving afternoon tea have become quite popular.
Although it may seem so, the tradition of afternoon tea really isn't that old. Tea chronicles trace afternoon tea to 1840, when Anna, the seventh duchess of Bedford, habitually experienced a "sinking feeling" each afternoon around 4. She requested tea and a slice of cake to keep her sated until dinner. When she invited friends to join her, the simple event turned into a fashionable social ritual studded with elegant china, finger sandwiches, pastries and food fit for royalty.
From its social origins, afternoon tea grew into an English rite for commoner and royalty alike. In England today it's as customary as our American coffee breaks. And while Americans still prefer coffee (due perhaps to that most famous of all tea parties in Boston Harbor), tea and the art of socially drinking tea grows exponentially in America every year.
Lest you become confused, with the social event come all sorts of tea phraseology. For example, there's "cream tea," which simply refers to the presence of cream, such as thick, whipped Devonshire cream and fruit. "Elevenses" refers to morning tea, or the equivalent of a coffee break around 11 a.m. Finally, there's "high tea," which is actually a hearty workingman's meal served around 6 in the evening. Rather than pastries and light sandwiches, high tea consists of robust sandwiches, hot soups and entrees, tea and a generous slice of cake. Although numerous establishments purport to serve "high tea," in fact, they serve afternoon tea replete with tea, scones, pastries and finger sandwiches.
Whether you're a newcomer to the social art of drinking tea or a seasoned devotee, our guides to afternoon tea and tea shops will offer you many options. Be careful though, the enjoyment of afternoon tea is terribly irresistible. Before you know it you may find yourself driving all over the county to sample the area's many unusual tea salons. Because of the growing popularity of afternoon tea, reservations are required at most of these establishments.
Tea reservations: (760) 603-3773
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, seatings from 2-4 p.m.
If you've never visited this luxurious resort, you are in for a treat. Afternoon tea at the Four Seasons is as impressive to the visual senses as it is to the palate.
Tea takes place in a high-ceilinged room, slightly removed from the main lobby, yet open to expansive views of the surrounding resort. From the harpist strumming quietly to the elegant Limoges china to the fresh yellow rose petals gracing the damask tablecloths, the Four Seasons creates an incomparable ambiance before patrons even sit down. This is table-scaping and milieu at its finest, and it just keeps getting better as the afternoon progresses. The servers stop by often, but not too often. Whether you have a fortune in your bank account or just wish you did, you will be pampered and elegantly indulged.
The basic tea ($20.50; $25 starting Dec. 1) comes with a choice of several teas, sultana scones (a type of raisin), rose petal jelly, lemon curd and that inimitable Devonshire cream. The finger sandwiches propose sublime with combinations such as cucumber and boursin cheese, salmon remoulade, and proscuitto turkey salad in puff pastry. The glaceed fruit tartlet approaches art, and the chocolate mousse surrounded in soft pistachio crust redefines rich and decadent. If you still have room to sample them, your mama's sugar cookies probably never tasted like these. The luxury tea ($27.50; $32 starting Dec. 1) also includes a glass of sparkling wine, port or sherry.
Hours: Sundays, seatings from noon to 3:30 p.m.; Dec. 3-24: daily.
Looking for a truly Victorian tea? The Del's bona fide Victorian setting all but transports guests back in time. Tea is set in the Palm Court, where guests can overlook the stately center courtyard. Close your eyes and it isn't difficult to imagine men in tails, cravats and top hats, and women in bustle skirts strolling under the gazebo. Just outside the private room, a pianist serenades guests on a baby grand -- his music wafts through the room and creates an ethereal, almost trance-like atmosphere.
Guests may choose from among seven types of tea in the Del's tea service. At $29.95 per person, the tea offers grilled vegetables, assorted finger sandwiches and treats ranging from lemon poached shrimp to smoked ham salad, a "duet" of sweet scones and classic tea cookies. Your tea of choice is served in individual teapots. If you're looking for something stronger than tea — a Kir Royale or glass of sherry, perhaps? — drinks are available from the nearby bar.
Additional Options for Afternoon Tea
U.S. Grant Hotel, San Diego
Served just off the sparkling lobby, tea here is tranquil.
Tea time hours: Thursdays-Saturdays 1-4 p.m.
Adults $16.95-$19.95; children (7 and younger) $12
Westgate Hotel, San Diego
The lobby's period French décor makes an elegant setting.
Tea time hours: Daily 2:30-5 p.m.
Adults $18; children (younger than 12) $13
Horton Grand Hotel, San Diego
Tea in a lacy, Victorian setting.
Tea time hours: Saturdays 2-5 p.m.
Adults $17.95; children $15
Mountain country residents are lucky to have this dear little shop.
Tea time hours: Daily at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m.
Cobblestone Cottage, Alpine
A welcome destination on that afternoon drive. Reservations required.
Tea time hours: Wednesdays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
2929 Fifth Ave.
Hours: Fri 8:30 a.m.-midnight
Sat 11 a.m.-midnight
Sun-Thur 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
1430 Union St.
Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-midnight
Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-midnight
Best known for beautifully decorated, quite extraordinary cakes, tarts, tortes and other dessert goodies, Extraordinary Desserts also serves and sells a wide variety of exquisite Mariage Frères as well as the shop's own private label tea. Served in Japanese cast-iron teapots with cream and rock sugar on the side, the teas are the perfect complement to a lovely afternoon by Balboa Park or downtown near Little Italy. Mariage Frères teas are available in bulk for $22.95 per can and are also available in bags. Choose among more than 50 varieties of tea, from black and green teas to sweet herbals. Browse each Extraodinary Desserts location's offerings of traditional Japanese teapots and accessories.
2124 Third, Julian
In addition to serving a nice afternoon tea, these folks stock an impressive array of teas, tea-making supplies and oodles of precious teacups and teapots. East County and mountain country residents are lucky to have this dear little shop in its midst as it is one of the county's best resources. For something a little different, try one of their unusual flavored teas such as sassafras, licorice, almond or chocolate.
Three locations in San Diego County:
Gaslamp Quarter, Grossmont Center, La Jolla.
Yep, good ole Cost Plus. Although not as impressive a selection as the above-mentioned establishments, they offer a commendable array of goods. Behind the bulk counter they sell more than 20 black, green and herbal teas. On the shelves, tea lovers will find a big selection of boxed teas from Twinings to The Republic of Tea to Wagner's to McGrath's Irish teas to Tazo. Lots of exotics abound such as cardamom cinnamon, different types of Chai, green and black teas from Nepal-Paleswan, Arniko and Masala. The housewares department sells several different styles of teapots and cups, including a glass teapot for see-through infusing. There's also a French press for making tea. A reusable polyester mesh filter separates the leaves from the tea when it reaches its desired strength. Like the traditional coffee French press, the user pushes down on the filter to stop the brewing process. Comes in 3-cup, 8-cup and 12-cup sizes.