Just a few years ago, the city’s traditional afternoon-tea salons were about as lively as the office lunchroom. Now you’ll be hard-pressed to find an empty settee. As the midtown lunch hour has crept closer and closer to two o’clock, it’s become increasingly common to stifle those half-past-noon hunger pangs with a yogurt or PowerBar and save the main event—business meeting, social tête-à-tête—for teatime. After all, who doesn’t love little sandwiches with the crusts cut off ?
The Four Seasons Hotel
57 East 57th Street (212-893-6802)
The Scene: A mix of business types, midtown scenesters, and high-paying hotel guests.
Pros: The lobby lounge doubles as a tea venue, so the vibe is a little groovier than you might expect. A vast honey selection ranges from buckwheat to sage to raspberry; pastries are exquisite.
Cons: They get fancy with the sandwiches—grilled-veggie wraps, beef tenderloin with celery-root rémoulade—which sort of misses the point.
Rating: Three stars
The Peninsula New York
700 Fifth Avenue, at 55th Street (212-956-2888)
The Scene: Strictly suits. This is, after all, the Peninsula.
Pros: Guys will feel comfortable here. Aside from the requisite dainty place settings, there’s nothing ladies-who-lunch about it. The scones are worth an Atkins slip-up.
Cons: The limited tea selection lacks inspiration and includes few decaffeinated options.
Price: From $37
Rating: Three stars
The Pierre New York
Fifth Avenue at 61st Street (212-940-8195)
The Scene: The straight-backed set whispering about So-and-so’s latest indiscretion.
Pros: The Rotunda is a dazzling throwback to Old New York. Tea cozies keep your pot hot no matter how long you linger.
Cons: You can’t really serve yourself, and it can be annoying to wait for your waiter to pour more tea. Scones look—and taste—like something out of a Pillsbury-dough can.
Fifth Avenue at Central Park South (212-759-3000)
The Scene: Tourists. And it’s a big room, so expect a lot of them.
Pros: Two tea menus are offered: a traditional afternoon tea and a more expensive version with smoked salmon and caviar. There’s also a table filled with irresistible full-size desserts—for $9.75 each.
Cons: See “The Scene,” above. Also, the sandwiches, served straight from the fridge, got soggy when the bread began to thaw.
Price: $29–$35, plus dessert.
Rating: Two stars
The St. Regis
2 East 55th Street (212-339-6857)
The Scene: All types, with a concentration of well-heeled sippers slouching ever so slightly in comfy chairs and settees.
Pros: These are the best sandwiches on the afternoon-tea circuit—and seconds are complimentary. A tea sommelier helps you choose among more than 25 green, black, oolong, and herbal teas.
Cons: While some might find it a soothing addition to a highly civilized ritual, we could do without the harp.
Rating: Four stars
Before you lift a cup, digest St. Regis tea sommelier Elizabeth Knight’s tips on afternoon-tea etiquette.
1. Don’t confuse afternoon tea with high tea. The first is an elegant three-stage snack with tea; the second, a frumpy early supper.
2. Eat the scones first. Break off little pieces of your scone. Spread the jam on, then the clotted cream, one bite’s worth at a time. Move on to the savories and sandwiches; the sweets are to be eaten last.
3. Pinch the teacup handle. That’s more traditional than putting your finger through the loop.
4. Never leave your spoon in your cup.