Pot Sticklers

The Green and the black: The St. Regis's elegant afternoon tea service.Photo: Carina Salvi

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.
Price: $35
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.
Price: $35
Rating:Three stars

The Plaza
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.
Price: $37.50
Rating: Four stars

Expert Advice
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.

Pot Sticklers