The best places in Philadelphia for afternoon tea

Is there a better way to spend a bleak winter midafternoon than sipping tea and eating pastries in a classy restaurant? If so, I can’t think of one. But which classy restaurant?

With the end of tea service at the Ritz-Carleton (with the dawn of Richard Sandoval’s Latin American restaurant Aquimero) and the Four Seasons (with its 2015 closing), the high-end tea scene in Philly isn’t what it used to be. It’s better — less stuffy than in the white-glove, floral china days but just as rewarding, I discovered as I downed tea, scones, and food that doubles as artwork at Center City’s four big restaurant hotels.

The Rittenhouse

Camera icon The Rittenhouse
An intermezzo of floral tea water ices, part of the special Flower Show tea menu at the Rittenhouse’s Mary Cassatt Tea Room.

The Rittenhouse is now the only hotel in town still offering daily tea in its own  dedicated space. Named the Mary Cassatt Tea Room after a few of the artist’s sketches that hang on the wall and the hotel’s location on the site of her brother’s townhouse, it faces a garden terrace that adds six tables in nice weather. Tea servers AJ Memmo and Kidist Anosa selected the 16 teas they serve and discuss them with authority. The food is as good and as fussy (in a good way) as you’d expect at these prices (almost twice that of the competition, despite modest portions). Days after, I was still thinking about the orange-accented edamame hummus on a radish, avocado, prosciutto, and onion jam sandwich.

This is also the only local tea with live music (by a harpist, Fridays through Sundays). At one point, I looked up to see an elegantly dressed young woman attending a tea shower swaddling her baby: a Mary Cassatt painting come to life.

$55 (including sparkling wine) or $80 (with Champagne moussé) per person, 2-5 p.m. daily, 210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000, rittenhousehotel.com.

XIX

Camera icon Hyatt
Tea at the Hyatt at the Bellevue.

The Bellevue’s century-plus-old daily tea service took a hit with the modernization of the hotel’s dining spaces in 2007.  Tea in the former Barrymore Room, now the XIX Cafe, is served on weekends only and is pre-brewed — meaning its teas are only descriptions on the menu instead of in containers of leaves to see and sniff (as at the Rittenhouse and Sofitel).

But with a 30-foot domed ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, this is still a beautiful place to down a pot and a pastry. XIX’s solid three-tier presentation of the usual tea suspects will get an extra dose of flavor from edible flowers after its tea menu’s March 1/Flower Show reboot. Also new to that spring menu: a white tea in a glass pitcher made from a “bulb” of dried leaves and flowers that “blooms” as it steeps.

$30 or $36 (with Champagne and a chocolate-covered strawberry) per person, 2-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Hyatt at the Bellevue, 200 S. Broad St., 19th floor, 215-893-1234, philadelphiabellevue.hyatt.com

Sofitel

Camera icon Sofitel Philadelphia
Tea at the Sofitel Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia branch of this French luxury hotel chain began offering high-season (Dec. 1 to March 31) daily tea service in its urban-chic Liberte Lounge four years ago. The nine teas are from Paris’ Palais des Thes, and chef Edward Hancock puts his chicken salad on a croissant. Otherwise, the menu is similar to the competition (if slightly less refined). The table by the gas fireplace is the primo seat in cold weather, although my tea’s relax factor was marred by the anxious conversation of some businessmen meeting nearby. You could theoretically run into that at any tea in town, though it would seem less likely at XIX or the Rittenhouse.

$29 or $35 (with Champagne or a mimosa) per person, 2-4 p.m. daily through March 31, at 120 S. 17th St., 215-569-8300, sofitel-philadelphia.com.

The Dandelion

Camera icon KELLY SMITH
Tea at the Dandelion.

Afternoon tea is an English tradition, and Dandelion is an English pub that debuted with tea and scones on its midday menu. Four years ago, in response to diner demand, it added tea sandwiches and pastries. So what if teas in England are traditionally offered at hotels or tea houses?

Dandelion’s tea menu evidences the same kind of freewheeling attitude. Items might be English-inspired but this Stephen Starr stalwart is not a slave to authenticity at the expense of American enjoyment. The chocolate pudding cake on the sweets tray is more like a chocolate molten cake or super-rich brownie, and all the better for it. Dandelion also has the best macarons of any city tea (Dandelion pastry chef Abigail Dahan does double-duty at the nearby Starr French bistro Parc). The smoked bacon and orange marmalade on pumpernickel was a savory revelation.

The tea selection is limited to a few Twinings and Teapigs (and don’t expect your server to provide much guidance). The Dandelion’s houselike space, with multiple rooms, is appropriately cozy. But the indie rock soundtrack (likely a consequence of the many different ways diners are using this place midday) can be jarring. The food really is the thing here.

$50 for two (á la carte options also available), 3-5 p.m. daily, 124 S. 18th St., 215-558-2500, thedandelionpub.com.

Model Menu for Afternoon Tea

If you're looking to meet expectations created by teas currently served in Center City Philly, the following would be a good starting place for a DYI afternoon tea. Creative variations on these themes are what will make your tea stand out. When it comes to size, think small: no more than three or four-bite-size for savory items and one or two for desserts.

Cucumber sandwich

Salmon sandwich or wrap

Turkey sandwich

Deviled egg (or egg salad sandwich)

Hummus on pita

Scones (plain and sweet) with jam, lemon curd and clotted cream

Macaroons and/or madeleines

Shortbread, ginger or other mini cookies

Fruit tart

Sweet honey or almond cake


Cucumber Cup with Crab Salad

Makes 5 or 6 appetizer portions

INGREDIENTS

1 pound jumbo lump crab meat

½ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning

1 large cucumber

DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix crab, mayonnaise, and seasoning together in a bowl. Set aside.
  2. Peel cucumber, and cut into 1 ½-inch slices.
  3. Use a melon baller to remove the seeds from each slice.
  4. Stuff each cucumber cup with the crab filling and serve.

-- Jon Cichon, Rittenhouse Hotel


Sesame Chicken Salad

Makes 4 to 6 appetizers or 2 full sandwiches

INGREDIENTS

1 6-ounce chicken breast, grilled

1 tablespoon pickled ginger, chopped

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sambal chili paste

1 teaspoon sugar

2 stalks scallions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 teaspoon black sesame seeds

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 full-size or 6 miniature fresh croissants

Fresh cilantro leaves (optional)

 

DIRECTIONS

  1. Chop chicken breast into quarter-inch pieces and set aside.
  2. Whisk together remaining ingredients through salt and pepper in a large bowl. Fold in chicken.
  3. Slice croissants in half lengthwise and spread with salad. Garnish salad with cilantro, if desired. Cover with top half of croissants and serve.

-- Edward Hancock, Sofitel Philadelphia


Cranberry Orange Scones

Makes 20 scones

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup brandy

1 cup dried cranberries

Zest of ½ orange

6 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons baking powder

1 ¼ teaspoons salt

4 ½ tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter

1 egg

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup milk

 

DIRECTIONS

  1. Soak the cranberries and orange zest in the brandy for a minimum of 15 minutes (overnight would be ideal).
  2. Combine all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl with a paddle attachment. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the dough clumps to the size of peas.
  3. Add the egg and soaked fruit. While mixing, pour in the heavy cream steadily until the dough pulls from sides of the bowl.  After the dough starts to pull, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl to ensure everything is mixed well.
  4. Allow the dough to rest for 30 minutes in the fridge, then roll to 1-inch thickness and cut to the desired shape. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  5. Brush each scone with milk and bake for about 15 minutes, making sure to rotate the pan halfway through the cooking time.

-- Rosie Friedenberg, Hyatt at the Bellevue


Chocolate Pudding Cake

Makes about a dozen bite-size cakes

INGREDIENTS

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

2/3 cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped

5/8 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Heat the cream and butter in a saucepan over low heat until simmering and then add chocolate pieces. Whisk until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
  3. Whisk together the dry ingredients, then add the eggs. Add the chocolate mixture.
  4. Strain through a fine strainer into a bowl and spoon into a piping bag.
  5. Spray 2-ounce molds with nonstick spray and pipe with batter until molds are about three-quarters filled. Bake for 10 to 11 minutes or until the cake has risen and the tops crack. Cool before unmolding.

-- Abigail Dahan, the Dandelion