Long before America ran on Dunkin’ or barista was a household word, the high-society set got their caffeine fix with an afternoon tea party. Reputedly an invention of the Duchess of Bedford, friend and Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria, to bridge the gap between the customary 11am lunch and 8:30pm dinner of the times, the traditional light meal would generally consist of a smorgasbord of finger sandwiches, scones with cream and lemon curd, assorted pastries and, of course, a pot of tea. The genteel Afternoon Tea is not to be confused with High Tea, which, despite its regal sounding name, refers to the early evening meal of the working classes and more often than not was a plate of uninspired meat and potatoes. It became quite fashionable by the late 1800s both to host and to attend these gatherings, and an entire school of etiquette sprung up around the “proper” way to take your tea (note: pinky-finger up is a definite don’t). Nowadays, with a drive-thru on every corner, a formal tea is more of a novelty than a necessity, but if you are looking for something a bit more sophisticated than a vending-machine candy bar to tame your mid-afternoon munchies, there are still plenty of places right here in Li’l Rhody where you can get your fill of old-world charm and elegance.
Brewed on Bellevue
What better place to find a proper Victorian tea service than the summer playground of the well-heeled of that era? Options abound in Newport, if you know where to look. One Bellevue at the Hotel Viking offers their afternoon tea every day from 2-4pm. Choose from the Classic Tea for $15.95, which includes sandwiches, scones, tea breads and truffles; or make it a Royal Tea for $24.95 and enjoy a glass of champagne or Kir Royale with your spread. For the tea newbie, they also offer a hosted Gilded Age Tea, weekends from January through March, which includes instruction in proper tea etiquette and a glass of champagne for $17.95.
1 Bellevue Avenue, Newport. 848-4824, www.hotelviking.com
Dunked in History
Based on the famous name alone, you know you’re in for a special treat at the Vanderbilt Grace. Offering tea year-round on Saturday and Sunday from 2-4pm, this historic luxury hotel offers an assortment of sandwiches, crumpets, scones, chocolate profiteroles and other fine desserts for $18.95. Or, really treat yourself and for $29.95, add a cocktail, bonbons and chocolate-covered strawberries. Call for reservations.
41 Mary Street, Newport. 846-6200, www.gracehotels.com/vanderbilt
In the Lap of Loose Tea
If warm and cozy is more your style than prim and proper, head over to the Spring Seasons Inn Tea Room on Saturday and Sunday from 12-5pm. Select your own antique teacup to drink from before settling into the living room and relaxing to soft piano music as you partake in an array of tea sandwiches, lemon bars, petit fours and other decadent desserts, as well as homemade scones and cream, for $17.95. For the smaller appetite, there is also a Cream Tea available (scones and a choice of teas). The services are offered seasonally, on the weekends from May until around Christmas, or you can arrange for private parties for 12 or more any day of the week. While you are there, stop by their gift shop, which features an assortment of teapots and cups, loose teas, small gifts and jewelry.
86 Spring Street, Newport. 849-0004, www.springseasonsinn.com
If you’d like a bit of history with your sipping, the Lippitt House Museum has launched its new twist on the traditional tea. They’ve partnered with Delsie Catering and Events to bring a feast of sweet and savory delights, a signature cocktail and a variety of freshly brewed teas about $40 in the atmosphere of one of the best preserved Victorian interiors in America. Happening on Sundays through December 20, this is a great way to spend time with friends and family and make new holiday traditions while enjoying this historic home, which hosted Christmas celebrations for many generations of the Lippitt family. Reservations are recommended. Seatings at 1pm and 4pm. 199 Hope Street. preserveri.org/lippitt-high-tea
Steeped in Style
When you are looking to impress your guests with fantastic views of the Atlantic and a setting that screams high class, look no further than the Ocean House in Watch Hill. From Friday through Sunday, 3-5pm, you will be treated to a medley of sandwiches, scones and pastries for $24 (or add champagne for $38) while you relax in the Living Room, complete with comfy couches and chairs and a roaring fireplace. “Resort casual” attire is required, see website for details; reservations are strongly suggested.
1 Bluff Avenue, Westerly. 584-7000, www.oceanhouseri.com
Levels of Luxury
Even if you are not looking to make a day trip of your tea party adventure, there are still plenty of places for the city folk to choose from within the typical Rhode Islander’s ten-mile-radius comfort zone. For a truly unique experience, head to the Treehouse Tavern and Bistro in Warwick, and choose to take your tea in any one of their five distinctive dining environments, from the “tree house room” to the piano room to the library to the outdoor garden. Tea service is offered Tuesday through Saturday, by reservation only. Depending on your appetite and your mood, enjoy a Sweet Tea including scones and assorted pastries for $19.50; add a variety of finger sandwiches and savory hors d’oeuvres to make it a High Tea for $32.50; or go all in with the Royal High Tea for $47.50, which includes all of above, plus champagne, wine or a cocktail, as well as a fruit and cheese course.
1094 Centreville Road, Warwick. 821-1105, www.thetreehousetavern.com
Good Things Come in Three
Also in Warwick, you will find Trinity Confections, a small eatery serving an array of soups, salads, quiche, sandwiches, scones, cookies, cakes, tea, coffee and lemonade, all for $25, all made in-house, from scratch. Teas are held by reservation only; call and speak to Janine to arrange your private party. Services are offered Tuesday through Saturday from 11am-4pm. While you are there, be sure to pick up some of their delectable sweets and fine French and Belgian chocolates, as well as other goodies from their retail shop.
Gateway Shopping Center, 1625 Warwick Avenue, Warwick. 681-4902, www.trinityconfections.net
Sip at the Snuggery
The Duck and Bunny in Providence has already built up quite the devoted fan base with their beyond-adorable décor and delicious crepes and desserts, but did you know they also offer a full tea service, all day, every day, along with their regular menu? For $18 per person, snack on an assortment of tea sandwiches, scones, cookies and, of course, their famous mini-cupcakes. The D&B also offers an After-school Tea on Tuesdays through Fridays from 3-5pm, with kid-friendly sandwiches made with such favorites as peanut butter and jelly (for the less refined palate), and caffeine-free teas for headache-free moms.
312 Wickenden Street, Providence. 270-3300, www.theduckandbunny.com
Snack en Manse
Finally, if you get the chance, don’t miss out on the seasonal teas, offered for only a brief time in April and December, at the Blithewold Mansion in Bristol. The Mansion is particularly lovely during the early spring when the flowers are just starting to bloom, and Christmas time when the entire grounds are decorated for the holidays. As the price of $30 ($22 for members) includes a tour of the Mansion and the surrounding gardens, you should plan to make a leisurely visit of it. Services are available by reservation only; special teas can be arranged at any time of year for groups.
101 Ferry Road, Bristol. 253-2707 ext. 21, www.blithewold.org