Not long ago, I checked into the Vista International hotel in Kansas City in the early afternoon in preparation for an evening business meeting. As the bellman opened the door to my room, he performed the usual tasks of explaining the obvious locations of the bed, bathroom and air conditioner.
As he has leaving, he gave me my key and wished me a pleasant stay. "Oh yes," he added, "will you be joining us for afternoon high tea downstairs?"
Was I in the right hotel? In the right city? Indeed, the bellman assured me, I was in Kansas City. And, he then told me, the hotel's afternoon high tea service was very popular with the guests as well as with the locals.
He was right. At 3:30 that afternoon, I went downstairs and, sure enough, there were a lot of tea drinkers quietly sipping away. For only $5.25, I was served assorted finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, and last but not least, my choice of teas.
It's Pouring All Over
As I soon discovered, the Vista is not the only hotel in Kansas City offering a traditional afternoon high tea service. And Kansas City is just one of dozens of U.S. cities where hotels are offering them.
It has essentially become the newest, most popular service at a few hundred U.S. and foreign hotels.
The high teas have become extremely popular with businessmen looking for ways to conduct their business outside their hotel room, but not outside their hotel. As a result, in many cities, the hotel afternoon high tea is becoming yet another power business meal.
The high tea has also become a favorite with vacationers staying at hotels as a way to quietly relax or meet new people in a peaceful public setting.
And finally, the concept of the high tea has gained followers among hoteliers. Not surprisingly, the high tea service tends to generate additional revenue for hotels during a time of the day when their public areas and restaurants are usually dormant.
Anyone with a sense of history can tell you that the afternoon high tea service is anything but new.
Almost all the credit goes to Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. The 18th-Century aristocrat complained often of having a sinking feeling in the afternoon.
This was soon remedied by her house servants, who served tea and cakes. She invited her friends to her London town house to enjoy the daily experience and the tradition was launched.
At some hotels, maintaining an afternoon tea custom has become a logistical problem.
"It's very difficult to import the kind of tea we want here," said Clyde Min, general manager of the Regent hotel in Bangkok. "But we planned ahead and did it."
The Regent tea is patterned after the Dorchester Hotel's high tea in London. The hotel offers a full line of Twinings teas, as well as matoon tea, a local Thai tea made from bale fruit.
Each afternoon from 3 to 6 local Bangkok socialites as well as hotel guests gather for the tea. As a small chamber music group plays from the balcony, the hotel offers the teas, along with finger sandwiches, scones, fresh fruit and a selection of Thai dim sum. "The dim sum," Min said, "is to let them know we've maintained the British traditions but to remind them they're still in Thailand."
Bargain in Thailand
The price for the high tea in Bangkok (about U.S. $3.80) is also much less expensive than it is at the Dorchester, the Ritz or the Savoy. At these three London hotels, tea service can get pricey. At the Ritz, tea runs 8 (about $12) a head. At the Savoy, it's 7.50, and the Dorchester will set you back 7.30.
Still, reservations at these legendary high tea hotels are a must. Despite the high prices, it is not unusual for afternoon teas to be see-and-be-seen, sold-out events. London's society ladies frequent the teas, and it's not unusual for the Queen Mother or other members of the Royal family to drop in occasionally at the hotels to sample a few scones with clotted cream.
However, back in the United States, even at the hotels that have been offering the traditional service for quite some time, afternoon high teas are no longer the exclusive bastion of socialites looking for ways to quietly and delicately pass the time between more formal meals.
The Clift Hotel in San Francisco offers an excellent tea service. The Mayfair Regent in Chicago takes their tea service very seriously. The hotel's large and beautifully appointed tearoom offers guests 24 separate tea choices, as well as a great view of Lake Michigan.
Fashions, Fox Trots
Some hotels have combined their tea service with afternoon dancing, especially on Friday afternoons.
Other hotels, like the Mandarin in Vancouver, offer a series of "fashion teas" in the afternoon.
The Lancaster hotel in Houston converts their lobby each afternoon for an elegant tea service. And its tea menu provides guests with a short history of tea drinking.