My college roommate, who had lived for a time in Scotland, introduced me to the pleasures of tea. Every afternoon about 4, she would put the kettle on, measure shriveled tea leaves into a fat brown teapot, and we would discuss this and that over cups of coppery Darjeeling and slices of dense pound cake. When she was feeling flush, she would splurge on Devonshire cream and we would spread the thick, clotted cream on freshly baked scones dimpled with currants. That's what the English call a "cream tea."
"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as Afternoon Tea," Henry James wrote in his 1881 novel "Portrait of a Lady." And at some of the city's best hotels, a full-scale afternoon tea--usually finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam and an array of miniature pastries lavish enough to satisfy the greediest sweet tooth--is an affordable luxury. And if you don't like tea, you can always order coffee.
The Peninsula: The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong is renowned for its traditional English afternoon teas. The Peninsula Beverly Hills is upholding the same high standard. Tea is served in the Living Room, a lovely room that has immense down-filled sofas in front of twin fireplaces. When the patio doors are open, a cool breeze ruffles the potted palms. Tea is unhurried, relaxed--no rush to turn the tables here. The Peninsula gets top billing for its attention to quality. A variety of distinguished loose-leaf teas are served in silver teapots with elegant brocade cozies. The china is delicate, and savories and sweets are arranged on a tiered silver holder. Luscious strawberries come with a silver sauce boat of softly whipped unsweetened cream. A harpist plays in the background as we bite into the classic, flaky scones, served warm with a bowl of clotted cream and thimbles of jam. Finger sandwiches are fresh and delicious, and every one of the pastries is perfectly executed. Highly recommended.
\o7 The Peninsula, 9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd. Beverly Hills; (310) 273-4888. Tea served from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Reservations recommended. Royal tea, $21.50; full tea, $17.50; light tea, $14.50.
Wyndham Checkers Hotel: At the last minute, I call to see whether Checkers, the small luxury hotel Downtown, serves afternoon tea. It does, and when I arrive with two friends instead of one, the waiter is momentarily disconcerted. It will take a few minutes to pepare the extra sandwiches, he tells us as we settle into one of the deep, comfortable sofas. The food is wonderful. Instead of doling out a few finger sandwiches, they give us a large platter covered with enticing, freshly made tea sandwiches: good smoked salmon, terrific tomato and cucumber with herb-flecked cream cheese, and our favorite, walnuts on buttered brown bread. A basket of fabulous big fluffy scones are straight from the oven, served with whipped cream and tiny bowls of very good homemade jam. Next comes an equally sumptuous platter of pastries: dark fudgy brownies, butter cookies, a superb layered chocolate cake and one of the best truffles I've ever eaten. It is only the tea that disappoints. It's made from tea bags, not loose leaves (although the hotel insists that it generally serves loose-leaf tea). But when we run out of tea, the waiter brings us another round. Highly recommended.
\o7 Wyndham Checkers Hotel, 535 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 624-0000. Tea served daily in bar area from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations recommended. Full tea, $12.50\f7 .
Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel: Like the Peninsula, the Ritz-Carlton hotels are known for serving afternoon tea. At the posh Laguna Niguel site, exquisite orchids, gleaming twin silver samovars and bookshelves filled with age-spotted leather-bound tomes set the mood in the Library, which overlooks the ocean at Dana Point. But tables are shoved uncomfortably close. While the service is attentive and gracious, sandwiches and pastries are plated beforehand; instead of a separate scone course, a single scone is plopped down among the pastries. Loose-leaf teas from the respected Harney & Sons Tea Co. are served from classic china teapots, kept warm under cozies at a side table. My mother is duly impressed by the hotel's gorgeous setting. But the tea? "Not quite up to the standard I expect from the Ritz-Carlton," she says. I have to agree.
\o7 Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, One Ritz-Carlton Drive, Dana Point; (714) 240-5008. Tea served Monday to Friday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Reservations required. Royal tea, $27; full tea, $19.50; Pacific tea, $19.50; light tea, $15.