I grew up in Malaysia, a small Southeast Asian country that calls Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia its neighbors. It’s a relatively young country, achieving independence only in 1957. It was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British, with British rule being the longest. You might be wondering where this is going. This little history lesson is, quite simply, my roundabout way of justifying my penchant for afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea is still a common practice in Malaysia thanks to its colonizers, and many hotels and restaurants offer their take on it. Some keep with the original British traditions and serve scones and sandwiches on tiered plates. Others offer creative variations that incorporate more of the local cuisine. Here in New York City, there are also a number of places to partake in afternoon tea. While you can certainly find impressive spreads at the Ritz Carlton, the Plaza or the Mandarin Oriental, it can sometimes feel a little stuffy under the weight of all that tweed. So I’ve picked out a few places that offer a more informal, fun experience. Just in case you decide to throw your very own Mad Hatter Tea Party.
Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon
Of its many charms, high on the list is that Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon is named after the OG Girl Boss, the intriguing Elsie de Wolfe. She was an actress who became known for her self-curated costumes, she was one half of a gay power couple (her partner was an influential literary agent who represented the likes of Oscar Wilde), and she pioneered the entire craft of interior design (her impressive portfolio includes what is now the Frick Collection). And this was in the late 1800s and early 1900s!
Her namesake Victorian-style tea salon is housed in a brownstone on Irving Place. The beautiful gilded wallpaper and charmingly mismatched tableware create a warm and cozy atmosphere. The tea service, which is the only thing they offer, is a five-course affair that starts with a fruit cup, moves on to finger sandwiches, a scone, a mille crepe, and finally a small plate of finger desserts.
In the interest of full disclosure, we’ve been visiting Lady Mendl’s for years and we’ve definitely noticed some cost-cutting measures — you now get your tea cup refilled throughout your visit instead of getting your own pot of tea, and you get a fixed selection of finger sandwiches instead of being allowed to choose from a selection of sandwiches twice. But overall we contend that the experience is still quite enjoyable. It feels like you’re hanging out in a really rich relative’s living room, and the measured pace of the afternoon tea is perfect for catching up with friends on a crisp fall day.
56 Irving Pl
Wednesday-Friday 1 pm to 4 pm
Saturday-Sunday 12 pm to 5 pm
Crosby Street Hotel
The Crosby Street Hotel is the Firmdale Hotels’ only New York property; their eight other properties are located in London. This is why, we posit, the afternoon tea here is so darn good. We’ve always had a soft spot for the property with it’s funky and welcoming vibe, and we were happy to highlight their fun Film Club evenings in this post. But they also serve afternoon tea ALL DAY. I repeat: ALL DAY.
The Crosby Bar, where the tea is served, is a quirky, cheery, modern space. The tea service here is executed with more gastronomic flair, so in addition to housemade scones (which are excellent), you’ll get a chocolate English peppermint éclair and a smoked salmon crostini. And for those coming down off a holiday feast (or just a really rough Saturday night), you also have the option of going with a Detox version, which is free of gluten, dairy, egg, and refined sugars. The overall experience is a wonderful alternative to brunch, so put on your maddest hat and raise those pinky fingers.
79 Crosby St
Daily 7 am to 1 pm
Tea & Sympathy
Tea & Sympathy is an authentic British-run spot in the West Village where expats can find comforts of home like bangers n’ mash and shepherd’s pie. The tiny restaurant is charmingly covered in English kitsch. What you’ll get here is basic food service: they offer no bells and whistles. Some patrons find the service brusque: the eatery openly states on the menu that they discourage lingering and that they may require patrons to “relocate” to different tables if the need arises. Those waiting for a table have to self-police: they don’t take a number to text you later, in fact, they don’t even take a name. But the terse service isn’t in any way impolite, it’s just unapologetically British.
If you’re looking for a no-frills version of afternoon tea, then this is it. Everyone in the restaurant is there for the food. Their afternoon tea includes finger sandwiches, scones and a selection of cakes. The scones are exactly the way they should be: firm on the outside and still fluffy and crumbly on the inside. The tea selection is also excellent: I fell in love with their Apple Mango tea so I popped into the store next door and picked up some loose leaf to brew at home. And I may have picked up some Walkers crisps while I was at it.
108 Greenwich Ave
Monday-Thursday 10.00 am to 10.30 pm
Friday – Sunday 9.30 am – 10.30 pm
(call for afternoon tea hours)