For centuries, tea has been steeped in ceremony and tradition across the globe. It’s a beverage that has formal rituals that go way beyond even the swishing and swirling and sniffing of wine. In Britain, the image of tea comes with doilies, little hand-painted roses on fine china cups, tiered racks of finger sandwiches, scones, curd and clotted cream. Here in L.A., tearooms range from the posh hotel variety to cozy parlors and even a spot for little girls to bring their dolls and have a tea party à la Alice in Wonderland. Sure a chai tea latte at your corner Starbucks might give you a satisfying quick fix, but if you want to indulge in the grand traditions of tea drinking, here’s a rundown of a few local hot-water spots.
The Huntington Rose Garden Tea RoomNestled into one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens, looking out over three acres of roses, you can sip tea, munch on scones and serve yourself buffet style. Fill your plate with cheese, fruit, salads and finger sandwiches (Parma ham on rye, smoked salmon with caviar on pumpernickel), as well as fruit tarts, lemon cups and other pastries. And then go back for more — the food and tea are limitless. Reservations have to be made two weeks in advance, and you have to pay admission to the Huntington in addition to the cost of the tea, but you’ll feel like you’re in the English countryside. If you really plan in advance, 30 days to be exact, you can reserve space on the Huntington’s Tea & Tour. Groups of four or more get a 90-minute docent-led walking tour followed by the full English tea. After, you can wander through the art galleries and gardens to burn off the all-you-can-eat pastries.1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, (626) 405-2100. Call (626) 683-8131 for tearoom reservations (required two weeks ahead), or (626) 405-2240 to schedule Tea & Tour. Adults $19.95, children (ages 4–8) $9.98. Tea & Tour $49 per person, includes tea and admission. Tea served Tues.-Fri. noon-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 10:45 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Last seating 3:30 p.m.)
Four Seasons HotelThis is a setting for floppy wide-brimmed hats and lifted pinkies, but here in the Four Seasons’ Gardens restaurant, you’re more likely to see casual-chic actors in town to take a meeting. The traditional English service, available on Fridays and Saturdays only, includes all the finger sandwiches, clotted cream and silver-service finery you’d expect, and some unexpected delicacies too. The menu changes regularly, but you might find poached quail eggs with truffle mayonnaise on white toast, smoked Scottish salmon on granary bread, or a Maldivian tuna chapati. Teas range from Earl Grey and Darjeeling to Jasmine Blossom.300 S. Doheny Dr., L.A., (310) 273-2222. Afternoon tea $35 per person; royal tea $45 per person, includes glass of sparkling wine. Tea served Fri.-Sat. 3-4 p.m.
Hotel Bel-AirThe name comes from the Japanese word meaning “the way of tea,” and this place doesn’t fool around. With more than 300 varieties of leaf tea and infusions, you can find anything from tisanes to matés to rooibos. And while the philosophy of the place is rooted in the Eastern belief in tea as a spiritual practice, the food menu is decidedly European. At the Los Angeles location, you can get sandwiches like the Balzac, made of French ham and Gruyère cheese; in Pasadena, there’s the Limerick, with cucumber cream cheese and chives. Inside, both locations resemble midpriced Chinese or Thai restaurants, with colorful tablecloths and bistro chairs. Of course, tea is the main draw. Each location has huge wooden shelves fully stocked with tea. The Los Angeles shop has an extensive collection of teapots and teacups and other accouterments for sale, but they’re so crammed together it feels kind of like a thrift-shop hodgepodge.8422½ W. Third St., L.A., (323) 655-2056. 79 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 431-2832. Afternoon tea $15 per person. Open 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. in Pasadena).
American Girl CafeWhat little girl hasn’t slid into her mom’s high heels, donned an oversize dress, and served tea to teddy-bear and doll guests? American Girl supersizes this impulse with dolls that are marketed with their own backstory and wardrobe changes (Addy, whose parents were enslaved on a plantation, and Kit, who helps her family through the Great Depression), not to mention matching clothes for the doll’s owner and many, many accessories. If you have a little one who has fallen prey to the American Girl early shopping disease, give in and bring her for afternoon tea at the American Girl Cafe. The café, located in the Grove’s American Girl Place (modeled after the American Girl mothership in Chicago), has several themed shops, a bookstore and a theater, which means you can spend the whole day immersed in the fantasy. The afternoon tea, $18 per person, starts with cinnamon buns and includes all the sandwiches and sweets a little gal can dream of, as well as pink lemonade and hot cocoa if tea is too grown-up. 189 The Grove Dr., L.A., (877) 247-5223. Afternoon tea $18 per person. Call for seating times and reservations. Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Rose Tree CottageWhite-glove service and an obsession with proper English everything is the specialty at Edmund and Mary Fry’s famous Rose Tree Cottage — the classic tearoom for true aficionados — where the hot scones come on Royal Doulton bone china, the preserves are made in-house, and the shortbread will leave you craving more. In a real cottage setting, with overgrown shrubs outside and overstuffed bookshelves indoors, this is the place for grown-up American Girls. And if you’ve heard the news that the cottage has been threatened by a developer looking to convert the buildings to condos, it’s true that the tearoom may have to move. But the Frys have gotten a reprieve through this summer and have vowed to continue pouring in another Pasadena location if they are ultimately forced out. 828 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 793-3337. Reservations required. Afternoon tea $29.50 per person. Tea served in three seatings Tues.-Sun. 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.