In a stately room of the Boston Public Library, with domed ceilings painted Wedgewood blue and arched windows overlooking the Italianate courtyard, my son and I eye each other gleefully through the triple tiers of a tea tray. The bottom plate holds an elegant geometry of sandwiches: rectangles of pumpernickel overlayed with smoked salmon, curried chicken salad embraced by perfect circles of whole wheat, squares topped with thin slices of cucumber and lemon cream, lobster salad on spheres of brioche. The top offers scones with Devonshire cream, raspberry preserves, and lemon curd. And in the middle — the best part, at least as far as one of us is concerned — are macarons, petits fours, alfajores, mini cheesecakes, and other tiny, clever, pretty sweets. “Pinkies up!,” my kid chortles, swigging hot cocoa, then removes his jacket to get to work.
Afternoon tea wasn’t part of my childhood, but now it is part of his. For many families it is both treat and longstanding tradition. On Mother’s Day, after a holiday performance of “The Nutcracker,” to mark a special occasion, generations might gather at a fancy hotel or tea parlor for finger sandwiches, a hot cuppa, and the pleasure of one another’s company. This in-between-meals meal has been a custom since the 1800s, when artificial lighting was introduced, dinner was served later, and upper-class folk found themselves peckish during their social calls. Not many things stay in fashion for that long, but judging by the wait times to get a reservation, afternoon tea is pulling it off. Thanks in part to “Bridgerton” buzz and coronation curiosity, if you’d like to have tea on a weekend, at this point you’ll be booking well into July at many local spots.
But there’s more to it than Anglophilia. Afternoon tea is the perfect nonmeal for our times. “Afternoon tea is the new happy hour,” declared last year’s edition of Pinterest Predicts, an annual report highlighting rising trends on the visual app. “In 2022, people will choose [D]arjeeling with a friend over drinks after work. Afternoon tea is more than a meal — it’s a moment, an aesthetic, a pose. Searches for ‘tea party aesthetic’ and ‘drinking tea pose’ are climbing across all age groups.”
According to Yelp’s June 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, experience-focused dining is exploding, with a rise in concepts like conveyor-belt sushi, dinner theater, and supper clubs. Afternoon tea seems made for social media, a chance to dress up and take selfies with beautiful food in eye-catching settings — architecturally significant libraries, as with the BPL’s Courtyard Tea Room; historic inns with lovely gardens, as at Lexington’s Inn at Hastings Park; museums like Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, serving cream tea at Abigail’s Tea Room; quirky bungalows decorated with individual style, like the lavishly pink, floral, and festive Fancy That Tea House & Tea Shoppe in Walpole. It also offers a sense of occasion and festivity for the increasing number of people who don’t drink or are cutting back on alcohol. (According to market research company NielsenIQ, 66 percent of millennials said they were making efforts to reduce consumption in 2019; more than 87 percent of millennials are also tea drinkers, per the Tea Association of the USA.)
When businesses reopened after the lifting of COVID restrictions, some hotels stopped offering afternoon tea — perhaps most notably the Four Seasons on Boylston Street, which closed its beloved Bristol Lounge. Two former bartenders at Drink, Patrick Brewster and Lee Morgan, saw an opportunity. Brewster had always wanted to open a cocktail bar, but the cost of a full liquor license in Boston and other hurdles made that impractical. “I put pen to paper and realized this was something that could work,” Brewster says.
In February, the two opened Silver Dove Afternoon Tea — an intimate sliver of a room with just 24 seats near Government Center. There’s not as much daylight between tearoom and cocktail bar as it might seem. “What afternoon tea does for the guest is similar to what a good cocktail bar does,” Brewster says. “What we’re trying to do is recapture the romance of a bygone era, and it’s a similar era — the late 1800s to the turn of the century.”
On a recent afternoon, the green velvet banquette hosts a younger crowd for asparagus canapes, coronation chicken salad, vanilla macarons, chocolate bombes, and the requisite scones. Guests pour oolongs and pu-erhs from gold-rimmed white teapots emblazoned with Silver Dove’s logo. Some sip glasses of bubbly. And there are craft cocktails, too, thanks to a cordials license — from the summery British Pimm’s Cup to an Old Fashioned riff made with lapsang souchong tincture to, yes, an espresso martini. (Morgan got his start in the hospitality industry as a barista.)
Silver Dove isn’t the only new afternoon tea in town. Along with mainstays like the long-running Wenham Tea House, local options now include Beacon Hill Books & Cafe (opened in late 2022) and a second branch of Belmont’s Vintage Tea & Cake Co. in Lexington (opened earlier this year).
This reflects a nationwide rebound, says Angela Renals, founder of Destination Tea, a website devoted to afternoon tea with a directory of places to partake across the country. More than 11 percent of afternoon teas in the United States disappeared because of the pandemic, she says. “In 2022, the comeback began. As of now, in 2023, we have 76 new tearooms. It’s still down 6 percent-ish from 2018, but it’s a major comeback if you consider how unique and rare a tearoom is.”
Renals sees new interest in afternoon tea exploding, especially among a younger crowd. Destination Tea’s biggest demographic is 25- to 34-year-olds. Before the pandemic, she says, the website had about 380 visitors a day. Now it gets anywhere from 900 to 1,000. The top page people visit: the “What to Wear” section of her “Afternoon Tea 101″ for newbies. “This says to me that people are just learning about it.”
Just please don’t call it “high tea”: That refers to dinner with tea and possibly dessert. “It’s hearty, like meat pies and cheese and bread and fish with pickled vegetables,” she says. “Afternoon tea” is the one with the three-tier tray. Add champagne and it’s “royal tea”; add a little cake and it’s “celebration tea.” Just want tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam? You’re having “cream tea.”
If afternoon tea is steeped in tradition, that doesn’t mean it can’t innovate, particularly in America. Renals sees businesses incorporating their own cultural traditions — for example, adding miniature empanadas to the tea tray alongside finger sandwiches. Themed teas — Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland — have become popular on this side of the pond. And, in many cases because of the pandemic, operators are increasingly offering afternoon tea to go.
At Fancy That, the in-person experience might be the biggest part of the draw, but it can be challenging to get a reservation. Tea to go, packed up neatly in pink boxes with a sachet of your choice from more than 120 tea blends, is thus a welcome addition. Owner Sarah Erlandson — who “came to the planet with a love for china and a reverence for all things vintage,” she says — has decorated her little warren of rooms in every possible shade of pink, abundant mismatched floral fabrics, Victorian loveseats, crystal chandeliers, and zebra-print rugs, with giant macarons painted on the staircase wall. A former radio producer and DJ who had planned to go to law school, she and husband Brad McCracken opened the tea parlor and shop 10 years ago, showcasing the vintage china collection she rented out for events.
It’s rose-colored eye candy, and people arrive dressed up: in birthday crowns and sashes, fancy dresses and plumed hats, Lolita fashions and Victorian-inspired costumes. Last week, a group of women wearing “Bridgerton” garb came in. “My vibe is young and fun and flirty,” Erlandson says. “It attracts all ages, but the core demographic is young people who are ‘Bridgerton’ fans. ‘Harry Potter’ helped make tea hip. Taylor Swift’s song ‘Anti-Hero’ talks about teatime. All these things help bring it to the forefront.”
Afternoon tea can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. At Fancy That, it costs $37 per person, not including optional alcoholic beverages. The accessible price tag means people can come again and again. “I have seen so many different walks of life come through this door — all shapes, sizes, and colors. Everyone can have a beautiful time and connect over tea,” Erlandson says. “One of my favorite quotes is by Rumi: ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do.’ I feel extremely grateful to do this. You just never know what someone’s burden is when they come through the door.
“I’m not saving whales, I didn’t find the cure for cancer, I didn’t write a best-selling novel, but I’m giving people these moments where they can just set it all aside. It feels very meaningful.”
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.