True Luxury: Afternoon Tea in D.C.
March 23, 2023 @ 1:00pm
Afternoon tea is having a resurgence in D.C., and District Fray spoke with Blue Duck Tavern and Four Seasons Hotel, Washington DC to learn more about it.
It’s about 4 p.m. in England in the late 1800s. For the upper class, dinner is late and lunch is early — so at this point in the day, people start to get snacky. They start drinking tea, and then they add some scones. Soon, tea time becomes a social event: Society women dress up — gloves and everything — and sit in the drawing room where tea is served alongside not only scones, but tiny cakes and sandwiches, too.
Across the Atlantic in the U.S., this custom fades because World War I limits America’s access to tea. Instead, Americans drink coffee, which remains a staple in many people’s morning routines today. People didn’t forget about tea, but its ubiquity changed. Now, many D.C. restaurants are bringing the custom back, offering afternoon tea to anyone who wants to try the full experience.
Blue Duck Tavern (BDT) drew inspiration from a different part of the world — in a place where tea was popular much earlier than in the UK. BDT’s teas come from China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas, and they also serve herbal options hailing from Egypt, France and Argentina.
Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cleverdon started working for BDT at the end of the quarantine era of Covid-19.
“At one point pre-Covid, Blue Duck Tavern had probably one of the best tea programs on the East Coast,” he says. “And just by pure chance, I happen to be a tea drinker. When I got bored a few months ago, I remembered the tea program that was here, and I was very adamant about revitalizing it.”
To accompany their wide variety of teas, BDT serves sweet and savory bites. Cleverdon’s menu certainly won’t allow for any boredom: He plans to change it out seasonally and to keep experimenting with flavors that pair the tea and bites perfectly.
“When I first came on and explored the tea inventory, I tried this English Garden tea which really stumped me,” Cleverdon says. “I had never tasted anything like this — it had all these bright yellow fruits and interesting residual sweetness. And for me, it was screaming that it needs to be a crudo.”
Many of the savory bites are fish-focused and infused with tea when possible, to round out all flavors.
“We have some more nuanced and delicate teas,” he says. “They seem to get along well with some of the subtleties and more nuanced fats that you find in seafood.”
Cleverdon, above all, wants patrons to sit and bask in the experience as a whole.
“It’s about being present in a place and time, and enjoying time by yourself or with a friend,” he says. “We have this great selection of tea with enough variety that people can explore teas they may not even know existed, like fermented teas, which are incredibly complex. It’s a fun, aromatic experience.”
Just down the road, the Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, DC (FSH) offers an afternoon tea with English roots. Pastry Chef AJ Thalakkat worked for the Empress Hotel in British Columbia, becoming an expert in British tea pastries before taking his role in D.C. His menu at FSH highlights desserts and bites beloved by the royal family.
Every Saturday, high tea guests are served not only tea, but champagne too, along with traditional three-tiered stands full of savory bites and sweet petit-fours. The top tier starts the experience with a classic: raisin scones, clotted cream and a strawberry-lavender preserves. The savory tier offers Scottish smoked salmon, herbed crème fraiche and a caviar and multigrain baguette, and the sweets offer innovative treats like gluten-free tarts and classics like a Battenberg cake.
“Chef AJ’s knowledge of British Royal Family tea preferences is extensive, and we thought it would be fun to bring it back in sort of a tongue-in-cheek way,” Dayapal Chandolia, FSH’s director of food and beverage, says. “We love to see guests wearing fascinators and dressing up for tea.”
FSH is no stranger to a tea program. Before Bourbon Steak opened back in 2009, the hotel served afternoon tea in the gardens. As they changed their food and beverage program around, and after a Covid-19-induced hiatus, Chandolia is excited to see how the community has embraced the return of afternoon tea. Especially in our busy, D.C. work culture, Chandolia says it’s a great way for locals and hotel guests alike to slow down.
“Sitting down in the middle of the afternoon, enjoying a delicate tea cake or petit-four and sipping tea is incredibly beneficial,” he says. “Slowing down, enjoying the moment and sharing a delicious treat with a friend or loved one — that is true luxury.”
The Blue Duck Tavern serves afternoon tea on Sundays from 3-5 p.m. for $75 per person. You can set a reservation here.
The Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, D.C. serves afternoon tea on Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. for $95 per person. You can make a reservation here.
Blue Duck Tavern: 1201 24th St. NW, DC; blueducktavern.com // @blueducktavern
The Four Seasons DC: 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; fourseasons.com/washington // @fourseasons
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