Afternoon tea at Saint Paul Hotel is a Victorian-style happy hour

Patrons of afternoon tea at The St. Paul Hotel// Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Patrons of afternoon tea at The Saint Paul Hotel // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

I committed a faux pas at afternoon tea. This is actually difficult to do, but I managed it by arriving late. My misstep was made clear not from the staff’s response, who seemed quite unruffled, but in arriving only three minutes past the hour to find the entirety of the floor already seated and sipping brimful cups of tea. One arrives to tea on time, because not one minute should be missed.

The difficulty of committing a faux pas is one of the finest aspects of The Saint Paul Hotel’s tea service, which features a five-course meal and unlimited tea, staged over a two-hour period. The hotel has selected only the delicious, indulgent elements of the traditional British-style tea and eschewed stuffy protocol or awkward formalities.

Doctor your tea as you like (or choose coffee instead), slouch, sit up straight, use a fork or your hands for that scone. Etiquette is open to interpretation. The sum of this calculation is a dream of an afternoon, conversation tumbling and courses flowing in this sanctuary against the to do’s and timelines of the average day.

According to Julie Frantz, the hotel’s Tea Supervisor, interest in tea swings like a pendulum and is currently on the rise, bolstered by a resurgence of Victorian culture on television shows like “Downton Abbey” and “The Crown,” and also what she suspects is a renewed desire for face-to-face interactions. The Saint Paul Hotel has responded to a growing demand for reservations by expanding tea to additional specialty teas, as well as the third Thursday of each month.

One of the tables set for afternoon tea at The Saint Paul Hotel // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

One of the tables set for afternoon tea at The Saint Paul Hotel // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

Frantz guided me to a round, two-person table carrying a tidy crowd of silverware, tea fixings, and a pair of mismatched cups—one of the charming features that helps establish the informality of the service. Table setups vary, from coffee tables and sofas to a circle of generous armchairs, and are clustered between the lobby’s gilded columns. We aren’t exactly buffered from the hotel’s administrative goings-on, but with soft piano notes and intimate table settingsthe backpacked kids and roller bags that periodically run across one’s peripheral vision are easily ignored.

Courses are carefully timed and tables simultaneously served, and wait staff wear black and white (yes, there are frilly aprons) but their service is professional without being stiff. One waitress paired her uniform with bright red, bejeweled cat glasses.

Guests, patrons and wait staff all enjoying the piano music being played inside The Saint Paul Hotel during afternoon tea // Photos by Madalyn Rowell

Request coffee, chamomile, or champagne, but I’d recommend at least one cup of The Saint Paul Hotel’s signature black currant tea, produced by the Rishi Tea company out of Wisconsin. The naturally sweet brew sips easy, and I found a shock of lemon juice balanced it out to my taste.

A dash of cream, and several sips later, the first course arrived. A trio of canapes: cucumber slivers with Benedictine on crustless brown bread, a tiny wodge of goat cheese and artichoke puff pastry and, the most memorable, a dark fennel cracker dotted with smoked tomato aioli (available with or without shrimp). I washed down this pretty start with a second cup brightened by lemon wedges and perfect sugar cubes nipped from the silver tiered tray.

I say second cup, but it’s nearly impossible to track one’s consumption: servers are constantly monitoring the tables to catch and correct dwindling teacups, and I never saw the bottom of mine. Both my tea-mate and I departed on a cloud of caffeine buzz. If you’re sensitive, you may want to opt for a decaffeinated beverage.

A member of the wait staff refills a cup of tea // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

A member of the wait staff refills a cup of tea // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

The second course was a miniature vegetable or duck confit pot pie served in a tin measuring cup, crust crisping over the lip. The nod to tradition and the nonchalance in the presentation is effective.

Some homely presentation confirms this freedom from propriety. The third course arrived as one server brought a basket of warm orange scones, all crumbs and sugar crystals: a second, armed with a full crock of whipped brandy butter, lopped off a healthy smear on each plate. Sure, you could use a knife, but proper indulgence demands you drag a hunk of melting, rough-edged scone through the butter and pop it directly in your mouth.

The first course of afternoon tea, a trio of canapes: cucumber slivers with benedictine on crustless brown bread, a tiny wodge of goat cheese and artichoke puff pastry and a dark fennel cracker dotted with smoked tomato aioli // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

The first course of afternoon tea, a trio of canapes: cucumber slivers with Benedictine on crustless brown bread, a tiny wodge of goat cheese and artichoke puff pastry, and a dark fennel cracker dotted with smoked tomato aioli // Photo by Madalyn Rowell

The piano set took a pause mid-service, dissipating the comfortable cocoon around me and my tea partner and I suddenly became aware of the rest of the tea drinkers in the room. We watched a grandmother lead her granddaughter to the bathroom, and my tablemate remarked on the accessibility the tea offers to multiple generations. It’s true: the dainty settings and overlarge, engulfing armchairs are reminiscent of childhood tea parties—we might all be children here.

More sweets arrived: a snowflake cookie, apropos for a snowy March; a raspberry macaron winked at just-round-the-bend spring, while a charred mallow crowning the s’mores bar beckoned dreams of cabin weather. It’s all enchanting. By this point, the bite-sized courses were adding up to a full meal, and we’d sunk into our chairs, cradling cups over full bellies.

The final dish revealed no fewer than five birthday celebrations, announced on the piano and with candle-crowned berry crostatas for the guests of honor. Frantz says the teas are common for showers and anniversaries. This course also signaled the service’s end, a somewhat surprising realization: somewhere, between sips and stories, time had suspended itself. Servers offered a final warm up of tea as they cleared plates and guests trickled out, but slowly. No one in a rush to leave the interlude.

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Who Should Go? All ages and party sizes are welcome (although Frantz does caution that large groups looking for a rowdy time might be happier somewhere else).

Is there an attire? No. Attendees will feel comfortable in everything from sundresses to jeans. That said, many tend to dress up a bit—you’re guaranteed to see at least one string of pearls.

If you go, bring…

  • Someone you have a lot to say to. You’ll have two hours of uninterrupted facetime.
  • Awareness of your caffeine tolerance. It’s not coffee, but those cups of tea add up.

Other notes: Traditional teas are $42 per person. Specialty teas are $50–$55 per person. The food menu changes periodically.