Few things are lovelier than a well-executed afternoon tea. All the little silver and china accoutrements, the artfully presented finger foods, the warm and giddy conversation -- it's enough to make any woman (and yes, some men) wish we lived in different, more civil, more genteel times. And maybe things are starting to turn that way, because in the past few weeks, two new tearooms have opened in greater St. Louis: the Sappington Barn Restaurant and Tea Room and the Ladies of Lucerne.
Before braving the steeped waters at those two establishments, though, I wanted to try out the place that I've heard is the local gold standard for afternoon-tea services: the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton. Not a minute after being seated in the hotel's lobby lounge, my friend Maria and I knew we'd entered upper-crust society when we spotted an elderly woman across the room decked out in an emerald-green fitted blazer (made of velvet) and a black pillbox hat.
We were offered a choice of just three teas: Earl Grey, mango and "Afternoon Darling," which we were told was a curious blend containing grape essences, but we were pretty sure after tasting it that it was Darjeeling and our server simply read the word wrong. The Ritz-Carlton uses loose tea, rather than bags. For any serious tea aficionado, this is an absolute requirement, as loose tea means unprocessed tea. Unfortunately, it's rare in these parts. Then again, Maria and I aren't too particular about our tea; for us the best thing about the Ritz's presentation was the little swizzle stick poking out of the teapot's spout, to filter the liquid from the leaves when pouring. We also admired our handsome silver tea strainers (positioned over the mouth of the teacup during the pour) and their matching silver rests.
Savories and sweets are served on a traditional three-tiered tray: finger sandwiches and similar items up top, warm scones with a condiment cup of Devonshire (a.k.a. clotted) cream in the middle, sweeter pastries on the bottom. More traditional items, such as cucumber sandwiches and formidable pieces of smoked salmon standing upright on bread rounds, are offset by curiosities like a mouthful of no-mayo crab salad sandwiched in a puff pastry shell, and an asparagus spear wrapped in a thin slice of ham wrapped in a piece of tortilla topped by a slice of pimiento olive. This last item looks and sounds like something I'd come up with only if those were the last four foodstuffs in my refrigerator (and certainly, tortillas are not customarily seen at tea), but it was oddly satisfying nonetheless. We went gaga for the scones, made fresh on the premises and dotted with raisins, and the delicious variety of pastries on the bottom tray, which included bite-size fruit tarts, chocolate madeleines, moist fig cake and miniature cups of chocolate mousse cradled in cookie shells. We departed feeling close to royalty.
As refined and luxurious as the tea at Ritz-Carlton is, the service at the recently reopened Sappington Barn Restaurant and Tea Room is equally folksy and homey. New owner Bess Fitzmaurice has outfitted her establishment, on the bucolic grounds of the historic Sappington House -- a 200-year-old, two-story brick structure decorated in period furnishings and open to the public -- in old-fashioned splendor: floral-printed china, baby baptismal dresses, antique everything. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the lunch and tea room offer a peaceful view of a small pond and hill that makes it hard to believe you're just a stone's throw from the Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood.
Bess -- such a personable character that it seems inappropriate to refer to her by her last name -- boasts a restaurant background that includes a managing stint at the Starlight Room at the Chase Park Plaza hotel. She's also of Greek descent and new at afternoon teas, two qualities that factor into Sappington's tea service with surprising, enthusiastic results. The tea is bagged Stash Premium, available in about ten varieties. Our first course of finger foods was a plate of spanakopita (spinach and cheese wrapped in phyllo) and tiropita (ground meat, done the same way). The second and third courses were brought to the table together: a plate of tangy chicken salad and Babybel-like cheese sandwiches on marble rye; and a tiered tray of dessert items, starring some mildly sweet Greek pastries and a handful of delightful cream puffs.
Bess apologized that she had no scones for us, saying that they hadn't been delivered that day. But such a transgression mattered little when the service and atmosphere were so friendly. At one point Maria had a minor coughing fit (she was just getting over a cold) and our kind server actually patted her on the back as she poured her more tea. Bess asked if she might sit with us to pick our brains about the tea service, and we wound up having a nice conversation about the rituals of tea. Though she hasn't yet got much work experience in the tea business, Bess has clearly done her homework. She knew (I didn't) that "high tea" is so called not because of the hour at which it is served or because it descended from royal traditions, but because it was customarily served at a high dining-room table. In fact, high tea was started by blue-collar Brits who treated it as a light supper; it was low tea that started as a royal tradition, as that was served at what we now call coffee tables.
If my hopeful resolution to make everybody rich and full of leisure time doesn't happen until everybody retires, then we'll most likely take our teas at the Ladies of Lucerne, which must be what nice-old-lady heaven looks like. The tea room is nestled in the second floor of a two-story gift emporium, jam-packed with endless lavender lotions, scented sachets, fancy candles and the like. Eating here, therefore, feels a bit like eating in the middle of Pier 1.
As at the Sappington Barn, the teas at Ladies of Lucerne are bagged (Harney & Sons, widely considered the best bagged brand), but they come in the widest array of flavors: English Breakfast, green, Ceylon, peaches and ginger, hot cinnamon spice and the ubiquitous Earl Grey. As bowled over as we were by the scones and Devonshire cream at the Ritz-Carlton, the scones at Ladies of Lucerne came out on top for us thanks to the addition of lemon curd, a tart and equally creamy alternative.
But what's best about the tea service at Ladies of Lucerne is the option of having a Royal Tea, which means the usual assortment of foods and teas, accompanied by wine or port. I can't imagine anything making tea better than getting a little tipsy while you're having it.