Courtly afternoon tea at the Plaza
In New York City, it doesn’t get much more iconic than the Plaza. For more than 100 years, the hotel’s Palm Court has been the place for sophisticated afternoon tea and cocktails.
Arriving in a cab with three friends for our tea time, a waiting Plaza doorman opened the car door and escorted us to the stairs. Straight ahead through the foyer is our destination: the airy glass room filled with palm trees, greenery and mirrors. The ceiling is a stained-glass dome meant to mimic the original 1907 design. In 2013 the Palm Court was renovated to include a bar and new menu.
Formerly called the “lounge” or “tearoom,” the Palm Court was not formally named until the mid-1930s, according to Trevor Sherman, vice president of food and beverage at the Plaza. “We have many people from all walks of life enjoy the traditional afternoon tea and on any given day, you can spot tastemakers, influencers and celebrities,” he says.
I had made a reservation, but on that wintry afternoon, the Palm Court was quiet — no celebrities, just a table of women in chic fascinators celebrating a birthday and some mothers with daughters enjoying the adorable Children’s Eloise Tea. Hats are not a requirement, but the Palm Court does encourage elegant dress or “business casual,” Sherman says. I wore suede pants and a sweater and fit in just fine.
The origin of the English tradition of afternoon tea is credited to Anna, Duchess of Bedford, a friend of Queen Victoria. The duchess and the queen ordered cake with their tea one day, and the rest is history, Sherman says. Beginning in the mid-19th century, afternoon tea became a social event for the British upper class to bridge the gap between meals.
The hostess brought us to a mirrored table perfectly set with white and green teacups and pink menus. Inside the menu, we found three options: The New Yorker Tea, Champagne Tea and the Children’s Eloise Tea. There is an overwhelming variety of teas to choose from: black, green, white, red and oolong.
We opted for the New Yorker Tea, the most economical of the three. Still, high class comes at a high price. The New Yorker Tea is $75 per person and $95 per person to add a glass of champagne. We were allowed to share two portions of the treats among four people and each got our own large pot of tea. But we were hit with a sneaky $68 “share charge” when the bill came.
The two-person tower came with two of each treat and four scones. We meticulously cut each one in half to share among four people. The finger sandwiches, which wouldn’t normally entice me, were somehow delicious and full of flavor. These aren’t the typical cucumber-and-cream-cheese finger sandwiches; they were cucumber, buttermilk-dill cream cheese on rye bread, roasted chicken salad with black truffle aioli on whole wheat bread and deviled egg salad. There was also an adorable tiny ham-and-cheese baguette and a miniature bagel and lox.
For those looking for even fancier sandwiches, the Champagne Tea comes with foi gras, prime rib and lobster and a $105 per person price tag. For youngsters, the Eloise Tea comes with elegant kid-friendly treats like an apple and spice cupcake with mulled spice butter cream frosting and an organic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It all comes served on a cute pink tea set.
The menus change seasonally while staying true to traditional afternoon tea. “We like to be market leaders, and thus have had many styles of afternoon tea, from chocolate tea to a play off of Fitzgerald and their lifestyle to our current New York-style and Champagne tea, which is our more prestigious offering,” Sherman says.
The pastries on the tower’s top tier were decorated with delicate details like edible silver foil and a slab of white chocolate painted with an ornate floral pattern. They included tiny fruit tarts, baby chocolate éclairs, mini cheesecake and others. The scones came in two flavors, lemon and cranberry, and a trio of sauces: lemon curd, a double heavy cream and berry preserves. The lemon scone with lemon curd was my favorite treat. The winner in the tea category for me was Silver Needles, a very delicate floral tea the menu described as “the most prestigious of the Chinese white teas.”
Tasting and commenting on each bite-size morsel distracted us from how surprisingly full we were getting. I can’t imagine eating a whole portion.
We were warmly bid adieu and upon request were directed toward the restroom through the Champagne Bar and the Rose Room, two high-class bars filled with men in suits. The Rose Room is hosting a new event, Trivia Night, on Tuesdays and will feature curated and crafted food and beverages.
I recommend roaming around the Plaza beyond the three dining areas. Marble staircases and ornate hallways lead to ballrooms and vestibules that, when empty, make you feel like you’ve sneaked into a long-lost world of New York’s elite.
Lidia Ryan is a freelance writer and New York City explorer.