- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

NEW YORK — Teatime in Manhattan is much more than scones and finger sandwiches. Afternoon tea not only serves as a tonic for weary sightseers, but also can help them experience aspects of the city they might miss otherwise.

A budget traveler who never could afford a luxury hotel can use the hotel’s $30 afternoon tea as a window into that high-class world. A tourist who has spent the day waiting in line at crowded landmarks may relish the chance to sit in a friendly neighborhood cafe.

If you don’t have time for the decorative-arts collections at the city’s museums, you can delight in the way afternoon tea showcases many everyday objects made beautiful: silver tea strainers, bone-china cups and teapots shaped like castles.

If you’re downtown, try the exquisite Lady Mendl’s, where you’ll be charmed by Gramercy Park’s streetscapes; Tea & Sympathy, a cozy British cafe in Greenwich Village; or the trendy T Salon near the Flatiron Building. Uptown, a Japanese-themed tea awaits at Takashimaya, and Alice’s Tea Cup pays tribute to Lewis Carroll. The prestigious hotels serve memorable teas.

TAKASHIMAYA’S TEA BOX

Fifth Avenue between 50th and 59th streets is shopping paradise, from the ritzy Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston to mass-market Disney and H&M.; Takashimaya, an upscale Japanese department store, is part of the mix; the Tea Box, its in-store cafe, offers an “eastwest tea” unlike any other.

The fusion of flavors and textures artfully arranged on a lacquered black tray includes vegetable chips, miniwraps, a tiny focaccia smeared with horseradish cream and sushi cut to look like a finger sandwich, with sticky rice instead of bread. Goodies include sugared nuts, sliced fruit, spice cake, butter cookies, candied ginger dipped in chocolate and luscious mocha pudding. Sugar comes crystallized on a stick so you can sweeten and stir your tea simultaneously.

The decor is soothingly minimalist, with stone-colored china, beige fabric billowing from the ceiling, and burlap-colored chairs. The muted effect is a perfect backdrop for the explosion of tastes and colors in the meal; the clientele is young, chic and international.

Location: 693 Fifth Ave., near 54th Street. Hours: 3 to 5:45 p.m. Phone: 212/350-0179. Cost: $18 for “eastwest” tea.

TEA & SYMPATHY

Tea & Sympathy is a bustling cafe in Greenwich Village, with plastic flowered tablecloths and charmingly mismatched china, including teapots shaped like clocks, globes and castles. The sandwiches — chicken, egg and tuna salad — are homey, dripping with mayonnaise; the scones are heavenly — light, doughy and slightly salty; and the desserts are yummy but not gourmet — a chocolate cupcake and simple white cake.

Don’t be put off by the stiff note on the door that begins, “Tea & Sympathy girls are always right,” followed by rules about waiting outside until everyone in your party is present. The staff — along with some customers — consists of friendly expat Brits.

You’ll feel as if you’re having tea in someone’s home in England rather than with the queen — though her portrait is on the wall. Afterward, head east and south toward Washington Square Park for the heart of the Village; take in the boutiques, artsy gift shops and colorful street life as you stroll.

Location: 108 Greenwich Ave., between 13th and 14th streets, near Seventh Avenue. Hours: noon until sandwiches run out, around 6:30 p.m. Phone: 212/807-8329. Cost: $19.95.

LADY MENDL’S TEA SALON

Exquisite is the word for both the setting and the menu. The salon is named for Lady Mendl (born Elsie de Woolf), who was credited with originating the field of interior design; she certainly would have approved of its refined decor — wall sconces, decorative plaster molding, wooden arches with pocket doors, Oriental rugs, lace tablecloths and Lenox china trimmed in gold.

The food is equally divine, from the sugar cubes embellished with tiny pink flowers to such delectable sandwiches as goat cheese on seven-grain bread. You’ll also get salad, scones, cookies, chocolate-covered strawberries and a delicate cake made from swirled layers of crepes and cream.

Architecture and urban history buffs will love the 19th-century Greek Revival and Victorian Gothic town houses of Gramercy Square. You’ll find the Inn at Irving Place in one of these restored beauties — but you’ll have to look carefully for it. This discreet $400-a-night hotel has no canopy or doorman — just a picture of a tiny teacup on the door.

Location: 56 Irving Place, between 17th and 18th streets. Reservations required for seatings at 3 p.m. or 5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; at 2 p.m. or 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Phone: 212/533-4466. Cost: $30.

ALICE’S TEA CUP

Although passages from “Alice in Wonderland” adorn the walls, traditional English tea has a distinct American spin at this unpretentious Upper West Side cafe, complete with hearty ham-and-cheese sandwiches, pumpkin scones and chocolate chip cookies.

The clientele is local and female, from college students to stroller-pushing mommies; twin actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen named Alice’s as a favorite eatery in a recent issue of Teen People. Walk off your meal with a trip to the American Museum of Natural History at 81st Street and Central Park West; Lincoln Center at 65th Street and Broadway; or Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial in Central Park between 71st and 74th streets.

Location: 102 W. 73rd St., near Columbus Avenue. Hours: Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; weekends, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Phone: 212/799-3006. Cost: $20, $25 or $30 depending on the quantity of food; $8 for scones and a pot of tea.

T SALON

This is the grooviest afternoon tea in New York, a hippie-chic meal with the feel of a college-town cafe, at a price only a gainfully employed grown-up can afford. Here you’ll find distressed wood finishes, soft rock music, Eastern objets d’art and chai as well as Darjeeling.

The sandwiches retain their crusts, and one includes alfalfa sprouts; the scones are pre-sliced and taste more like fruit bread than biscuits. All is yummy, from the goat cheese and arugula on raisin bread to the Earl Grey-flavored chocolate cake.

While you’re in the area, check out the trendy home-design stores that line the side streets; visit Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building, an architectural marvel at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street; and take in the collection of antique irons in the window of Iron Copy Store at 25. E. 20th St. Next door is Trixie+Peanut, a store devoted to dog fashion.

Location: 11 E. 20 St. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Phone: 212/358-0506. Cost: $35.

WORTH MENTIONING

At Cafe Kinokuniya, inside the Kinokuniya Books store, 10 W. 49th St., $10 buys sandwiches, tea and a bag of delightful green-tea cookies. The $20 tea at American Girl Place, 609 Fifth Ave., features peanut butter and jelly and hot cocoa. Both places are in Rockefeller Center.

TIPS FOR TEA

Use a strainer if one is provided to avoid leaves in your tea. Ask for caffeine-free tea if you’re prone to sleeplessness. The T Salon and Alice’s Tea Cup have bargains on tea for two; others charge full price per person, but don’t hesitate to have tea by yourself — it’s a meal that can be fully enjoyed in solitude.

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