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Afternoon Tea

An SF Station Survey of the Season's Most Popular Destinations

Writer Michelle Chan-Fishel contributed to this piece.

As the holidays approach, several hotels in downtown San Francisco roll out the red carpet for a tradition that is growing in popularity but is still widely misunderstood -- the institution of high tea. But before we get too far, let's dispose of a few misconceptions.

First, despite the fact that high tea is a perfect destination for entertaining visiting grandmothers, it is not a "chicks-only" zone. We spotted the male species in all four tea rooms reviewed in this article. (In fact, the Sprungli tea room in Zurich, Switzerland is known to be prime territory for young men cruising rich ladies of a certain age. But we digress.)

Second, although it is a pretty classy affair, high tea doesn't need to be stuffy; we made a special point to look for white gloved, hat-wearing, or tie-donning customers during our tearoom visits and didn't find any (except one charming table of ladies who are "regulars" at the Palace).

And finally, high tea isn't just about tea. It's a small banquet that leisurely unfolds over 90 minutes or more, allowing you to relax and enjoy. Your typical "fancy hotel" tea involves three dainty but rich courses consisting of sandwiches, scones, and assorted desserts. A classic selection of tea sandwiches will feature smoked salmon, egg salad, cucumber and other savories served on bite-sized geometries of crustless bread.

Fruit-studded scones are another standby. The scones are traditionally served with Devonshire clotted cream (a thick cream made from skimming cream from unpasteurized milk) imported from England, fresh lemon curd crafted in the hotel's own kitchens, and fruit preserves.

Desserts can vary widely, and often include glazed petit fours, buttery tea cookies and some kind of tartlet. Most tea rooms vary their selection daily, and will gladly substitute items for vegetarians. And for the holidays, many hotels offer special entertainment to embellish their year-round tea offerings geared for kids (e.g. peanut butter and jelly instead of cucumber; hot cider in lieu of Earl Grey), which feature gingerbread house decorating, visits by Santa, and teddy bears. Reservations are always recommended, and are a must for special holiday teas.

In spite of the preferences of this region's clientele, none of the hotels we visited offered environmentally conscious tea or salmon selections one might find at most Bay Area cafes. The Bay Area's ubiquitous fair trade and organic options were conspicuously absent from all of the tea selections. The salmon sandwiches served at all of the hotels were farmed, rather than wild.

Tea at the Ritz Carlton
The Ritz Carlton, our top choice, offers the City's most famous services in its Lobby Lounge, an intimate but airy room graced with large windows and larger-than-life oil paintings from the 1800s.

Overall, tea at the Ritz is very refined, from the soft-hued surroundings to the meticulously composed and subtly flavored sandwiches and desserts. The food is brought to the table in two courses, starting with the open-faced sandwiches, which are richly lined with mayonnaise and mousses and garnished with delicious tidbits -- a dab of caviar here, a shard of melon there.

Sips of champagne cocktail (your choice of several, including Kir Royale, Bellinis, etc.) cut the creaminess of the sandwiches and pastries. Pastry chef Gillian Baggon serves her classic currant scones warm, accompanied by sweet, bright lemon curd.

Seven delicate desserts are then presented, including a number of diminutive buttery cookies; on our visit, the rose-flavored mousse was especially good, and appeared as a smooth orb resting on a pale crust, garnished with a strip of candied orange peel.

The Ritz offers four variations on full tea, including a vegetarian version, which includes specially-made sandwiches such as eggplant pesto on rye. An a la carte menu allows you assemble a simpler and less expensive meal or, on the other hand, fortify it with indulgent extras, such as strawberries with vanilla cream.

The tea itself is a strong suit at the Ritz, which offers19 varieties (supplied by Taylors of Harrogate, tea purveyors to the British House of Parliament) that arrive at the table pre-brewed and strained. This is a definite plus, as most English tea rooms brew their tea directly in the teapots and deliver them to the table, creating an acrid brew by the third cup.

Full teas $29-41; children's tea, $29. From November 25 – December 24 the Ritz offers a Teddy Bear tea at 10am and 1pm for $58 per person, which includes a special gift for children.

Tea at the Fairmont Hotel
The Fairmont Hotel, perched atop Nob Hill, has been serving high tea in San Francisco for almost 100 years. Following extensive renovations, the Laurel Court restaurant is now the centerpiece of the Fairmont's grand lobby. Trompe l'oeil frescoes depicting bucolic scenes of the Italian countryside line the gently curving walls, while clusters of finely dressed tables gleam under chandeliers.

Like the Ritz, the Fairmont features live music from harpists, who pluck and strum perplexing medleys of Pachelbel's Canon in D, Cindy Lauper tunes and "Little Mermaid" ditties (weekends at the Fairmont, every day at the Ritz).

Tea begins with a flute of Cristalano Cava Brut, followed by a miniature feast proffered on a three-level "tea tier." Sandwiches are more intensely flavored than at other places. For example, the cucumber sandwich is a glassy mosaic of English cucumber slices laid on a grout of tangy Sonoma goat cheese, and topped with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. A coil of house-smoked salmon arrives on a nickel-sized circle of dark rye.

Pastry chef Steven Isaac serves his raisin scones with homemade, perfumey lemon curd and Devonshire cream. As for the tea itself, nine teas, including four herbals, are offered courtesy of Metropol Tea Company. Of all the tea services we sampled, the Fairmont offers one of the most generous spreads -- six types of sandwiches, two sizeable scones, and five desserts. Upon request, the staff will bring you extra food gratis; and on the relatively slow day we visited, our champagne glasses were recharged throughout the meal.

Full tea: $32.00, Children's Tea $25.00; Add-ons of champagne & caviar $25.00, chocolate truffles and champagne cocktail $10.00. Nutcracker Tea with gingerbread house decorating: November 25 – Jan 2, $49 per person, children under 3 free.

Tea at the Palace Hotel
The Palace Hotel hosts tea in its regal Garden Court. Graced by imperially high ceilings and gilded décor, the Garden Court is formal yet inviting. This oasis is conveniently located steps away from the Montgomery BART station.

The Palace Hotel's tea is a popular place for large groups, such as bridal showers and birthday parties of tiara-crowned schoolgirls learning proper manners at their first tea, giving the room a festive ambience.

The Palace's harpist sets the tea experience to a fitting score of classical music, free of tunes composed to be played on vinyl or celluloid. The Garden Court's tables are piled with three courses of delicacies before patrons arrive. Finger sandwiches here are enlivened with fresh herbs.

The Devonshire cream and lemon curd share the spotlight with rose petal jam, for a place on traditional currant scones brightened with lemon zest. Pastry chef Beat Wirz's dessert course bears the signature refinement characteristic of pastries from his Swiss homeland. On our visit, the pastry tray cradled two berry tarts, a chocolate-dipped strawberry, a chocolate tart, and a mocha cream puff.

Choose between eleven Harney & Sons teas brewed in pots at the table; only two are herbal selections. The Palace's optional champagne is Perrier Jouet Grand Brut.

Full teas $30-42; children's tea, $24. The Holiday Tea features a pianist on weekdays and the Santa Tea on Mondays includes a special gift for children and an appearance by Santa Claus. Menu prices do not change for the holidays. Year-round, make reservations one week in advance or longer during the holiday season; walk-ins are on a space-available basis only.

Tea at the King George Hotel
For a more casual afternoon tea, the King George Hotel offers afternoon tea service in its intimate, dark-paneled Windsor Tearoom that features mustard walls, a rich wood bar, and an assortment of couches and overstuffed chairs. The King George wouldn't be our first recommendation, but at $19.95, full tea at the King George is 30% less than the average fancy hotel tea. However, once you include the extra $5-10 for champagne (which is included at other establishments) it makes the $29.00 tea at the Ritz seem like better value for money.

That said, the fireplace and classical music (piped through the sound system) offer a relaxing touch. Tables are set with old-fashioned, rose-embellished china, which looks like it comes straight from grandma's cabinet. And the sandwiches seem to come straight from mom's kitchen: selections such as ham and Swiss, green apple and cream cheese, and dilled salmon arrive on white bread just as they would at your own home.

A plate of tiny glass jars filled with fruit preserves and Devonshire clotted cream is set on every table -- the perfect accompaniment for the scones, which are baked offsite, but arrive warm at your table.

The desserts, which include traditional petit fours, tea cookies, and a tartlet, are sweet enough to make you reach early and often for your teacup. The King George's strong suit is its selection of 19 teas from Lindsay's Estate Teas; your tea arrives in a cute two-cup pot and is accompanied by a pot of extra hot water.

Full tea, $19.95; children's teddy bear tea, $12.95 and includes a teddy bear gift. Holiday tea: from $22.95 - $25.95 for adults, including champagne cocktail, $15.95 for children's gingerbread tea.

The Ritz Carlton Hotel
Open every day: Monday - Thursday, seatings from 3:30 to 4:40; Fridays, seatings from 2:30 to 4:30; weekend, seatings from 1:00 to 4:30.

The Fairmont Hotel
Open every day, with seatings from 2:30 to 4:30.

The Palace Hotel
Saturdays 2:00 to 4:00 until December 31, 2005, and Saturdays 1:00 to 3:00 after January 1, 2006; From November 25 - December 23 the Garden Court will be open from 2:00 to 4:00 for Holiday Tea every day except Sunday.

The King George Hotel
Open weekends, with seatings from 1-4pm. From November 25 – December 20, a special holiday tea is offered from Wednesdays to Sundays, with seatings from noon-4pm.