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Spots of Tea

Chai of Larkspur
Swell-egant: Chai of Larkspur provides a properly swank setting
for afternoon tea.

Where in the Bay Area to have high tea

By Kathryn Roszak

I am an unashamed Anglophile. I grew up and went to school in England, and my husband is English. I have I had innumerable teas, in comfortable sitting rooms, in unbelievably quaint English villages (yes, with thatched roofs), and in some of the most luxurious tearooms in elegant cities like London and Bath. I know my tea, and over the years I have searched longingly throughout the Bay Area for an authentic place to imbibe it.

So why do so many people attach so much significance to the drinking of what's basically hot water strained through a bunch of leaves? It helps to remember that tea is basically a ritual, a way of savoring the moment through atmosphere, food and drink. In the tea classic, "Ch'a Ching" of 780 A.D., the poet Lin Yin suggests that "tea tempers the spirit, calms and harmonizes the mind. It arouses thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens and refreshes the body, and cleans the perceptive faculties."

The taking of tea at four o'clock in the afternoon is a distinctively English custom. Tea in Britain usually consists of the actual black tea leaves brewed very strong (no tea-bags with profound messages, please.) Tea should be brewed so strong, in fact, that a second pot of hot water accompanies the teapot for diluting the tea to individual taste. And, of course, English tea is made to be drunk with milk. Baked goods such as crumpets and scones usually accompany the four o'clock tea. "High Tea," at six o'clock, is practically a meal. The scones and crumpets are apt to be lavished with thick cream and preserves, and served along with finger sandwiches (the size of a finger, with crusts removed). Usually a selection of cakes also is offered.

Here in the Bay Area, several self-described tearooms advertise that they are presenting "English Afternoon Tea." But how do these colonial imitators stack up to the English models they emulate?

Not badly, actually. Overall, it was rare to find tea served traditionally with the extra pot of hot water and equally rare to find any attempt at serving actual English clotted cream. But it's still possible to enjoy delicious teas in a variety of pleasurable atmospheres, such as the following:

Bread and Honey Tea Room

In some ways, the Bread and Honey Tea Room has the most English atmosphere. It's located in an unpretentious little loft above the lobby of the King George Hotel and is simply decorated with a large photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and various etchings of the English countryside. The Tea Room has some 18 varieties of tea on the menu, including traditional favorites such as Earl Grey and Queen Elizabeth II, nontraditional teas such as Bourbon Vanilla from Madagascar and Gen Mea Cha, a rice tea from Japan, and a selection of herbal teas. I had the King George, an excellent house blend of black tea. Afternoon menu selections include light teas, pasties (fresh-baked pies with savory filling) and full teas. With its location near San Francisco's theater district and downtown stores, and its comparatively reasonable prices, this is an ideal stop for theater-goers and weary shoppers. Tea served 3-6:30pm Monday-Saturday ($3.50 for light tea, $9 for full tea); 334 Mason at Geary. 415/781-5050.

Chai

Chai is the Hindi (and Mandarin, and Russian) word for tea, and Chai of Larkspur brings a decidedly international flavor to its presentation of tea. Owner Betty Shelton has brought imagination and flair to her menu of teas and international plates, served either in the cozy interior shop or the lovely outdoor garden. When I took tea with a friend in the intimate garden, we elected to share the Chai Classic. It was served on a three-tier cake stand and consisted of finger sandwiches, including a delicious smoked salmon, and a selection of scrumptious home-style baked goods: lemon curd squares, spiced apple bread and shortbread cookies. Chai scored extra brownie points for serving imported Devonshire cream, albeit by the thimbleful, with its tasty tea scones. Chai has a selection of seven teas, the most unusual being Mango Indica and Kids Cuppa (caffeine-free with apple, vanilla and flowers). There is also an opportunity to browse and shop for tea accessories, such as a smart selection of teapots. This is a charming, unhurried place for friends, families and tea-lovers to meet. Open noon-7pm Sunday-Thursday, and noon-10.30pm Friday and Saturday. Lighter fare (after 3.30pm) costs $9; full tea and evening teas run $13-$18; 25 Ward St., Larkspur. 415/945-7161.

The Fairmont Hotel

A discreet corner of the Fairmont's columned lobby makes for a good place to meet friends, people-watch and have afternoon tea. A harpist plays traditional and classical tunes during tea. The Fairmont serves "English Afternoon Tea" on the three-tier cake tray, featuring finger sandwiches, delectable strawberries dipped in chocolate, and small homemade scones with what is billed as "Devonshire cream" but which seemed to be ordinary whipped cream. The Fairmont offers eight teas that are mostly traditional but include black currant and hot cinnamon teas. The waitress suggested sharing, and our party of three shared two full teas, which proved nicely filling. Service is a bit perfunctory here, and because tea is served in the lobby area, it is cleared quickly at the end of service. Still, the Fairmont offers a luxury experience and a special treat in one of the city's most elegant neighborhoods. Tea served 3-6pm Monday-Saturday and 1-6pm Sunday. Prices run $4.50-$5.75 for a la carte, $14.50 for full tea; 950 Mason between California and Sacramento. 415/772-5281.

The Garden Court

Restored to its 1909 splendor, the palm-filled Garden Court in the Sheraton Palace Hotel is spacious, airy and light even on the rainiest day, due to an impressive conservatory design that features stained-glass skylights. My husband and I were seated on an opulent sofa in the center of the plushly carpeted room, complete with gilded chandeliers and a harpist playing enchanting classical melodies. Twelve different teas are served, including mango ceylon, ginger peach and the Palace Blend. We sampled Earl Grey and blackberry sage, both excellent, then ordered the Garden Court Tea, which is served on three-tier silver trays with outstanding gourmet finger sandwiches. Salmon with roe and miniature prosciutto with melon balls were favorites. Also with the tea are freshly baked scones with crème fraîche, and delicious pastries accenting chocolate and mocha. Impeccable service and ample portions, combined with the jaw-dropping setting, make the Garden Court one of the most romantic places to have tea in San Francisco. 1-4.30pm Monday-Saturday; Full tea runs $18-$28 (child $15); 2 New Montgomery at Market Street. 415/546-5001 (reservations suggested).

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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