BOSTON — Dining at the Boston Harbor Hotel on Rowes Wharf comes with views of mega-yachts. But the four women who have gathered for tea by a window at the hotel's Sea Grille only have eyes for a three-tiered assortment of edibles. Tea sandwiches plump with salmon and maple fennel cream, warmed lemon poppyseed and dried cherry scones, and chocolate Boston Cream profiteroles beg to be nibbled. When the server pours Formosa Oolong, Japanese Sencha, passion fruit, and China jasmine into china cups, the table becomes enveloped in exotic aromas, transporting the ladies to a place where breathing slows, cell phones are silenced and laundry baskets cease to exist.
"Tea culture is the antithesis of coffee culture," says Boston-based Cynthia Gold, one of the country's only tea sommeliers and author of Culinary Tea: More Than 150 Recipes Steeped in Tradition from Around the World (Running Press). "It's the only product I know that's nurturing, relaxing, and energizing. Something about tea is conducive to quality time with yourself, or quality time with a group of people who are special to you."
While coffee is still a staple in a gulp-it-down-and-get-going world, Boston will forever be linked to tea. On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, dumped 340 crates of tea into the harbor to protest Britain's taxation without representation, and the Boston Tea Party remains a source of national pride. These days, however, Bostonians seem less concerned about tea tax than the therapeutic benefits tea offers in taxing times. Locals and visitors regularly take time for tea at hotels, museums, and even the city's landmark library. Compared to other indulgences, a massage, orchestra-seat theater ticket, or a bag of organic groceries, tea and all the trimmings is a relative deal at $29 to $40 per person.
For many, the ritual of meeting friends and sharing tea and treats is as beloved as riding the city's Swan Boats, which debuted in 1877 in the Public Garden. When it became unfashionable in Revolutionary times to sip tea imported from Britain, local ladies fashioned "liberty tea," steeping herbs and fruits from their orchards in water, according to Bruce Richardson, Tea Master at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum and author of the forthcoming book, A Social History of Tea (Benjamin Press). For years, tea was something to share with friends at home; women brought their own tea cup and saucer to the host's, as many families did not have a complete set of china. During the Golden Age of the Automobile, from 1915 to 1930, roadside tea rooms flourished. "Women liked driving into town and sought safe places to stop and visit with friends," says Richardson.
From the French Room at Taj (open since 1927) to Café G at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, each venue offers something special. The Fantasy Tea Party at L'Espalier, where Gold is tea sommelier, is legendary. On Saturdays and Sundays, guests savor selections from Little Red Riding Hood's Basket, such as English cucumber sandwiches with candied lemon and watercress cream cheese on citrus bread and pâte à choux swans with espresso Chantilly cream. Servers pour earthy Da Hong Pao Oolong from the rocky cliffs of the Wuyi Mountains in China's Fujian Province and fruity, smooth Chamraj Estate Frost Tea from the Nilgiri Blue Mountains in Southern India. Gold frequently visits overseas tea fields and returns to the restaurant with hard-to-find selections for L'Espalier's sophisticated clientele. "No matter how experienced the tea drinkers, I'll have something to show them that they haven't seen before," says Gold, who notes some patrons linger in the restaurant for hours, savoring pot after pot.
Given the prominence of tea time in great literary works – including the novels of Jane Austen – it makes sense a grand library would host afternoon tea in a storied setting. Built by Charles Follen McKim in 1895, the Boston Public Library features an Italianate courtyard, grand staircase lined with masterpiece murals painted by Pierre de Chevannes, first-edition folios by William Shakespeare, and a becoming tea venue. Guests who enter the library's Courtyard Restaurant – a former carriage room where horse and buggies would drop off library guests – encounter a bright open space that is classy and comfortable. Though many Courtyard guests arrive for tea in business attire, some – particularly intergenerational groups of women – add a British spin to the experience by sporting elegant dresses, hats and gloves.
As conversations linger and tea cups are refilled, patrons savor French macarons, turkey and Earl Grey butter sandwiches, and currant scones with Devonshire double cream. Wedding Tea Blend, a Mutan White tea with a touch of lemon-vanilla, pink rosebuds and petals, is particularly popular, according to restaurant manager Markos Doyle. "It gives off the odor of chocolate-covered strawberries," he says.
Though it's far from fancy, Abigail's Tea Room at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum has a huge selling point; it sits on Griffin's Wharf near the site of the actual Boston Tea Party. After a family-friendly tour, during which visitors view the Richardson Half Chest (one of only two known authentic Boston Tea Party chests) and toss faux crates of tea into Boston Harbor, guests can sample the five tea types that were thrown overboard for the bargain price of $1.95 at the self-service tea bar. (You can visit the tea bar without taking the tour.)
While it remains to be seen if Americans will ever incorporate tea time as a daily ritual, as is the case in some cultures, Boston's tea scene is thriving. Although women predominantly fill the chairs in the city's tea rooms, more men are jumping on the tea train, particularly to relax with a tea-infused cocktail (see Try a Tea Cocktail).
BOSTON'S BOATLOAD OF TEA VENUES
Here is the per person price for tea and trimmings at Boston hot spots.
>>Boston Harbor Hotel; 70 Rowes Wharf; tea daily 2:30 to 4 p.m.; http://www.bhh.com; $39.
>>Boston Public Library; 700 Boylston St.; tea 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, http://www.thecateredaffair.com; $29. For free library tours, go to http://www.bpl.com.
>>Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum; 306 Congress St.; http://www.bostonteapartyship.com; $1.95 for five tea samples; $4.95 with souvenir mug.
>>Four Seasons; 200 Boylston St.; tea 3 to 4:14 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, fourseasons.com; $32-40.
>>Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway; http://www.gardnermuseum.org; Café G serves loose leaf tea and decadent desserts.
>>L'Espalier; 774 Boylston St.; http://www.lespalier.com; $40-$50. The restaurant hosts Fantasy Teas on weekends and monthly guided tastings; on July 21, sample small-batch teas from Kenya and hear guest speaker Ron Mutai from the Kenya Tea Development Authority.
>>Taj; 15 Arlington St.; tea seatings are 1:30 and 3:30 Saturdays and Sundays, http://www.tajhotels.com; $34-$50.
TRY A TEA COCKTAIL
Not the teacup and scone type? Try a tea-infused summer cocktail, available in tea rooms and bars throughout Boston. "I think of tea cocktails as life in balance," says Cynthia Gold, who created the custom line of signature teas and tea cocktails for L'Espalier. "There's alcohol to relax, caffeine to energize, and antioxidants to balance it out." Libations for leaf lovers include the Green Tea Gimlet (Beefeater 24 infused with green tea leaves, lime juice, green tea and lemongrass simple syrup, and fresh basil) at L'Espalier, Summer Tea Time (Grey Goose L'orange, Cointreau, muddled mint, simple syrup, and iced black tea) at the Boston Harbor Hotel; and Guanabana Iced Tea (Lazy 8 Black Tea Vodka, Falemum, Guanabana Nectar, and lemon juice) at the InterContinental Boston's outdoor waterfront bar, RumBa.