When only tea will soothe the shopper Break: Three well-placed rooms in Manhattan provide a civilized respite from the hustle and bustle.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Christmas in New York. You shop until you drop and then what?

It's too late to lunch, too early to dine.

What's needed is a cup of -- not coffee (you don't need to get hyped up again) -- soothing, warming, lulling tea. And maybe a plate of sandwiches and some scones.

Where to go?

You hardly swing a hip without hitting a coffee bar in Manhattan, but there are only a few dozen places to take tea. Happily, they are strategically positioned about town, ranging from the see-and-be-seen scene at the Plaza Hotel in midtown to the comfy calm of Anglers and Writers, way west and downtown. And there are many places in between, most at the major hotels.

As the winter sunlight dims, so do the lights at Anglers and Writers. A votive candle is placed on each of the dozen or so tables, part of the ritual of late afternoon tea.

To start, patrons can choose from a list of about a dozen different teas ($2.50 a pot). It's served in the nearest pot to hand -- could be Fiestaware, could be china -- and every cup and saucer gets a tea strainer.

This tearoom/restaurant is not a pinkies-out kind of place. You can bring children here without waiters glancing anxiously at the glassware.

The mostly oak antique furniture doesn't match and neither does the china (in fact, the cups don't even match the saucers) but this place is comfortable, like an old couch.

The decor is an eclectic mix of items loosely associated with fishing and writing. The clientele is similarly mixed, with longhairs dining cheek-to-jowl with gray hairs.

Since the establishment also serves lunch and dinner, the menu is diverse and it takes a few minutes to find the notation about high tea and/or the plate of Danish open-faced sandwiches ($10.50). The crustless sandwiches include curried chicken with thinly sliced apple, tomato with sliced egg and a dab of pesto, salmon and a thin layer of cream cheese.

Scones and pies

Tea includes scones and a choice of an assortment of homemade deep-dish pies, which can include a scrumptious cherry raspberry pie, Boston cream, butterscotch, Dutch apple, cherry and strawberry rhubarb. Tea is served from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

If you get a table on the right side of the restaurant as you walk in, you might catch a glimpse of the sun setting on the Hudson River.

At the opposite end of town and at the opposite end of the tea spectrum is the Stanhope.

The tearoom at the Stanhope is nestled into a ground-floor corner of this elegant grand dame of hotels situated on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Stanhope oozes civility.

It starts with the quiet "Good afternoon, madam" from the doorman and the tuxedoed maitre d' outside the tearoom's double glass doors.

The tearoom itself is awash in silver, linen and dainty china, set against a decor of cream and pale green and accented by fresh flower arrangements. Quiet classical music wafts through the room, which can seat about 40 at an assortment of tables for two and four. The service is seamless.

The menu's role is to detail the 20 or so teas that are available and to alert customers that sherry is available for an extra charge. The tea is orchestrated by courteous waiters who wouldn't dream of rushing the ritual.

After each patron has his or her silver pot of tea and it has been poured into elegant china, the waiter brings out the traditional silver, three-tiered tray and the fun begins.

The uppermost tier holds five pastries so attractive that it seems a shame to eat them, but eat them you must. And savor every moment, for these are not so much pastries as they are moments of gastronomic delight.

Nectarine tartlet

Each the size of a jumbo egg, the pastries may include a nectarine tartlet, a lemon meringue, a mocha chocolate cake, a cream puff with creamy filling and an open-faced blueberry tart.

By the time you've finished these, your pulse is racing a little faster (although that could be the effect of all the sugar and tea).

On the second-tier (and you do not have to eat these in order) are the tea sandwiches, just like the ones you've read about in English novels.

These are more than just slices of bread with the crusts cut off -- these are individually designed circles of seven-grain bread with a creamy spread and cucumber so thin you could see through it, chicken breast delicately pressed between 2-inch square pieces of pumpernickel, chopped egg and capers spread on triangle sandwiches of sourdough. Various other breads, in various other shapes, harbor lobster salad, roasted peppers and salmon.

The lowest tier on the tea tray holds four glass containers of jams and custard and the promise of scones to come.

The waiter delivers the warmed scones to your plate with silver tongs just about the time you are wondering if you can possibly eat another bite. You can.

Besides, no one is rushing you. They do not bring the check ($23.50 a person for tea) until you ask for it, no matter how long that takes. Tea is served from 1 p.m. to 5: 30 p.m.

A different pace

While the tea menu and the prices are similar at the Plaza, the atmosphere and the pace are appreciably different.

To start, the Palm Court can easily seat up to 100 people, who are served by a bustling staff of waiters in vaguely nautical attire who are adroit at sidestepping shopping bags from nearby Fifth Avenue stores.

The decibel level is much higher here than at many other tearooms, which can be attributed to dozens and dozens of people noshing, gossiping and clinking spoons against teacups as a violinist plays.

The Palm Court is popular with the shopping set and with out-of-towners as well and manages to accommodate a great number of tea-takers from 3: 45 p.m. to 6 p.m. who range from leisure-suited seniors to teens in jeans and the fur-coat crowd.

The decor -- towering ceilings with blazing chandeliers, gold accents on creamy white walls, marble pillars and a flank of palms at the entrance -- is reminiscent of the 1930s or '40s.

Besides the three-tiered silver tray of pastries and scones, tea-takers can choose a fruit and cheese plate ($14) or mini sandwiches ($10).

Anglers and Writers is at 420 Hudson St. (at St. Luke's Place); the Plaza is at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue; and the Stanhope is at 81st Street and Fifth Avenue.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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