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Taking Time for Tea in San Francisco

by Caroline Carter

There’s nothing quite as relaxing as sitting down to an afternoon pot of tea with a selection of sandwiches and sweet desserts. Whether you need a break from a grueling day of shopping, a novel venue for conducting business, a light dinner before show time, or a unique treat for someone special, the tea ritual is a luxury that doesn’t have to break the bank, and that will leave you as relaxed and happy as a day at the spa or a couple of hours curled up with a good book.

A typical tea service in San Francisco is similar to the traditional English Low Tea, a light meal of tea sandwiches and pastries that can tide one over until dinner. English High Tea, a heartier meal that includes cold meats and cheese in addition to the aforementioned sandwiches and pastries, can replace dinner, but is less commonly found in San Francisco. Instead, tea rooms that wish to cater to more robust appetites sometimes include a la carte menu items that can supplement the normal offerings.

Tea is generally served loose-leaf in a china pot filled with hot water. Wait three to five minutes for the tea leaves to unfold and release their flavor, and then use the strainer to pour the tea into your cup. If the tea pot is covered with a tea cozy, remove it when you pour and replace it afterwards. It is meant to keep the tea pot warm and protected from cold drafts. English-style tea is served with milk and slices of lemon. Though often the subject of friendly debate between tea aficionados, many believe that the preferred method of preparing a cup is to use either the milk or the lemon in your tea, not both, as this would cause the tea to curdle.

If you order a full, English-style tea, you are first served a selection of bite-sized tea sandwiches. Common varieties include cucumber and cream cheese, chutney and cheddar, and roast beef and horseradish. The next “course” (sometimes presented with the sandwiches on a separate tier of a multi-tiered platter) consists of scones and, possibly crumpets, served warm with butter, Devonshire cream, and preserves. Scones are baking powder biscuits made with cream and raisins or currants, while crumpets are like English muffins, only lighter and more buttery. A plate of pastries concludes the tea service, with a glass of Champagne, port, or sherry an additional option at many tea rooms.

For a little variety, some San Francisco tea rooms focus on authentic tea ceremonies from other countries, including China, Russia, and Japan. The ceremonies sometimes double as informal lessons in tea history and service, since tea room waiters are generally well-trained, and eager to share their knowledge. Unlike English-style tea rooms that usually offer 10-15 varieties of tea, international tea rooms tend to offer a much broader selection of rare and exotic teas, some over 50-60 years old. Some of these tea rooms offer private tastings by appointment.


English-Style Tea Rooms in San Francisco

Lovejoy’s English Tea Room
1351 Church St. (@ Clipper)
(415) 648-5895
Tues - Sun 11 am – 6 pm, Fri 11am – 7 pm
Tea services ranging from $7.95 - $18.95
Reservations recommended on weekends and holidays.

Taking tea at Lovejoy’s has become a favorite ritual for San Francisco women of all ages. On any given weekend, the bright, antique-filled room is filled with groups of ladies celebrating birthdays, showers, or other special occasions with gorgeous towers of elegant tea sandwiches, scones, fruit, biscuits, and an ever-present pot of the award-winning house tea. Some patrons dress up in large, floppy hats and long, white gloves, but no one minds if you dress down in jeans and a t-shirt. Lovejoy’s rejoices in the charms of tea without the pretension: all dishes are decidedly mismatched, and if you take a liking to your teapot you can take it home with you.


Secret Garden Tea House
721 Lincoln (between 8th and 9th Ave.)
(415) 566-8834
Tues - Sat 12 – 6 pm, Sun 12 - 5:30 pm
Tea services ranging from $10.95 - $18.95
Reservations recommended on weekends and holidays.

This smaller tea room is similar to Lovejoy’s, but with a bright, flowery décor reminiscent of a Victorian-era doll house. Indeed, any little girl would be delighted with the collections of tiny tea sets, dolls and jewelry that are also for sale in the small shop, and children 12 and under can order a special Prince and Princess Tea ($13.95) complete with peanut butter and jelly tea sandwiches, petit fours, and a cup of cocoa. Adult tea services range from $10.95 for tea and two scones, to $18.95 for tea with a scone, assorted tea sandwiches, a savory quiche, and dessert.


Tal-Y-Tara Tea and Polo Shoppe
6439 California St. (@ 28th Ave.)
(415) 751-9275
Mon – Sat 10 am – 6 pm

This quirky, family-run store in the outer Richmond specializes in the odd coupling of tea and polo, offering British tea pots, jams and biscuits in addition to riding whips, boots, and other equestrian-related gear. The cozy shop is filled with horsey antiques and old Victorian-era furniture, and offers tea service both indoors and out in a delightful garden patio. Tal-Y-Tara is most famous for its Motorloaf ($12.50), a loaf of dense, moist brown bread with tea sandwiches that are cut out of, and then nestled in its frame. Motorloaves are also available with seasonal fruits and cheese ($6), or with butter and cream cheese ($4). Other a la carte tea items include homemade scones ($5.50), trifle ($6), or crumpets ($4), and a pot of tea for two is a bargain at $5.


Ritz Carlton
600 Stockton St (@ California)
(415) 296-7465
Mon – Thurs 3:30 – 4:30 pm, Fri 2:30 – 4:30 pm, Sat – Sun 1 – 4:30pm
http://www.ritzcarlton.com/Tea services ranging from: $29 - $41
Reservations required for the Teddy Bear Tea (holiday season only).

The Ritz offers one of the most luxurious teas in San Francisco, and its Lobby Lounge provides a perfect setting for a celebration. The Traditional Tea ($29) arrives on a tiered carousel with tea sandwiches (Norwegian Smoked Salmon with Pickled Onion and Caviar; Cucumber, Roquefort and Walnuts; Prosciutto and Melon; Egg and Chive), a scone with Devonshire Cream, lemon curd, and preserves, English Tea cakes, a fresh fruit tartlet, a Madeleine, a Florentine, and shortbread. Add a champagne cocktail, to the Traditional Tea for the Premier Tea ($34), or add champagne, chocolate, and strawberries for the Royal Tea ($41). A vegetarian option is also available.

During the holiday season, Teddy Bear Teas are offered for children and their stuffed animal friends. The Ritz-Carlton Teddy tells classic holiday tales while the children sip hot chocolate and munch on teddy bear cut-out cookies and Peanut Butter and Jelly, Egg Salad, and Ham and Cheese sandwiches. The Teddy Bear Tea is complimentary for stuffed animals, but reservations are required.


Garden Court at the Palace Hotel
2 New Montgomery St.
(415) 546-5010
Saturdays only 1-3pm
Extended Holiday hours in December Monday-Saturday 2:00pm-4:00pm
Tea services ranging from $40 - $98
Prince and Princess Tea service $32 per child (5-12 years of age)

No dining room in San Francisco is as beautiful as the Garden Court at the Sheraton Palace. With gilded marble columns, a leaded glass-dome ceiling, crystal chandeliers, and gold leaf sconces, the magnificent flower and palm tree filled room feels like Versailles at the height of Louis XVI’s reign. A harpist provides soothing background music at tea time, and white-glove service leaves patrons feeling like royalty.

The Garden Court Tea ($40) includes scones with thick cream, marmalade, honey and lemon curd, an assortment of pastries and fruit tarts, and tea sandwiches. For only $8 more, you can upgrade your tea with a glass of sparkling wine, or for $14 make it a glass of champagne. A party of two can order the Exclusive Tea for Two ($98), which includes the equivalent of two full tea services with a half-bottle of champagne instead of two glasses. Especially for little boys and girls is the Prince and Princess Tea ($32), The Princess Tea features pastries, sandwiches and a crown and scepter.


Windsor Tea Room (The King George Hotel)
334 Mason Street (@ Geary)
(415) 781-5050
Sat - Sun 2 – 5 pm
Tea services ranging from $8.50 - $18.00

For a truly British tea time experience, try taking tea at the Windsor Tea Room in the King George Hotel. Located near the theater district and Union Square shops, the Windsor Tea Room feels like it comes straight out of London, complete with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth peering down from the wall. Their most elaborate tea service, the King George’s tea ($18.00), includes a bottomless pot of tea, a scone with preserves and Double Devon Cream, a refreshing mixed green salad and a selection of two tea sandwiches. The tea concludes with a choice of tea cookies or a fresh fruit tart. For a service that more closely approximates an English High Tea, try the Cheese and Fresh Fruit Platter ($8.25). Its assorted cheeses, seasonal fruits, freshly baked bread, and a glass of wine or sherry is a perfect light, pre-theater dinner.


The Rotunda (Neiman-Marcus)
150 Stockton Street
(415) 362-4777
Daily 2:30 - 5 pm
Tea services ranging from $18.50 - $29.00

Beneath Neiman-Marcus's famous restored glass dome, the Rotunda is a circular restaurant that provides a gorgeous setting for afternoon tea. Full Tea ($18.50) includes a selection of finger sandwiches, flaky scones, petite cookies, tarts, and other house-made sweets. For a real splurge, add a glass of French champagne for an additional $10.50. If you want one of the coveted booths overlooking the lower shopping levels and Union Square, be sure to call ahead for a reservation.


Laurel Court (The Fairmont)
950 Mason (@ California)
(415) 772-5260
Mon - Sun 2:30 - 4:30 pm
Tea services ranging from $32.00 - $57.00 for adults, $25.00 for children

Having tea at the Fairmont allows one an opportunity to bask in the opulence of its Laurel Court restaurant in the lobby. The standard tea ($32 adults/$25 children), sumptuous enough for two to share, starts with homemade scones served with lemon curd, Devonshire Cream and Sonoma preserves. This is followed by an array of finger sandwiches, a selection of French pastries, and a glass of Champagne. For an additional $25, you can also upgrade your tea with caviar and a higher quality Champagne. An á la carte menu offers all the components of the complete tea service plus seasonal berries with Devonshire Cream and a selection of English tea biscuits. Sparkling wine, port, and sherry can also be ordered by the glass.


Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel
905 California St. (@ Powell)
(415) 989-3500
Daily 2:30 - 5 pm in the Lobby Lounge
Tea service: $25.00 - $35.00
Reservations required at least 24 hours in advance.

The High Tea ($25.00) at the Stanford Court includes finger sandwiches (Smoked Salmon on Pumpernickel, Cucumber and Tomato with Cream Cheese, Egg and Chive, and Chicken and Watercress with Mascarpone), miniature scones with lemon curd, Devonshire Cream, and preserves, petit fours, a fruit tartlets, and assorted tea cookies. For an additional $10, you can begin your tea experience with a glass of Mumm Cuvée champagne.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas the Stanford Court celebrates the holiday season by including traditional Christmas cookies and cakes from Leland Stanford's era in the tea service. A gingerbread replica of the 1876 Leland Stanford mansion, which originally stood on this site, is the focal point of the elegant holiday season decorations in the lobby.


International-Style Tea Rooms in San Francisco

498 Sanchez (@ 18th St)
(415) 626-4700
Daily 9 am – 10 pm

This Asian-style tea room in the Castro district features small, seasonal plates with a truly international flair. Orchids and branches are intricately displayed in shadow boxes, world music plays softly in the background, and a wise Buddah presides near a platform where patrons can sit cross-legged on wicker cushions. The large menu includes options ranging from Ginger Waffles ($5.95), to delicate Veggie Samosas with Chutney ($5.25), to a buttery Artichoke Tart ($3.25), and Greek-style Dolmas with olives (3.25). Although the cuisine comes from all corners of the globe, Samovar sticks to the source of its namesake for its afternoon High Tea ($11.00). The Russian-style tea service includes three toasts topped with different seasonal ingredients, rice pudding, dessert, and self-serve cups of strong black tea that you pour from the large samovar on the counter and sweeten with cream and sugar. Samovar also offers private tea tastings ($15.00) with selections from their collection of over 60 varietals of tea.


Imperial Tea Court
Chinatown Tea House
1411 Powell Street
Daily 11 am – 6 pm

Ferry Building Tea House
Ferry Building Marketplace
Tues - Fri 10 am – 6 pm; Sat 8 am – 6 pm; Sun 11am – 5 pm


The Imperial Tea Court touts itself as the first traditional Chinese teahouse in America. In addition to a menu of snack and dim sum options ($2 each), they offer “Tea Presentations,” ranging from $5 for the informal Gaiwan Tea Presentation of a single covered cup and pot of hot water, to $50 for the Imperial Tea, a complete three-course tea service followed by a dim sum luncheon. (Note that this presentation and several others are by appointment only and must include a minimum number of participants). Servers are eager to explain how tea varietals differ from one another, and also provide insights into other aspects of the traditional services. If you stop by during lunch, try one of the daily lunch specials that feature tea-inspired dishes, such as Pork Won-Tons in Tea Broth ($9.00), or Green Tea Dragon Rolls ($9.50). Note that the original Imperial Tea Court on Powell is the larger of the two locations, and features a wider selection of tea.

Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park, across from the California Academy of Sciences
(415) 752-1171
Daily 9 am – 6 pm
Tickets $4 adults, $2 children/seniors; Free on the first Wednesday of every month
Tea and cookie: $2.95

Opened in 1893, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest traditional Japanese garden in the United States. Its five acres of land are intricately landscaped with pagodas, ceremonial Buddhas, Koi ponds, waterfalls, cherry trees, stone gardens, and a half-moon bridge at such a steep angle that no kid can resist climbing it. After meandering along its many pathways, stop at the traditional Japanese tea house for a pot of green tea and a cookie ($2.95). Although beautiful during any time of year, the Tea Garden is at its best (and most popular) during the spring.

Caroline Carter is a San Francisco native and rising culinary arts student at the California Culinary Academy.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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