Afternoon Tea at the St. Paul Hotel

Categories: Food

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

— Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

A wealthy fellow such as Henry James was in a pretty swell position to spout off about the importance of lush, tea-related activities; he had folding money, even before his literary successes. For the rest of us, it's important to consider that afternoon tea at the St. Paul Hotel costs $27 a person (all inclusive).

As part of its sales pitch, the hotel's afternoon tea website urges you to consider the ambiance (antique cups and saucers! elegant lobby!) and the words of a 1902 book on etiquette stressing how teas have become the "necessities" of life, filling a place in our "social communion."

But once you've paid your money (credit card charge up front, please) and had your five-course tea, you might actually understand, if not actively sympathize with, what these dead folks are driving at.

The two-hour experience is not entirely unlike getting a massage or watching Conan the Destroyer for the hundred and nineteenth time, while stoned out of your gourd. You emerge from it relaxed, mellow, strangely limber, ready to face whatever stress and distraction you might have waiting for you. The pace — deliberately, even excruciatingly slow, each of the five tiny courses arriving roughly 20 plus minutes after the next — forces you to relax, to put away the iPhone, to direct your attention to your companion or companions and fully engage them in conversation.

A recent visit featured a miniature lobster salad en bouche (atop a pastry log), a savory sundried tomato-cheddar mouse in a phyllo cup, a mini apple cider shooter with cinnamon whipped cream, a chocolate turtle tartlet and a bizarre but amusing rice pudding whipped cream mini-martini atop a swirl of lingonberry sauce, among other tiny treats. The only clear miss was a "mint-kissed meringue" that was a dead ringer for dried Crest toothpaste. Everything else ranged from competent to delightful. And the currant-tinted tea (poured, repoured, repoured again, ad infinitum from silver teapots into antique cups) was elixir for the weary soul, served with two kinds of sugar cubes, milk and slices of lemon.

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Just as importantly, the visit was chockablock with entertaining St. Paul Hotel lobby scenes, played out for the tea-takers amusement. Over the course of two hours, leaf sippers viewed:

— no fewer than three different upscale wedding parties, plus attendant photographers, planners and parents, trekking through the lobby at varying speeds

— a Pizza Hut delivery guy, stack of pizzas in hand, chatting with the piano player

— a zaftig bridesmaid packed into an insufficiently robust dress, jogging recklessly in order to arrive at some unknown function

— and each other, mostly women of certain moderately advanced age, well-dressed, some sporting outrageously adorable hats clearly donned especially for the occasion.

If you're a dude, you will need to steel your gonads and prepare to enjoy yourself despite the setting. You'll find yourself digging this "civilization" thing in spite of yourself.

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