I’ll admit it: I’m captivated by the British TV drama Downton Abbey, which just ended its second season on PBS. This Emmy-winning series has enough tragic lovers, shady deaths and delicious scheming to put a US soap opera to shame.
But the best part of Downton Abbey is the backdrop: an opulent estate in World War I-era England. The Crowley family entertains guests on chaise lounges in rooms with centuries-old tapestries; the backstabbing and intrigue is usually accompanied by high tea (served by white-gloved staff of course).
As a Downton fan I was pleased to discover Lady Mendl’s, a New York City tea salon that offers a glimpse into this genteel world.
I recently met with a group of travel blogging friends for high tea at Lady Mendl’s. This was my first high tea and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be a fun and unique experience; it didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell a green tea from a white!
Scroll down for my original photos of Lady Mendl’s and tips for experiencing your first high tea.
Tip #1: Assemble a crew
The outing to Lady Mendl’s was suggested by Charu Suri, editor of Butterfly Diary and a tea aficionado who has been to just about every tea salon in the tri-state area. We were joined by Mario Nicholas of Mario Travels, Megan Eileen of Bohemian Trails, and Jessica Festa of Jessie on a Journey.
Charu and Mario were the tea experts in our group. Unlike me, Jess and Megan, who all grew up in the states, Charu and Mario had the advantage of growing up in areas with a strong tea tradition (Africa and India for Charu; the Caribbean for Mario). I was fortunate to sit across from Mario during our tea session and he graciously guided me through the process.
Having never been to a British tea service before, I based my wardrobe on one key question: What would Downton Abbey‘s Lady Mary wear if she lived in the East Village? I settled on a string of chunky pearls (picked up at a Montreal vintage store).
Tip #2: Soak up the ambiance
Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon is located in Manhattan, just south of Grammercy Park. It’s in a town house on the border of a posh neighborhood, but is so unassuming we initially walked past it and had to turn back.
While waiting for our Sunday afternoon appointment, we gathered in a sitting area richly decorated with vintage wooden tables, a piano, candles and fresh flowers.
We were seated in front of a fireplace covered with massive white candles, with a bouquet of flowers on our table. I noted the patrons were mostly women– and we were all dressed to impress.
Tip #3: If you don’t know tea, fake it
Mario erupted into laughter when I noted my entire tea knowledge comes from the Celestial Seasonings factory tour in Colorado. I quickly learned that drinking supermarket-bought teas like Lipton doesn’t qualify one as a tea connoisseur.
Fortunately, Lady Mendl’s provides a detailed tea menu that describes each of the varieties. Not a fan of the standard black tea, I opted for “Wharton’s Dream”– a delicious chamomile tea.
Each member of our group selected a different tea– black, green, white and chamomile– and they arrived in vintage china tea pots. Two male servers handled the pouring and made sure our cups were never empty.
I was most impressed by the small touches, like the sugar cubes decorated with edible roses. I couldn’t resist saving one to bring home!
Tip #4: Make room for clotted cream
When I hear the term “high tea” I immediately think of finger sandwiches, so I was surprised to discover that Lady Mendl’s tea service includes a five-course (albeit light) meal. Best of all, there was always a vegetarian option so I never felt left out.
Candied ginger was the biggest revelation for me as a tea-drinking novice. As I sampled different varieties of tea, Mario explained the health benefits of ginger and its many uses. The sugar-covered ginger served at Lady Mendl’s was chewy, sweet and tangy– a perfect complement to the tea.
The appetizer course varies seasonally, but we were served a mini mushroom quiche. It was delicious and vegetarian.
The finger sandwiches were plentiful; waiters came around several times to fill our plates. I was surprised to see that rye and wheat breads were used in addition to the classic white. (Since my prior knowledge of high tea came entirely from TV, I had envisioned crust-less white bread sandwiches as the order of the day).
There were two vegetarian sandwiches to choose from: cucumber and egg salad. I enjoyed the latter, although the cucumber sandwich was a bit bland for my taste.
To my uneducated American ears, the term “clotted cream” brought to mind expired dairy products before my visit to Lady Mendl’s. But this thick, rich cream is delicious when accompanied by fresh scones.
Lady Mendl’s signature cake was served for the dessert course. This amazing treat manages to have a dense texture but tastes remarkably light. The dessert is formed from many layers of cake that are the width of filo dough. I tried to count the layers, but quickly gave up as the desire to eat this dessert was overwhelming!
Tip #5: Imagine you have a dashing suitor
To truly immerse yourself in the Downton Abbey experience there has to be an element of tragic romance. You need a Cousin Matthew to silently pine over your Lady Mary.
Even if there isn’t a romantic connection, I recommend including a well-dressed man in your party to make things a bit more Downton-esque. My husband opted to skip high tea for a televised basketball game, but I enjoyed chatting with Mario– who looked rather dashing in his vest and scarf.
Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon
56 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003
Reservations required; See the website for a schedule of daily seatings.
Cost: $35 per person for 5-Course Afternoon Tea