Story by Tara R. Henley
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Few social rituals have lasted centuries, but afternoon tea is one that has endured. The custom dates to the 1840s in Britain, when Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting, the Duchess of Bedford, began asking servants to smuggle tea and treats to her room during the late afternoon. Friends soon joined her for the daily decadence, and by the late 19th century all of England was pausing around 4 pm for a spot of tea and a tray of sandwiches and scones. Now, of course, this throwback to times past is observed in upscale hotels all over the world — including in Toronto, which has become a city for tea lovers.
Toronto has deep British roots, and its afternoon tea tradition is a nod to this heritage. But the sumptuous spread here is served with a twist, reflecting the many faces of this cosmopolitan city, with each service geared to a specific type of drinker. Vacay.ca has rounded up the top teas in Toronto, from hip to glam to grand dame.
1. THE GLOBETROTTER
Shangri-La Hotel (188 University Avenue; Tele: 1-647-788-8888)
Nowhere is Toronto’s fondness for fusion more apparent than at the Shangri-La, where the crowd is chic, worldly and well travelled. The elegant tea service changes with the seasons. The day we stopped by the hotel was hosting a Chinese New Year-themed high tea. Sweets included a fragrant Chinese black tea scone — served with exquisite house-made pandan leaf curd — along with coconut and mango tapioca and warm sesame balls with lotus seed paste. A mind-bogglingly generous tea menu (75 blends from around the globe), along with blankets and a crackling fire warm the soul during winter’s deep freeze. And sophisticated live piano music — everything from renditions of favourites by Alicia Keys and John Lennon — completes the relaxing ritual. Cost: $40 per person.
2. THE SOCIETY BELLE
This swank Yorkville boutique hotel has hosted ladies who lunch for 88 years and counting. Steps from Toronto’s Mink Mile, aka Bloor Street, the Windsor Arms’ lavish tearoom is the perfect place to unwind after a long day of pounding the pavement in search of the perfect pumps. The loose-leaf tea is divine, the fresh scones and petits fours legendary and — catering, as they do, to this well-heeled clientele — there’s a gluten-free menu available. Cost: $38 per person (Monday-Friday); $45 (Saturday-Sunday); $60 (holidays) for Traditional Tea.
3. THE URBAN SOPHISTICATE
Busy Bay Street bankers, frenzied fashion types and other downtown glitterati can often be spotted at the DEQ Lounge indulging in a much-needed break from the mayhem. Sloane-scented tea is on offer, and at Christmas, the Nutcracker Tea features baked sugar plum scones and mini red velvet cream cheese and candy cane cupcakes. Cost: $40-$88 per person.
4. THE MONARCHIST
The Omni King Edward Hotel (37 King Street East; Tele: 1-416-863-9700)
Toronto’s oldest hotel puts on a posh tea party worthy of royalty. Served on Wedgewood China, the King Edward blend of tea — a lovely mix of jasmine blossoms, Ceylon, and rose petals — is not to be missed, nor is the hot winter menu, which features Welsh rarebit with onion and ale jam and Beef Wellington. Cost: $42 per person.
5. THE HIPSTER
Kitten and the Bear (1574 Queen Street West; Tele: 1-647-926-9711)
Toronto’s emerging Parkdale neighbourhood has become a hub for the thriving local food scene, with farm-to-table restaurants and specialty shops. It’s well worth the streetcar trek from downtown to this West Queen West hot spot to pay a visit to Kitten and the Bear’s adorable tasting room. Sample the signature afternoon tea: a good, strong pot of tea, a homemade Ontario buttermilk scone and the best seasonal, small-batch jams, preserves and marmalades the city has to offer (think meyer lemon and French blue lavender traditional hand-cut English marmalade, and black-skin plum preserves infused with Earl Grey). But be forewarned: this tiny teashop seats just five people, and they don’t take reservations. So go during the week and pray for an empty table. Cost: $14 per person.