Washington DC is filled with everything tea lovers enjoy—world class museums, grand architecture, green spaces galore, delicious ethnic foods and, thank goodness, exceptional afternoon tea.
I’ve had the good fortune to fulfill that vow many times over the past 40 years. I come back often to enjoy favorite tea venues, museums, theatres and neighborhoods. And my love for tea makes always makes my capitol adventures more delicious.
From a lofty and angelic tea at the National Cathedral to the gilded splendor which is afternoon tea at the Willard’s Peacock Alley, there is something to satisfy every tea taste.
Here is my mouth-watering guide to experiencing the Best Afternoon Tea in Washington, D.C.
Strutting on Peacock Alley at The Willard
If you love to stroll, strut, and see and be seen at afternoon tea, then the highlight of your Washington adventure will take place in the celebrated Peacock Alley of the venerable Willard InterContinental Hotel. This grand palace, within the shadow of The White House, has hosted every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce.
Peacock Alley is a long columned corridor which runs nearly the width of the hotel. Afternoon tea unfolds Friday through Sunday with the exception of summer. Patrons are seated at a variety of small tables or at comfortable sofas with low tea tables while a harpist serenades the regal repast. It’s like having tea with 60 friends while hotel guests stroll by to admire you and your tableware. It’s all very fun.
Did I mention the food? The three-tiered silver servers are laden with beautifully-crafted tea sandwiches, scones and pastries. All those bite-size portions may lead you to think that you will go away hungry, but the meal is so satisfying, to both eye and appetite, that you will probably cancel any dinner reservations you hold for the evening.
Throughout the ages, no phrase has raised eyebrows like “I’m staying at the Willard.” In the presence of my tea friends, I find it difficult not to boast “I’m having tea at the Willard.”
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue
Tea with the Empress Dowager at The Mandarin Oriental
My prescription for quickly recharging your tea spirit might include two hours feasting on endless treasures found in the Smithsonian’s Freer Galleries, followed by a leisurely afternoon tea in the nearby Empress Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental. These two Asian masterpieces are only a couple of blocks apart and both are as soothing to the soul as a day at the spa, but less expensive!
Built in 2004, the world-class Mandarin Oriental Hotel introduces a classic “East Meets West” architectural blend to its Potomac neighborhood by pairing a French chateau exterior with an interior featuring with many natural Asian aesthetics.
The main focal point of the Lobby is the playful painting “Empress Dowager over DC,” a specially-designed interpretation of a Chinese work which depicts the Last Empress of China flying over Beijing. Her flight path in this setting is our nation’s capital.
Just beyond the splendid domed lobby lies the Empress Lounge. This sunken oasis is set with comfortable couches and intimate tea tables, all illuminated by an entire wall of arched floor-to-ceiling windows which provide a sunny vista of sailboats and blue water. While you are gazing, try not to be distracted by the occasional head of state or celebrity who might pass by. Save your concentration for the teatime feast which is unveiled every weekend.
This is a wonderland of afternoon tea delights that showcases the talents of the very creative Mandarin Oriental chefs. Satisfying savories and sensual sweets abound in this teatime treasure trove.
But do pace yourself because. East or West, teatime etiquette dictates that you never appear hungry while dining at afternoon tea.
1330 Maryland Avenue, SW
I make a pilgrimage to the National Cathedral almost every time I visit Washington. Often called “the nation’s church,” the cathedral has an international vision to encourage spiritual harmony among all people. Sounds similar to tea’s mission, doesn’t it?
Set at the highest point in the District of Columbia, this is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. It took 83 years to construct and it is the final resting place for such notable names as Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Nearly 700,000 people visit here each year, but few are aware that tea is served twice weekly in the south tower’s St. Paul’s Room and Gallery.
I frown on America’s abuse of the term high tea when they really mean afternoon tea. But, in this lofty perch, I grant forgiveness to all who say they are having “high tea.”
In this heavenly tea room, guests enjoy an English afternoon tea with traditional sandwiches, scones, and sweets served by volunteers from the All Hallows Guild, stewards of the grounds and gardens. The only distraction from their gracious service is the spectacular view which encompasses all the embassies along Massachusetts Avenue as well as the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill.
Teas are served only on Tuesday and Wednesdays at 2:45 and are preceded by a guided tour of the cathedral at 1:30. Reservations are needed because seating is limited to about 35 very fortunate guests.
The National Cathedral
Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues, NW
Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues, NW
A More Relaxed Setting for Tea
No matter where you are in Washington, you are never far from Teaism. It is fitting that a capital tea room—now with four locations—should draw its name from a term first mentioned by Okakura Kakuzo’s in his classic Book of Tea. Teaism, he says, is “…a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
That tender attempt was the goal of Michelle Brown and Linda Orr when they opened their first Teaism in 1996 in busy Dupont Circle, only steps away from Starbucks. As eager students of tea, they began a zealous mission to share the way of tea with their eclectic neighborhood filled with universities, offices, and embassies. One tea house then became two tea houses, and soon there was a third and fourth location.
Linda and Michelle were early pioneers in Washington’s tea renaissance. These tea missionaries introduced their young audience to single-source green and oolong teas long before America’s attention had turned in that direction. At every location, they offer an outstanding list of traditional teas along with intriguing blends such as World Peace, Now & Zen, and Mind & Body.
In keeping with the tea’s universal spirit, the creative owners have fused the best of both eastern and western cuisines into their mission. Their lacquered Japanese bento boxes are a delicious work of art, while their udon noodle bowls and Thai or Indian influenced dishes are popular lunch and dinner choices. Plus, their ginger scones are world-famous after being discovered by the Food Network.
I suspect Okakura would be pleased to find these unique teashops carrying on the ancient tea tradition of bringing people of many nations together around a common cup of humanity.
Washington locations: Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter, Lafayette Park
Photos copyrighted by Bruce Richardson. This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine. Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson serves as Contributing Editor for TeaTime.