Chasing Europe: The Midwest's Best Spots for Afternoon Tea

Don those pearls—it’s teatime, Duchess of Bedford–style. 

Afternoon tea at Pfister Hotel Milwaukee
Photo: Tia Brindel

The Midwest has no shortage of tearooms. Some have you sip while sitting on the floor; others have you perched with pinkies up. But finding afternoon tea—a true afternoon tea, where you can squint and think you're in London's Covent Garden—is a tall order.

Enter Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel. On the 23rd floor, with a view toward Lake Michigan, there are no quarter-cut Wonder Bread slices or teacups of Lipton Black. Here, the English tradition—which originated in the mid-19th century to bide time before an 8 p.m. dinner—gets all the gravitas of a gentler era.

Assortment of teas at Pfister Hotel afternoon tea Milwaukee
Tia Brindel

Here's how it works (and it's nothing like a wine tasting): Your tea butler comes to your table, walks you through a dozen-plus tea profiles and their pairings, and lights your silver tilting teapot like an oil lamp.

Tiered tray of savory and sweet foods at Pfister Hotel afternoon tea Milwaukee
Tia Brindel

Once your tea is chosen and steeping—the always-hot tilting teapot makes it easy to pour and share—that classic three-tiered tray appears, with treats ranging from pancetta crisps and smoked salmon tarts to scones with lemon curd and clotted cream (and, yes, cucumber sandwiches and sweets). It's the ultimate romantic outing, bachelorette meetup, or just weekend celebration.

It's also a meal dedicated to slowing down time—as a live pianist plays, your senses fall into a semi-meditative state with leisurely sips, small bites, good conversation, and airy music. Though the details above are specific to the Pfister, the beauty of every afternoon tea is the same: An afternoon spent with friends sinking into the moment, sipping and sampling from savory to sweet.

Here's a sample of more Midwestern spots that do afternoon tea right.

Afternoon tea at The Saint Paul Hotel
Courtesy of The Saint Paul Hotel, a member of Historic Hotels of America

Saint Paul Hotel, St. Paul

The Saint Paul Hotel was a "Million-Dollar Hotel" back in 1910, and it's still a Twin Cities landmark more than 100 years later. The historic property offers one of the Midwest's best afternoon teas, with seasonal menus that feature tea blends specially designed for the Saint Paul. Guests sit down to live piano music and a two-course meal with sandwiches, savory bites, nuts and cheeses, scones, and tiered sweets.

The Langham, Chicago

The Langham, London has been serving afternoon tea since 1865. The Langham, Chicago may not have quite the tea pedigree, but it still does the weekend event with European flourish and flair. Set in the high-ceilinged Pavilion, classical music is the soundtrack to a selection of proprietary Langham teas—plus savory and sweet snacks that match the elegance of the space. Bonus: If you'd rather stay in your guest robe, afternoon tea can come to you.

Three-tiered tray at afternoon tea
Courtesy of The London Tea Room

The London Tea Room, St. Louis

The London Tea Room, in St. Louis's Downtown West, is run by "homesick Brits." The James family serves up every English tea tradition: afternoon tea, of course, but also high tea (a savory meal ideal for lunch) and cream tea (a pot of tea with scone and jam). There's also "wee tea" for your little ones. Expect traditional across-the-pond delights like currant scones, cucumber sandwiches, and clotted cream straight from the UK.

The Townsend Hotel, Birmingham, Michigan

Routinely voted one of the best hotels in the region, the The Townsend Hotel—20 miles outside Detroit—comes with its own bakery and pastry team. They lend their talents every weekend to afternoon tea, where classical music and Waterford chandeliers light up the occasion. Picture trays of seasonal scones, finger sandwiches (like chicken salad with maple-walnut butter on crisp puff pastry), and a "flight" of Townsend's beloved pastries. During afternoon tea, it's tradition to sample them all.

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