A traditional English afternoon tea offers a taste of nostalgia. The ritual can re-create historical elegance, or it can conjure the imaginings of childhood tea parties. Between sips of tea and bites of delicate sandwiches and pastries, there’s time for lingering conversation and a chance to leave current events behind.
Before COVID-19, tearooms very much created this experience in-house, and while they still do, some Denver tearooms are also offering a new twist: afternoon tea to go. Traditions that stick around often adapt and change.
The afternoon tea many Americans know was started by the seventh Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s. At that time, the English dined late in the evening, but the Duchess found herself hungry around four. She started a habit of ordering tea, bread and butter in the afternoon, and soon invited friends to join. As the years passed, her gatherings became larger, and by the 1880s, afternoon tea had become a popular social event among upper-class women.
Afternoon tea often showcases a dainty array of English delicacies such as scones, lemon curd, Devonshire cream, petite pastries and crustless sandwich triangles made with cucumbers. The food is displayed on a three-tiered service and accompanied by pots of English tea.
But afternoon tea should not be confused with high tea, says Issac Jackson, the tea manager at the Brown Palace. Historically, high teas were more of a working-class supper where tea was served alongside hearty stews and sandwiches. The Brown Palace emulates the afternoon tea started by the Duchess of Bedford, and it suits the hotel’s opulent ambience.
Tea is held in the 129-year-old hotel's lobby — a room that extends upward past eight floors of ornate wrought-iron balconies toward a stained-glass atrium. The Brown Palace's tea service dates back to the 1920s and ’30s, but it started as more of a private event hosted in the ladies' lounge. The service in its current form has been going strong for 37 years. “It’s a chance for people to put their phones down and to put away their computers. When you look around, you see everyone sitting in their nice dresses and slacks and suits, really enjoying conversation with one another,” Jackson continues. “You’re here not only to eat, but to enjoy each other.”
Conversation and connection are the heart of the tea, but the accoutrements set the stage. Allison Jannach kept this in mind when starting her own tea shop during the early months of 2020: Babe’s Tea Room, at 2401 15th Street, is designed with a colorful, modern edge meant to provide a fresh approach to serving tea. “There’s a huge experiential aspect to what happens in our tearoom,” Jannach says.
Jannach grew up frequenting a small tearoom in South Florida with her mom and sister. She loved how it felt like a “real-life tea party,” and the hosting and presentation of afternoon teas appealed to her sense of hospitality. She dreamed of owning her own tearoom, and she happened to be searching for a storefront around the same time that Jessica Avery of the House of Commons was looking for a buyer. The store changed hands at the beginning of 2020.
Because Babe’s opened during the pandemic, Jannach and her team immediately incorporated outdoor seating and online ordering as part of their platform, and because they couldn’t safely serve many customers indoors, they also offered “takeaway tea parties” — literally, tea service to go. Offerings include a three-tiered cardboard presentation to be filled with varieties of triangle sandwiches such as chicken curry salad and roast beef with horseradish as well as desserts such as macarons and flourless chocolate cake.
Jannach says the takeaway tea parties have been a hit because it gives patrons a taste of the experience they would ordinarily receive as seated customers, but they get to enjoy it in a place of their choosing. Groups like the Jane Austen Society have ordered tea parties for members to enjoy at home while “meeting” over Zoom. Some take tea service to the park. The takeaway option will be included in next month’s Valentine’s Day Par-Tea fundraiser for the American Heart Association, hosted by Miss Colorado for America, because indoor seating will be extremely limited.
The Brown Palace has also begun providing its tea service to go. Jackson says the hotel added the option around Christmas so that customers could continue one aspect of their holiday traditions. “Typically we book up nearly a year in advance, and a lot of people were calling and expressing their concern,” he explains. The Brown's setup includes an entire service with options of tea, jam, honey, sugar and hors d'oeuvres — everything but hot water, Jackson notes.
And like Babe’s Tea Room, the Brown Palace has received a great response from customers. Nothing can compete with the novelty of being served a seemingly timeless experience. Call Babe's Tea Room, which is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, at 303-455-4832. Contact the Brown Palace at 303-297-3111 to order takeout afternoon tea 24 hours in advance for pick-up from noon to 4 p.m. daily.
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