The Boston docks are frigid places in December. The cold didn’t deter a band of 1773 colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians from sneaking onto three British ships and throwing 340 bales of expensive imported tea into the dark waves. The scuffle protested “taxation without representation” but soon the Crown sent troops and further indignities. Boiling fury led to the first Continental Congress and united the American resistance. Lucky for us our attraction to tea has grown less troublesome and more pleasurable over the years.

***I was a guest of Catered Events but all opinions are my own.***

If Samuel Adams, organizer of that original tea party, were alive now, he’d smile at the options for high tea in Boston today. He may raise an eyebrow at Americans’ fondness for all things Downton Abbey but being a hungry realist, would sit down and enjoy the tiny sandwiches and sweets along with us. It’s one of the pleasures Boston visitors can enjoy at a number of places across the city.

The Downton Abbey dining room set for dinner.

Inside the Downton Abbey exhibit with the dining room set for dinner.

High Tea in Boston with Downton Abbey flair

If we’re going to talk about enjoying an afternoon tea with a nod to the old world, then we might emulate Violet Crawley, the fictional Dowager Countess of Grantham or imagine joining the new American-born Princess, Megan Markle, for high tea in Boston. I’m not a member of the manners police but consider some of the traditional practices that come with a formal tea.

What to say: High tea is very different in the United Kingdom where it is referred to it simply as “tea.” On this side of the pond, the character, American heiress, Cora Crawley would give up saying “afternoon tea” or “high tea” if she were joining the Queen, for example. Afternoon tea was a habit of the wealthy, as begun by Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who began serving a social snack to guests between lunch and late dinners. The working class had to wait until after work and drank dark tea with their heavy evening meals. Holidays became a time for the working class to enjoy more elaborate “high teas.” Afternoon high teas remain a special occasion event here in the US.

High tea sandwiches and sweets on the three tier tray.

What is served at high tea in Boston

High tea service includes individual pots of leaf tea and never teabags. Traditionally another pot of hot water, with milk, sugar and a tea strainer are set on the table. A tiered tray is filled with sandwiches, sweet cakes, and scones. Cups, not mugs, saucers, teaspoons and white linen including a large starched napkin are arranged on the table.

If this is a formal tea, someone is designated to pour each cup and pass it to each guest. Tea is poured through the strainer to catch the loose leaves. Then it gets more complicated! English tea includes the option of adding milk, which is passed with the sugar. Different teas are enhanced by the milk, such as black Assam but more fragrant teas, like Lapsang Souchong, are enjoyed with a slice of lemon. Most American service provides a pot for each guest.

Stirring the tea: Sugar is added last and then the tea is stirred back and forth, without circular motion (frowned upon in certain company.) Place the teaspoon behind the cup on the saucer.

Brochure from the Downton Abbey exhibit in Boston.

Brochure from the Downton Abbey exhibit in Boston.

Drinking: Never lean forward to sip but sit up straight and bring the cup to your mouth. Take small sips and return the cup to your saucer. Don’t slurp or blow on the tea to cool it. Lady Mary Crawley might frown were you to raise your pinkie finger!

Eating: My favorite part of high tea in Boston. The service includes a multitude of small, open-faced sandwiches. Each has a distinctive flavor and different textures. Every high tea includes traditional cucumber sandwiches in small squares or triangles without crusts. Even though the sandwiches are small it’s traditional to eat in small bites. Cakes, petite fours, small, macaroons are set on another level of the tray and round scones on the top. Scones often come with lemon curd, marmalade and whipped butter which is spooned onto your plate and not spread from the pots.

Scone etiquette: Break it in half by hand, then spread with jam and cream. Don’t make a sandwich of it. Again, take small bites, returning the scone to your plate in between.

Now that you’ve reviewed all that, let it go and relax. If you’ve taken the time and effort to attend a high tea in Boston, take in your beautiful surroundings and enjoy each taste and texture. Follow your tea party companions if you need guidance. After all, it’s your party.

The Map Room Tea Lounge inside the Boston Public Library

The Map Room Tea Lounge inside the Boston Public Library

A Tale of Two Teas – The Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library is one of my favorite buildings in the area for the architecture; the sweeping staircase, the inner courtyard and gorgeous reading rooms upstairs. I first visited in the deep of winter, joining other patrons in the upstairs galleries where we warmed ourselves near the radiators while taking in the beautiful frescoes and artwork. In the summer months, the atrium fountain sits in a bath of sunlight while guests enjoy the view or bring their lunch to tables set in the shade of arches.

High Tea in Boston Public Library menu and table setting.

Where else can you attend a high tea or enjoy an afternoon cocktail in a public library?

The Courtyard Cafe and Map Room are down a hall to the right of the main entrance. The Map Room, with its vaulted brick ceiling, has been turned into a Tea Lounge where tea-infused cocktails are served at a long bar illuminated by Edison-style lightbulbs. The room is intimate with a slightly Steampunk ambiance. The drinks are inspired by favorite books and authors. You’ll find Tequilla Mocking Bird, Catcher in the Rye and more in a laid-back atmosphere that Charles Dickens would enjoy.

Our imaginary Downton Abbey companions would sweep past this and into the adjacent Courtyard Cafe. Salvatore de George, General Manager of the two tea rooms would likely seat them at one of the corner banquettes near the flattering atrium windows. The room is adorned with muted silver and teal tones. Black and white architectural photos grace the walls.

***I was a guest of Catered Events but all opinions are my own.***

If you go:

  • Make a reservation for High Tea at the Boston Public Library in advance. Specify which room you prefer.
  • Attend the Downton Abbey Exhibit in Boston in the Castle near Park Plaza Hotel. Reservations are suggested. The exhibit runs through September, 2019 and then moves to the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.
  • There’s more about tea travels in this earlier post about tea expert Dharlene Fahl

Share or bookmark this post. Leave a comment. I’d love to know where you love to enjoy high tea.

Boston Public Library waterfall fountain in the courtyard atrium Boston Public Library high tea in the Courtyard Tea Room Invitation to high tea in Boston