Learn to Take Tea Like a Duchess in Time for the Royal Wedding

At Alice’s Tea Cup, the author peers from their perch behind a traditional three-tier tray piled high with goodies. | Photo by Clare Deegan-Kent

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | Any time there’s a royal wedding, a royal birth, or even a Brexit, Americans suddenly embrace their colonial roots and develop an obsession with all things British and fancy.

Nothing is more regal than a tea party, complete with extended pinkies and refined manners. So, in preparation for the impending royal wedding (May 19!), I took it upon myself to learn the correct way one should comport oneself when “taking” tea. Although I fancied myself quite the refined lady at the start, my education in tea etiquette was swift and brutal — but delicious nonetheless.

I immediately learned that Americans know nothing about tea parties. When calling Downtown tea parlors about their “high tea” service, I was informed that “high tea” is a hearty, hot meal served as an early supper. The fancy tea service with the multi-tiered tray full of sweets is actually called “afternoon tea.”

I wanted to avoid further faux pas, so I consulted New York’s own etiquette experts. I began with Myka Meier, the founder and director of Beaumont Etiquette. She specializes in business and social etiquette, but also has a “Tea for Two” class on how to take afternoon tea. Meier’s school gets a massive surge in business when a royal event comes up. “We call it the Super Bowl of etiquette,” she joked, citing the additional “Duchess Effect” classes that had to be added to her school’s schedule.

I asked Meier just how far one extends one’s pinkie when sipping their afternoon tea, and was surprised to learn that one does not extend one’s pinkie when drinking tea! As Meir told me, “The joke when I was teaching in London is that you can spot the Americans a mile away because they have always their pinkies out.”

Beaumont Etiquette founder and director Myka Meier cited an upsurge in business when a high-profile royal event is on the horizon, calling it the “Super Bowl of etiquette.” | Photo via beaumontetiquette.com

I also spoke to Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of The Etiquette School of New York. She also has an entire class just on afternoon tea. Although there is a long list of rules to follow, she assured me that there are tangible benefits to knowing them. “Etiquette is the rules of socially acceptable behavior,” she said. “When we know the rules, we’re more confident. When we follow the rules, people are more likely to want to be around us.”

When I asked her if people will be silently judged on their behavior when taking tea, she didn’t hesitate. “They will absolutely be judged,” she laughed, but clarified: “Just like they would when they go for a dinner. They’re always judged… On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with asking.”

Instructions from Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of The Etiquette School of New York, gave our author the confidence to take their first afternoon tea. | Photo via etiquette-ny.com

Once properly educated on how to dress for the affair (yes, a lady may wear a decorative hat at the table), and how stir sugar into my tea (back and forth, not in a whirlpool circle), and how to cool it (wait and make conversation, rather than blowing on it), and how to sip it correctly (look into the cup, not over the rim), I felt ready to take my first afternoon tea — and yes, one “takes” tea, rather than “has” it.

I searched the Downtown neighborhoods for places to modestly flaunt my new manners. An exquisite location for afternoon tea is Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, which is discretely nestled in Gramercy Park. Ladies will definitely need to loosen their corsets before the end of this five-course meal. The affair begins with a soup course, before proceeding on to the traditional finger sandwiches, scones, cake, and cookies. Our server also had a separate pot of tea for each course, with a selection intended to compliment each dish. The finger sandwiches came in a wide assortment of styles, and the scones were particularly delightful. The historic building and furnishings made the experience feel like I was living a scene from a Jane Austen novel.

Lady Mendl’s five-course service begins with a hearty soup. | Photo by Charles Battersby

For those celebrating their un-birthday, and who prefer their tea parties a bit mad, there is Alice’s Tea Cup. This chain has three restaurants in New York, but a white rabbit led me to their E. 64th St. and Lexington location. At Alice’s, things are bit less formal — the staff will sprinkle glitter on customers, and diners can even wear fairy wings at the table (and bloody well should).

Alice’s “Mad Hatter” Tea for Two service came on the traditional three-tier tray, along with two bottomless pots of tea. It’s not only a photogenic affair, but the meal proved to be another corset-loosener. The three courses of sandwiches, large scones, and sweets left us with a surprisingly heavy doggie bag of cake and cookies.

The author, left, and Clare Deegan-Kent at Alice’s Tea Cup. | Photo by Sam, courtesy of Alice’s Tea Cup

Charles Battersby, right, with Tea & Sympathy owner Nicky Perry. | Photo by Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett

I also visited Tea & Sympathy, a West Village restaurant that serves English comfort food, in addition to their afternoon tea service. It was early on a weekday, but the restaurant was already boisterous and busy. Their gift shop was rapidly selling out of Royal Wedding gifts even two weeks before the wedding.

Over some toast and scones, I spoke with the owner, Nicky Perry. She assured me that I needn’t put on airs in terms of etiquette at her restaurant.

“It doesn’t matter if you drop the beans on the side of the table. It doesn’t matter if you scrape the plate and eat every single mouthful,” she said. “The only manners I expect in here, I expect you to have respect for us, and to not be rude or pushy or entitled. Because if you are, you don’t get in.”

As proof of their liberal views on etiquette, I was not only was permitted to dunk my biscuit in my tea, I was actually encouraged to do so!

The most important lesson learned is this, as Meier noted: “Etiquette is not about being fancy. It’s not about being stuffy. It’s actually all about warmth, and to show respect to the person you’re eating with… People think it’s for the one percent of the world, but anyone can learn it.”

Lizzie Pepper, wife of the author and a contributing photographer to this publication, enjoyed a rare moment of downtime at Lady Mendl’s. | Photo by Charles Battersby

The exquisite detail at Lady Mendl’s extends right down to sugar cube art. | Photo by Lizzie Pepper

Tea & Sympathy’s vestibule is designed like a British phone booth. It’s bigger on the inside. | Photo by Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett

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