Afternoon Tea in Toronto As We Explored Close to Home
When it gets cold in Toronto in the winter, we are always looking for interesting indoor activities. This year we decided we would do the rounds of a few of the spots for afternoon tea in Toronto. We have enjoyed four experiences so far but will update this when we get the chance to add new tea venues. We indulged ourselves with afternoon tea at the Windsor Arms Hotel, the King Edward Hotel (affectionately known as the “King Eddy”), the Old Mill Inn and at the Grange in the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Twice we invited our friend Donna along to enjoy this experience with us and to weigh in on the things that you should look for when you go for afternoon tea.
The second afternoon tea experience was at the Ocean Club in Nassau Bahamas. The Ocean Club is the resort where the James Bond Casino Royale movie was set and the private villas on the grounds are still often vacation spots for the jet set. We had a champagne afternoon tea at the Ocean Club with probably the best scones I have ever had. Unfortunately the Ocean Club is no longer serving afternoon tea.
History of Afternoon Tea
Before we talk about our experience with this time-honoured English tradition, a little history lesson …
So what is the history surrounding afternoon tea? Many claim that it started around 1840. Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, began the practice of having a tray of tea and a snack brought to her room at 4:00 pm every day. Soon she was inviting her friends and the term “Afternoon Tea” was coined. The practice of inviting friends for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other social hostesses. It was only when Queen Victoria engaged in the afternoon tea ritual that it became a formal occasion on a larger scale. By the early 20th century in England, afternoon tea had become an elaborate ritual with specialized serving dishes and a greatly expanded menu.
Afternoon Tea is now seen to be a relaxing mid-afternoon treat.
What about keeping your pinkie up? Since ancient Rome, a cultured person ate with 3 fingers, a commoner with five. Thus, the raised pinkie is seen to be a sign of elitism.
Afternoon tea is sometimes erroneously called “High Tea” when in fact, high tea refers to an early dinner of meat and potatoes (with tea). The “high” is related to the higher tables in the dining room versus the smaller, lower tea or coffee tables historically used for traditional afternoon tea.
The last ritual surrounding afternoon tea relates to wearing hats. Since afternoon tea was meant to be a more formal and elegant affair, the dress code included hats for the ladies. It became quite a thing to have a special hat designed for afternoon tea. Today most people do not wear hats except for protection from the elements or sometimes as a fashion statement. At the Windsor Arms, there is a stock of hats that you can rent if you want to dress up. The rental fee goes to a woman’s charity. When we had tea at the King Edward Hotel, we were amused to find a whole table of women dressed up with their tea hats!
What Should You Look For in Afternoon Tea?
As we enjoyed afternoon tea in Toronto, we found a natural list of things we were seeing at each location. It was interesting to compare the thoughts that each of the 3 of us had on the various components. Some of the sweet and savoury selections were less traditional or had exotic flavours and did not appeal to everyone. David was always disappointed if the sweet tray was not biased to his chocoholic cravings. The tea selections were broad in all locations but not all the teas we tried we liked. In some places, but not all, the staff poured your tea. Depending on how the tea was served, you may or may not get tea steeped to your taste. Ambiance was very different from location to location and your preference may depend on who you are enjoying tea with!
Here are a few things we discovered as we enjoyed our afternoon tea in Toronto …
The very traditional “sweet” served with afternoon tea is scones with some kind of “creme fraiche” and preserves. The scones we ate were generally pretty good. Some even came in interesting flavours like ginger, current and lemon. Most of the tea rooms we visited for afternoon tea in Toronto served great homemade fruit coulis or fruit preserves. But one actually served small glass bottles of restaurant quality jam!
David was always looking for chocolate on the sweet tray and sometimes the selections caught his interest.
There was always a great variety of interesting sweet options that were sure to satisfy most people. A couple of times the options were so sweet that I was sure I was going to fall into diabetic shock.
Varied Savoury Treats
A standard part of any savoury tray is the sandwiches. As you would expect, there was not a bread crust to be found. While some crustless sandwiches were just traditional, some artistic and creative flair was used to make sandwiches interesting and in some cases the selection was even without bread.
To supplement the sandwiches there was often a hot offering. We had some of the nicest tasting quiches in mini size. During our tour of afternoon tea in Toronto, we would sometimes get very interesting or unusual delicacies (potato blinis with smoked salmon, duck confit or grilled veggies with goat cheese). These were not your grandmother’s cucumber sandwiches!
Tea Selection and Tea Service
As you would expect, all of the tea rooms had a wide selection of teas: black (Earl Grey, Darjeeling), green, rooibos and even some fruit tisanes (that are not really tea since they contain no tea). Some had different tea companies to try, some had teas specifically made for them and at the King Eddy we could even smell the sample teas to help make your decision. One of the tea rooms provided a small gift box of sample teas to take home.
How the tea was prepared and served was different at each place during our visits for afternoon tea in Toronto. One had tea bags, one had bags filled with loose tea, one had loose tea that you strained as you poured and the last one actually served you already steeped tea.
We liked the options where we could decide how strong we wanted our tea by removing the tea bag when it was perfect for us. But if you are providing tea bags, please make sure to have some place to put that tea bag. With a tea bag we could also easily get more hot water if we wanted more tea.
If you don’t want tea, in most cases you could generally ask for champagne or a mimosa. This will be an additional price on top of your tea cost.
The tea service sets were generally comparable although we were quite disappointed at one to find that the tea pots dribbled when pored. I only thought I had that problem at home. The tea service at the AGO was fun and artistic with 24 carat gold befitting the art gallery setting.
The ambiance of the “tea rooms” varied greatly across the 4 options we visited for afternoon tea in Toronto. At one end, we ate in a dedicated tea room with small tea tables packed close together. At the other end, we found one of the rooms to be cold and sterile, looking more like a cafeteria than an expensive tea venue.
Two of the afternoons we arrived to very packed rooms (one during the week and one on the weekend). The smaller room felt a like we had little privacy to talk. Privacy and space were not issues for the two very empty tea rooms we visited (one during the week and one on the weekend). If you want to have room to have a private or very romantic interlude, you may want to check on how busy the tea room will be on the day and time of your visit.
The customer service focus and attention to detail also varied by venue. For one sitting, we received two emails and a phone call to confirm our reservations (but this was the busiest of all 4 afternoon tea options). The wait staff were generally knowledgeable when reviewing the teas and treats so you knew what you were getting. Only once did we have tea poured for us. But I did get to meet the pastry chef!
Most of the tea rooms had windows with a view to outside. But in all cases when we visited, the view from the room left much to be desired. Part of this may have been because the weather was not ideal when we visited.
Availability and Price
Afternoon tea in Toronto is priced pretty consistently from place to place. It is still a relatively expensive price for a meal but you are paying for the experience. Sometimes you can pay a little less for booking during the week and we even found a Groupon for one of the afternoon teas.
Afternoon tea at the AGO is open to members and guests only. So if you want to try that experience you either need to get a membership or find a friend with one.
Most of the menus are fixed although we did find an option where you could order just sweet or savoury as well as the usual mixed tea tray.
Prepare to either pay for parking or for transportation as none of these afternoon tea venues (including the one outside of the downtown core) include parking in the price.
Check the locations for the days and hours. Some of the places for afternoon tea in Toronto offer afternoon tea every day and some only on the weekends. Some had a few seatings and others had many seatings (including a Twilight later tea at the Windsor Arms).
Afternoon tea in Toronto is a great way to indulge yourself for a few hours with a sweetie, a best friend or someone you want to treat. Some were better than others on some dimension, but we rarely left without cleaning off the wide selection of treats that were put before us.
There are still a number of other spots we hope to add to our experiences of afternoon tea in Toronto. Niagara on the Lake is a favourite day trip for us and we want to try the afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel.
In doing our research on options for afternoon tea in Toronto, we found two that really intrigued us but they only are available at limited times. If these sound interesting to you, make sure to make reservations well in advance. The first is afternoon tea at Casa Loma during Winterlicious. Tea was all booked up when we found out about this during our planning to feast during Winterlicious. The second one that has David drooling is the afternoon tea that is served as part of the Toronto Chocolate Festival in the fall.
There are also options to try tea in smaller tea rooms and many other hotels in Toronto and the surrounding GTA area (“GeeTeaEh!”). My waistline can’t take too many of these too close together!
Have you done afternoon tea in Toronto? What was your favourite experience? Is there a special afternoon tea on your list in the Toronto area?