When you want to impress a new significant other, gossip with friends, spoil your mom or just treat yourself, we’ve got one suggestion: afternoon tea. But in a city as big as ours, you don't have to settle for a one-size-fits-all experience. In fact, each of our favorite high tea services has a personality all its own, whether it’s fancy tea at downtown Chicago hotels, an adorable Lincoln Park shop or a modern version at a West Loop hot spot.
A dedicated children’s menu and a sensitivity to the importance of giving one’s doll a chair of her own make afternoon tea at this Mag Mile grand dame one of the city’s most family-friendly. It’s also one of the busiest teas, particularly during the holiday season, when the room’s central fountain wears a shimmering crown of silver boughs and the standard entertainment—American songbook classics performed by a harpist—is augmented with a band of roving carolers. Happily, though, tea service here is no mere tourist gimmick; rather, it features a nice menu of sippers from French outfit Palais des Thés and a selection of food composed with care. Especially tasty are a two-bite sandwich of lobster and crab salad on sweet brioche and a scone that’s flaky and buttery as a biscuit. Daily from 1–5pm (11am–5pm during the holiday season), $49.
The most pleasant time to visit the Allis is late afternoon, when sun slants through the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Green Street and the quiet is tempered by a Woodstock-era soundtrack playing low. No one will expect you to put up your pinkie here, but the tea service is no less lovely for its low-key mood. Tea is served in pretty, vintage-looking pots. A selection of bites, presented on a three-tier stand, isn’t overly imaginative (think standard smoked salmon and egg salad finger sandwiches or a mini red velvet cupcake), though standouts include an immensely tender scone and chocolate cake so dense and rich it eats like a brownie. Daily from 3–5pm, $34.
A suspended-in-time quality hangs, to charming effect, about this long-running Loop tearoom, which has white tablecloths, brass chandeliers and folk music. Similarly, the afternoon tea service waves off modern notions of fussy minimalism, instead taking a feed-you-like-a-babushka approach. A tri-level tray practically sags with the weight of multitudinous sweets and savories. As you might expect, it’s the Russian-accented items—an oniony little potato piroshki, napoleon torte rich with pastry cream—that are most memorable. The many-page menu of Adagio teas features some interesting choices, like Genmaicha, a green tea enriched with toasted rice, and Russian Caravan, an assam spiked with a hint of smoldering lapsang souchong. Daily from 2:30–4:30pm, $29.95.
According to staff, the Upside Down Tea Party here owes its moniker to an emphasis on tea-infused cocktails—like smoky, lapsang souchong–infused End of the Earth or the Tea & Biscuits, a Darjeeling and Hennessy–based hot toddy riff—over conventional tea. (For, er, tea-totalers, try the Rare Tea Cellars offerings, including super-premium selections like a 1982 pu-erh.) As much as we love the boozy teas, though, where this modern but comfortable spot really flips the script is in the finger sandwich department. Expect playful, highly flavorful savories like the Leatherface, a miniature grilled sandwich of heirloom squash, honey and spicy pumpkin seeds and the ’Wich Came First, a take on quintessentially English toad in the hole comprising a quail egg–stuffed toast round topped with pate-like chicken salad and two perfect little truffle shavings. Saturday and Sunday from 3–5pm, $45 for regular afternoon tea service/$55 for service with tea-infused cocktails.
Break out your pillbox hat and your best gloves. With its gilded cupola ceilings, dainty place settings and mannered servers, the Lobby does afternoon tea with a dash of pomp and circumstance. A selection of petite pastries wins major prettiness points. The usual-suspect savories are festooned with edible signifiers of luxury (a salmon finger sandwich is anointed with orange-caper cream cheese and a daub of caviar). But the best bites on the tea tray happen to be the most subdued: A pair of scones—one scented with mandarin orange and the other lightly glazed—that somehow manage to be simultaneously dense and light as air. Monday through Saturday at 2:30 and 4:30pm, Sun from 3:30-5pm. $60.
The sheer loveliness of Vanille’s French pastries—among Chicago’s most exquisite—carries over to its afternoon tea, served (when space allows) in a cozy private salon tucked off to one side of the Lincoln Park boutique. The whimsical tea selection, from local supplier Benjamin, favors what might be called “bakerly” flavors, like deeply fragrant Roasted Almond and sweet Honey Milk Ginger. A warm sandwich of black forest ham, gruyere and shallot aioli on a supremely buttery mini croissant makes an excellent opener, but it’s the sweets that steal the show. Highlights include a tender madeleine accompanied by absurdly thick double Devonshire cream and a petite version of the shop’s signature ambre entremet, a cake of salted caramel cremeux layered over delicately crisp caramel streusel. Thursday–Sunday at noon, 2 and 4pm, $32.
An afternoon spent over tea here just feels special. First, the space, perched on the second floor of Mies van der Rohe’s riverfront IBM Building, is elegant and dominated by crisp white furnishings and a sophisticated and playful light installation that falls somewhere between distorted water droplets and a school of UFOs. The tea list (including proprietary selections like the English breakfast–inspired Langham Blend) is expertly curated and the Wedgwood China in which it’s served is lovely. But the most memorable part of the whole experience is the food, by Anthony Zamora and pastry chef Scott Green. Savories include rich duck confit rillettes and a finger of toast adorned with tiny caramelized cauliflower florets, harissa aioli and vibrant flower petals. On the sweet side, seasonal scones are served warm, and assorted miniatures include a sublime hazelnut pie topped with a quenelle of fromage blanc. Daily at 3, 3:30 and 4pm, $75.