Sydney is obsessed with high tea, and with good reason – we do some seriously good baking in this here city. Once you pair them with beautiful harbour views, like at the Mosman Barracks, or cultivated gardens at historic Vaucluse House and throw in a cheeky glass of French Champagne you've got yourself a serious afternoon of leisure. Here's our hotlist of venues for tea, scones, petits fours and civilised conversation.
The best high tea in Sydney
There are few places in Sydney that can match the Barracks for pomp and jaw-dropping views. We’re not talking a little corridor of harbour. The Gunners’ Barracks has a 180 degree, uninterrupted, waterfront panorama that stretches from the CBD all the way round to North Head, so be sure to request a spot on the big verandah to take full advantage of it. The crockery is Royal Albert bone china in a jaunty rose print with gold leaf trim, the charming waitstaff wear pressed white jackets and the tea selection goes beyond the standard black blends (though the Earl Grey is excellent) to include seasonal green teas and a delicate peach flavoured white tea. They can accommodate vegetarians with no notice and no fuss, swapping roast beef and salmon sandwiches for fresh salad and pesto. There are crisp golden samosas and warm scones with gratifyingly short pastry. The creamy mango pudding with tapioca tastes of summer and a thin sliver of opera cake is as light as a chocolate cloud. A+.
Just because you can’t afford the membership fees to the exclusive clubs of Sydney’s elite, it doesn’t mean you can’t spend an afternoon in the lap of luxury. Grab a friend and drop $55 each on high tea at the Vaucluse House Tearooms for a little taste of how the other half lives. Perhaps a tour of the historic estate is what brought you out here, or a paddle in the harbour, but you should conclude your visit out under the umbrellas and ancient fig trees that shelter the tables out on the stone terrace of the tearooms. Three-tiers of sweets, savouries and scones, plus tea, coffee and sparkling wine is a lot to fit in so the key here is to clear out your schedule and graze slowly. Start with chicken sandwiches and move onto little Italian doughnuts, then back to a crisp cone filled with salmon and cream cheese (it’s like a tiny Cornetto) before turning your full attention to the scones. It is our opinion that it’s the scones that make or break a high tea, and here they are fresh, short and crumbly with a crisp outer shell – top marks. Crack them open and don’t hold back on the three-berry jam (blueberry, strawberry and raspberry) and a vanilla clotted cream. Don’t hurry your tea – it’s the flavourful, loose leaf variety here, to be drunk slowly from blue and white china cups – and if you find you’re not ready to leave when the pot is empty, perhaps more wine is in order.
Like the cute button-patterned teapot they've put your orange pekoe in? You can go into the store and buy one just like it when you're done – Burnt Orange is that kind of place. It's also the kind of place where you can sit on a grand old wooden balcony and cast your eyes over Middle Harbour or the kookaburras picking at the lawn down below – both café and shop are housed in an old golf club built back in the '20s that was pretty much made for afternoon tea. Kick yours off with a glass of very cold Redbank Emily brut and prepare for a cake-and-tart onslaught. On the top tier of your tea tower, a light Moroccan orange-and-almond cake is full of citrus bite while a salted caramel and chocolate tart is salty enough to skew savoury. The chicken/tarragon finger sandwiches below are made on a crumby, almost cake-like brown bread (and are big enough to leave us wondering whose fingers they were thinking of when they made them), and a spread of scones on the bottom tier are from-your-nan's-oven perfect – though we'd have preferred simple clotted cream rather than the too-sweet vanilla bean-infused stuff they're serving. Overdosing on cake at this house with this view: there are few better sugar highs to be had.
There are three pages of tea on offer at this QVB classic. That’s a whopping 35 teas including their ‘splendid Earl Grey’ blend and a stand-your-spoon-up-in-it assam bari. Taking tea at this Sydney establishment is as much about the company as it is the tiny individual lemon meringue pies with their crisp pastry shells. So while you’re sitting up nice and straight on your little velour chair and picking at dainties off the three-tier tray, you’ll also want to have some decent conversation (or at the very least, juicy gossip) saved up. The large and very white room is made up of tinkling, twinkling chandeliers and gold filigree with waiter’s stations around the room attending to the tea out of giant silver urns. Sweet, ever-present staff bring plates of chubby scones with dishes of fruit preserves and clotted cream, and soft little finger sandwiches filled with the likes of cucumber, egg, salmon and ham. The Tea Room, hidden as it is on the north end of the third level of the QVB, is worth seeking out.
It’s all about the service here in this plush room of muted blues, where Friday afternoons are regularly booked out for tea, scones and cakes. A fixture of the hotel group since 1865, afternoon tea involves soft little finger sandwiches of salmon, ham and cucumber and tiny little chicken and leek pies. Vegetarian? They’re happy to do a little juggling and supply extra scones as well as sandwiches filled with cheese and tomato, and another of eggplant. Sweets-wise, there are the aforementioned scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, squares of chocolate fudge, tiny banofee pies and miniature layer cakes. The tea selection is modest, but nicely curated – many of the blends made specifically for the Langham. There are also the Tiffin Prince and Princess teas, where kids play royalty for a day with a menu of marshmallows, jelly cups and cookies, and the mystic afternoon teas – have your tea leaves read and your fortune told. We predict cake sweats.
Penned into a white picket fenced enclosure on the fourth level of Westfield Shopping Centre, the Tea Salon doesn’t have the elegance of other establishments but it is a perfect place to take high tea if you’re pressed for time. Service is swift without feeling rushed, so diners can keep it brief or linger for a gossip over one of the salon’s many scone varieties – there’s gluten-free, cheddar and thyme, lemon and pistachio, lavender and many others. The teas are mundane, predominantly black tea infusions – except, that is, for the rogue Turkish apple tea for the very sweet-toothed. The real win is the generous plate of ribbon sandwiches (no stale bread here). The fingers of smoked salmon, cucumber and dill butter, chicken and roasted almond and roast beef made up for the less-than-impressive assorted sweets – leave the mini pannacotta with fairy floss to the little ones, who can enjoy a cute kids’ high tea with milkshakes. Book ahead or just walk in for this one.
Taking high tea at the plush Sir Stamford hotel is a smooth operation. It’s fitting, then, that Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ is playing as we sit down in the bar and wait to be served. Once seated we’re promptly presented with a flute of chilled Moet & Chandon Champagne and the staff explains in a friendly whisper how it’s going to pan out: a three-tiered stand will arrive, eat from bottom to top, tea is served once the savoury plate is cleared etc. The tea list is extensive, from light, aromatic flavours to the usual suspects. Be adventurous and opt for French rose with vanilla – it tastes like Turkish delight. The savoury plate includes artistic canapés, bite-sized pastry filled with spicy potato, and arty sandwiches – like curried tuna, wrapped in a swirl of green bread and topped with purple flowers. There’s a generous sweet selection, including elegant white chocolate and pomegranate mousse and mini macarons, followed by fluffy scones with thick clotted cream and tart berry compote. Top tip: choose a seat by the window. The dark bar and generous portions have a soporific effect stronger than Diazepam.
This grand old historic Mosman mansion opens its doors to those looking for a spot of high tea, and they do it suitably well. There’s your classic High Tea, a Little Ladies tea for seven-to-12 year olds, Champagne or Cocktail Tea options. The resident chef diligently talks guests through the savoury and sweet selections, most of which nod towards high tea classics. The savoury options change daily, and on our visit little mouthfuls of truffled risotto and mini smoked salmon brioches go down a treat. Even the classic cucumber sandwich gets an update with a light layer crème fraîche spread thinly on house-baked rye bread. The scones are light and fluffy with a hint of vanilla bean and the sweets including a passionfruit and chocolate mousse, macaroons and fruit tarts are all fresh and perfectly proportioned. Then there’s the tea, of course, with 38 selections on offer. Whether you sit inside the historic walls of Boronia Tea Room or take a seat on the veranda, there’s a good chance you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
This famous Blue Mountains hotel is back in action and serving the highest of teas. The standard tea package ($55) is an afternoon affair on weekdays, but on weekends ($65) they wind it back an hour to fit everyone in; last bookings are always at 3pm. They also do a gluten-free high tea, as well as one specifically designed for children. If you’re some sort of renegade who refuses to play by the terribly British rules, there’s an Eastern tea that features dumplings, barbecue duck pancakes, vegetarian rice paper rolls and twice-cooked pork belly.
High tea at the Radisson Blue is an elegant, subdued affair. There are no hen’s parties getting rowdy on sparkling here. It’s a hushed, accessible space where you can recover from a day in the city, or fortify yourself before one begins. Sink into a plush green armchair built for two and gaze out the enormous arched windows as one of the ten, traditional Twinings loose leaf blends brews in silver pots on your table. Service is eager and catering for dietary restrictions is especially easy as all the cakelets on the top tier of the slate tea stand are gluten free. That means tart raspberry jelly, lemon curd tarts and chocolate beetroot cake are all fair game. Sandwich triangles come with cucumber or roast beef and salmon roses arrive on soft white bread. It’s familiar, rich and filling fare. You’ll only feel the gluten-free pinch with the flat, crumbly scones that are not match for their tall, golden, wheat-based counterparts.
The Shangri-La is synonymous with some of the best views in Sydney, seeing as it sits on prime harbour real estate. Unfortunately if you want a glimpse of these views, you’ll have to head up to their cocktail lounge Blu, instead of the Lobby lounge where the hotel offers an afternoon tea daily. We go with the classic option (there’s a chocolate high tea, too) and tackle the three-tiered cold snack tower from the bottom up. The scones are relatively fresh and come with cool clotted cream and raspberry compote. Making a detour through a selection of savoury items: there’s your typical cucumber sandwich on thick white bread, and your not so typical (what we think is) rice paper topped with tomato and basil. This is accompanied by small squidgy syringe of balsamic, which leaves us slightly perplexed but is a fun addition.
Buffet high tea? It's enough to make June Dally-Watkins spit out her Oolong in horror. But we don't object on principle – regular high tea is just a tiered smorgasbord at your table when you think about it – and neither do the crowds of mums, daughters and girlfriends who show up to the Swissotel's light-filled eighth-floor lobby every weekend for this heretic offering. A Bellini on arrival is a fine touch, and there's a novelty in seeing all the staple goodies laid out at the buffet – one table holds cold savouries like the cucumber sandwich with almost petal-like cucumber slices between soft, fresh bread; another has hot food, including a mini samosa and quiche. The desserts table will delight the kid inside you, spilling over as it is with meringue tarts and cheesecake slices, but they could work on their technique: our scone is dry, even for a scone. Service here can you leave you rudderless but if you are an all-you-can-eat type, and have a high sugar tolerance, there are good times to be had above Market Street.
You know the Parliament of New South Wales on Macquarie Street, next door to the Rum Hospital? Did you know that you can walk right on in and have yourself a fancy high tea? Well now you can. Set up in what is known as the ‘Strangers’ Dining Room’ (it usually houses guests of the pollies) and overlooking the gorgeous greenery of the Botanic Gardens, each Friday a high tea is put on for the public. There are lemonade scones with strawberry gel (aka jam) and whipped cream, mini lemon meringue pies and tiny, delicious smoked salmon roulades with dill cream cheese, amongst two other tiers of treats. Go traditional with tea and coffee, or start your weekend early with a sparkling wine. And don’t forget to take a wander around the building before you leave. Although It dates back to 1811, and you can even look around the lower and upper chambers that you see on the tele.
Not sweet enough?
Ever since Messina opened back in 2002, Sydney has been head over heals in love with gelato. Which we always should have been, really, given that we are a seaside city that’s also stinking-hot half of the year – because what do beaches and heat equal? That’s right: ice cream. There are a thousand places to get it – from the gummy, overly saccharine crap, to smooth, silky excellence. Rest assured, though, that these ten are all in the latter category. Here are our top ten favourite gelaterias in Sydney right now.