Pass the cucumber sandwiches, please... Here's our hotlist of venues for tea, scones, petits fours and civilised conversation
A class act
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+.
Take tea with the kookaburras
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.
Treat yourself after a hard day's shop
There are three pages of tea on offer at this QVB classic. That’s nearly 30 varieties, 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.
Get the royal treatment
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.
Honed by tradition
Taking high tea at the plush Sir Stamford 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.
Indulgence for all ages
This grand old historic Mosman mansion now 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 Rooms, or take a seat on the veranda, there’s a good chance you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
Ribbon sandwiches at Westfield
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, which is sweet and tart. The real win is the generous plate of ribbon sandwiches (no stable 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. In 2015, they'll be offering a Mother's Day Couture High Tea on Sun May 10 at $55pp for three tiers of vintage-inspired nibbles and a flute of sparkling French rosé.
Peace, quiet and gluten-free treats
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 no match for their tall, golden, wheat-based counterparts.
Sweet things on tap
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.
Luxury in the lobby
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 a small squidgy syringe of balsamic, which leaves us slightly perplexed but is a fun addition.
When you want to get out of town
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.