Julietta Jameson takes afternoon tea, a tradition moving beyond elegant hotels to hip city bars.
'Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea," wrote the author Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881. More than 130 years on, it seems Melbourne still agrees. Afternoon tea has been served at the elegant Hotel Windsor on Spring Street since the establishment opened, not long after James's masterpiece was first published.
In recent years, the genteel tea tradition has moved beyond the Windsor, popping up in hip venues, small bars and retro-looking spaces, where people of all ages and genders partake of this most dainty of meals. Aficionados say it is an expression of a yearning for simpler times, similar to, and almost as ubiquitous as, the return of the fixie (the fixed-wheel bike) to the city's grid-patterned streets or a passion for vintage fashion.
"It's about slowing down, taking your time," says Melbourne enthusiast Michelle Milton, who runs a website dedicated to high tea. "We live such busy lives these days, high tea is about switching off from technology and slowing down, enjoying good conversation, going out for an experience, putting on your favourite dress and gloves, doing your hair, having a special occasion."
While Milton's website, highteasociety.com, features teas across Australia, she notes the tradition is especially popular in Melbourne, where "a lot of venues on weekends are booked out two months in advance. People in Melbourne appreciate style. Plus, quality food is such a talked-about topic. Culturally, it's part of the fabric of the city. Live in Melbourne? You're a foodie."
It helps that the city has abundant beautiful spaces in which to partake. What makes a fabulous afternoon tea? "It's the whole experience," Milton says. "A beautiful environment, great service, great menu, quality tea, and of course, great scones."
Here are five of the newest and best in the CBD and beyond.
A beautiful relic of the 19th-century Melbourne land boom, the Gables is a sprawling stained-glass confection on Gascoigne Estate in East Malvern, where the Melbourne Golf Club was before it moved to Black Rock. A sought-after reception venue, The Gables opens its ornate rooms and extensive verandah to afternoon tea with a menu that includes ribbon sandwiches, home-made mini pies and sausage rolls, scones and cupcakes - served on antique silver and washed down with Twinings and champagne.
The Gables, 15 Finch Street, East Malvern. Afternoon tea Wednesdays and Sundays, sittings 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm; $45 Wednesdays, $55 Sundays. Includes a glass of champagne. Phone (03) 9563 6108; see thegables.com.au.
The Waiting Room
Crown Towers' classic lobby bar, open to the comings and goings of hotel life, is an uptown backdrop for a sophisticated afternoon tea with a Mad Men-style vibe. Think pin curls, kitten heels and wiggle dresses. Loose-leaf teas join English Breakfast and Earl Grey varieties served in heavy glass teapots. But the Neil Perry touch with the food transcends. Savouries include parmesan biscuits and house-made grissini; the sweets are unusual and beautiful. Milton loves this tea for "the scones, baked on the hour". The quality of strawberry jam and Chantilly cream matches.
The Waiting Room, Crown Melbourne, Whiteman Street, Southbank. Afternoon tea noon-5pm Saturday and Sunday; $49 with tea only; $62 with tea and a glass of Chandon Blanc de Blanc, $72 with tea and a glass of NV Duval-Leroy Brut or Hendrick's Gin Punch. Phone (03) 8679 1800; see crownmelbourne.com.au.
High Tea with Napoleon
This themed meal at the National Gallery of Victoria takes place is the cosy Tea Room, where walls have gilt-edge mirrors and the view is of the NGV waterfall. The theme was inspired by the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition Napoleon: Revolution to Empire.
The exhibition includes tea services once belonging to Empress Josephine, Empress Marie Louise and Napoleon himself. While you won't get your scones served on those, the Tea Room - which always hosts afternoon tea, both themed and non - serves tea in a parade of bespoke pots.
The Tea Room, Level 1, NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road. High Tea with Napoleon runs until October 7. The $58 charge includes an exhibition ticket. Phone (03) 8620 2222; see ngv.vic.gov.au.
Mansion Hotel & Spa
A 30-minute drive on the Geelong Freeway will bring you to Werribee Mansion, now known as Mansion Hotel & Spa. High tea takes place in partnership with the tea company, T2. The pairing was incredibly popular during this year's Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. An extensive menu of T2 blends, including iced tea, is prepared by staff trained by the tea company. The cover price includes a signature T2 "My Fair Lady" cocktail laced with Bombay Sapphire gin and peach schnapps, or bubbles if preferred. At $90, it's more expensive than some, but the menu includes organic and free-range delicacies. In the cooler months, tea is served in the library of the 1870s Italianate landmark; when the weather's warm, tea can be taken on an upstairs balcony.
Mansion Hotel and Spa, K Road, Werribee. Tea on Sundays 2pm-4pm, $90 a person. Phone (03) 9731 4000; see lancemore.com.au/mansion.
High Tea @ The Chateau
Chateau Yering is a popular Yarra Valley wine district property and its Sunday high-tea service is, accordingly, a must-book. Historic gardens, gorgeous views and an 1850s-built property make it a perfect setting for pinkie-pointers to sup serenely. High tea includes sandwiches, scones served with jam and cream, miniature cakes, a glass of sparkling wine and tea or coffee.
Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel. 42 Melba Highway, Yering. High Tea on Sundays 2.30pm-4.30pm; $55. Phone (03) 9237 3333; see chateauyering.com.au.