November 10, 2004
Time comes to an abrupt halt when you step into the Lobby Tea Court at The Phoenician resort in Phoenix.
Tea hostess Barbara Chatterton, whose pale blue eyes and dramatic updo evoke images of Edwardian England, ushers guests into this isolated oasis located just off the lobby.
"I’ve been around tea all my life," says Chatterton, who spent the summer in her native England checking out the poshest teahouses and bringing their secrets back to Arizona. "In England we have tea at all levels and walks of life."
Afternoon tea has become a popular social event in the East Valley. The ceremony of afternoon tea evokes a formal comfort and intimacy that contrasts the chips-and-salsa style of service at many restaurants.
"In this town especially, people do look for a gathering place, and it’s not always the club scene," says Mike Muncal, The Phoenician’s food and beverage manager. "I’m surprised how many people have the afternoon free."
It takes at least an hour and a half to take afternoon tea properly: The tea and goodies arrive in three courses, and guests are encouraged to consume at their leisure. Some tearooms place all three courses — sandwiches, scones and, finally, desserts — on a three-tiered cake stand.
"It’s a very nostalgic thing for people and gives people a chance to escape for a while," says Joanne Gemmill, owner of the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. "Everybody can remember having tea at grandma’s house."
Anna, seventh duchess of Bedford, England, created afternoon tea in 1840 to quiet her rumbling stomach during the long wait between breakfast and dinner. Anna encouraged her friends to follow her example, and soon afternoon tea became a popular hiatus from daily life.
In Edwardian England, afternoon tea became a social event served promptly at four o’clock, and a perfect opportunity for men and women to see each other unchaperoned.
Today, afternoon tea caters to a mostly female clientele.
"Gentlemen are more apt to go down to the golf course," Muncal says. "With the Thirsty Camel Lounge nearby, it’s too easy to convert tea into a Long Island iced tea."
When planning an afternoon tea in your own home, Chatterton says there’s only one steadfast rule.
"It can be informal," Chatterton says. "But you must always enjoy it with friends."