Phoebe Cheong and Jude Andam, friends who live on opposite coasts, recently started a tradition every time they see each other.
They have tea.
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Andam, a makeup artist from Los Angeles, joined Ms. Cheong, a commercial photographer, at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, which occupies the living room of a Georgian house in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood.
The two friends may have met for coffee or lunch, but they prefer the more formal experience of tea.
“Coffee shops are casual,” said Ms. Andam, 42. “Go there on your free time or whatever. This is more of a special occasion.”
Ms. Cheong, 31, noted the maximalist decor of Lady Mendl’s, which includes Victorian lampshades with fringe and gold leaf on the molding. She also appreciated how the waiter announced that the topping for their scones was Devonshire cream.
“There is mystery here, there is storytelling,” Ms. Cheong said.
The elaborate afternoon tea service is a main attraction at more than a dozen venues in New York and Los Angeles. At Brooklyn High Low, which has two locations near Prospect Park, it costs $48 for the “Classic” prix fixe tea set, which lasts 75 minutes. At the Rose Tree Cottage in Pasadena, California, a man in a tuxedo serves cucumber sandwiches and sticky toffee pudding. Alice’s Tea Cup’s three New York locations have an “Alice in Wonderland” theme.
It is curious that, in a decidedly uncivilized period, in which people have become accustomed to arguing with strangers on social media and wearing sweatshirts on planes, this high ritual has come back into vogue.
A new service in New York, Tea Around Town, hosts afternoon tea aboard a pink and white double-decker bus for those who want to take in the views while sipping organic Earl Gray with lavender. The interior of the bus has soft pink banquettes instead of the seats you might find on a Greyhound.
This salon joins long-standing ones known for elaborate tea service, a group of establishments that includes The Peninsula Beverly Hills, London West Hollywood, and The Plaza Hotel. The Plaza’s Palm Court looks more or less like the tearooms of the 1920s when the tables have been divided by large palm trees, creating rooms within a room where guests may be inclined to share their innermost thoughts.
Bruce Richardson, the master blender at Elmwood Inn Fine Teas in Danville, Ky., and co-author of “A Social History of Tea,” has been following the tea scene for around 30 years.
“I was in London just last month,” Mr. Richardson said. “Guys, every hotel has afternoon tea again, even more than 20 years ago. There is a real resurgence of customers looking for a sit-down tea time.”
Mr Richardson, 70, has put forward a theory as to why afternoon tea, which took hold as a tradition among English gentry in the 1840s, has persevered into the modern world. “In the ritual of making tea,” he said, “we rediscover our humanity, which has been obscured in a life that often moves too fast and filled with too much.”
Honey Moon Udarbe, the owner of Brooklyn High Low, said she used to have tea alone as a sort of escape, and later did so with her daughters and friends, before opening her first salon in the Prospect neighborhood Heights, in 2020. .
Business has been so good that Ms. Udarbe, 47, recently saw fit to open a second teahouse 12 blocks away from the original location. The new salon, called Brooklyn High Low, the Parlor, is located on the ground floor of a brownstone building in Park Slope. She calls it “speak-teasy” because she doesn’t advertise.
“I enjoy this nostalgic time of unplugging, sitting down and chatting with people,” Ms. Udarbe said. She went on to say that a tea room has a lot in common with the corner bar, only that it manages to encourage a sense of camaraderie “without the alcohol”.
Mary Fry opened Rose Tree Cottage, a teahouse in Southern California, 50 years ago with her British husband Edward. They created a time-warp atmosphere not only by having Edward wear a tuxedo whenever he serves customers, but by making sure that digital devices have no place at the table.
“Let me just say we force you to turn off your phones,” Ms. Fry said. “You can’t watch the Dodger game and have tea. It’s a time to calm down, enjoy conversation with family and friends, and get yourself back to where your brain should be.
Maybe that’s why his salon has been so busy lately and why he’s noticed a lot of guests in their twenties and thirties. They arrive wearing fancy hats and fascinators: the formal headdresses popularized by Kate Middleton. In its gift shop, Rose Tree Cottage offers a variety of elaborate hats and fascinators in pink, yellow, green, and blue, along with jackets from British tailor Barbour.
“My husband called it a sanctuary,” Mrs. Fry said. “It’s a sanctuary in a crazy, crazy world that’s happening right now. People want to escape with something traditional.”
In a separate interview, Ms. Udarbe made much the same point.
“Really,” he said, “the basis of afternoon tea is time. It’s running away from your iPhone, the subway, work, or whatever ails you. I had a lady come in and she told me that she really takes care of herself.
Proponents of this trend note that a teahouse is very different from a bar or restaurant, where you might be assailed by the din of clattering cutlery or pop music blasting from ceiling speakers.
“Someone took the time to make this an environment conducive to good talk and memories,” said Mr. Richardson, the tea expert. “It could be like walking into a cathedral. There’s just a presence you feel there.
At the Floating Mountain Tea House on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the tea ceremony has a meditative aspect influenced by Chinese and Japanese tea culture. Guests are asked to remove their shoes when they enter the sparsely furnished room, where they can choose from 67 teas from China. A special service, on Saturday and Sunday, involves sitting on the floor and drinking tea in silence.
“Customers come here out of curiosity and experience something they have never experienced before,” said Elina Medvedeva, the owner. “The energy is so serene.”
No food is served. The idea is spiritual nourishment. “The space I offer allows you to connect with yourself,” said Ms. Medvedeva, 48.
Though peaceful in its own way, Lady Mendl’s, with its upholstered lounge furniture, upright piano and portrait of Queen Elizabeth, evokes a different atmosphere. The tea set, at $78 per person, begins with a selection of teas, followed by snacks, including sandwiches and scones. The lounge equally ensures an atmosphere conducive to mature discourse through a policy that prohibits entry to children under the age of 12.
While social media channels lately are full of discussions about wars and upcoming elections, a major debate at the Manhattan lounge on a recent afternoon was the age-old question of what to put on your scone first: clotted cream or jam. At Lady Mendl it is suggested to apply the cream first.
Two women sitting at a table in the back were celebrating their pregnancy. Ms. Cheong and Ms. Andam, sitting near the piano, lingered over cups of Wonderland Rooibos, a variety of tea with hints of chocolate. They talked until 4pm, closing time. No staff member pressured them to leave.
“In a bar, everyone works,” Ms. Andam said as she and her friend stepped out of the quiet townhouse and into the noise of New York. “When does someone take the time to do that?”