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Reinventing Afternoon Tea, With Deliciousness and Delight

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Reinventing Afternoon Tea, With Deliciousness and Delight

Ladies in dresses and gentlemen in suits. Gilded cornices and crystal chandeliers. The clinking of silverware and the din of laughter. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Astor Court, the soaring dining room at the St. Regis New York, was humming, just as it did a century ago. Almost.

Afternoon tea, traditionally a small, sociable meal between lunch and dinner, has been a hallmark of the East 55th Street hotel since it opened in 1904. But now the spread is contemporary: The Dalí Tea ($85 per person), which made its debut in March, includes a ceramic palette instead of a three-tiered silver tray, and finger bites take their cues from the Surrealist master Salvador Dalí, who lived at the St. Regis for extended periods starting in the 1930s. There is a miniature version of “The Persistence of Memory,” his famous “melting clocks” painting — rendered entirely in chocolate. A lobster-and-mango sandwich nods to the “Lobster Telephone” sculpture; a lemon-poppy-seed madeleine, the “Still Life With Two Lemons” oil painting. Atop each table, iPhones rest, with Instagram at the ready.

The St. Regis and other upscale hotels around the world have only recently started to “blow the dust off their afternoon tea tradition,” said Bruce Richardson, a Kentucky-based tea expert who designs teas for museums and fashion brands around the world. He said The Berkeley, a boutique hotel in London, led the charge when it launched its Prêt-à-Portea, which changes seasonally, based on runway fashion collections, in 2006.

“Boutique hotels want to set themselves apart and be trendier because their clientele is a little hipper. They’re trying to stand out from the crowd,” said Mr. Richardson, who also owns Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, a wholesale and retail operation.

A new rock ‘n’ roll afternoon tea (£35, or about $43 per person) at The Gore, a 127-year-old boutique hotel in London, tips its (Panama) hat to the Rolling Stones (who hosted a 1968 album-launch party here), Guns N’ Roses and Queen. The sea of elaborate bites includes “Sweet Choux’ O’ Mine,” a cream-filled choux pastry accessorized by chocolate electric guitars and top hats, and “Whisky A Go Go,” named for the West Hollywood rock club, a mini-madeleine topped with whiskey ganache. Tiny, nonedible items such as a miniature drum kit and a faux-record-player platter further riff on the musical theme.

The Pembroke Room at The Lowell, a landmark 1920s hotel on New York City’s Upper East Side, has the rarefied, hushed air of a traditional tearoom. But this summer’s Garden Tea, which featured pink and purple cocktails and a giant raspberry Ladurée macaron, piqued the interest of a clientele that was about one-third millennial, estimates the general manager, Heiko Kuenstle. A new Gentlemen’s Tea (from $95 per person, through Nov. 10), with port, whiskey, New York strip steak sandwiches and foie gras with truffles, will no doubt appeal to social media-wielding 20- and 30-something omnivores of all genders.

“Certain hotels are attracting a young, savvy crowd by changing up the scenery and presenting gorgeous food — and people love going and taking pictures,” said Jee Choe, who has reviewed nearly every New York City afternoon tea for Oh, How Civilized, her blog.

Some hotels explicitly acknowledge the marketing potential. At The Sanya EDITION, on Hainan Island in China, the decidedly meta Skybar Afternoon Tea references EDITION’s first four locations; dishes include a lemon cheesecake (New York City) and a confection made with coconut, pineapple and white chocolate (Miami Beach).

And even as they rotate, afternoon teas at Café 103 at the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, remain camera-ready. January saw an all-pink Givenchy Beauty Tea, inspired by the brand’s Le Rose Perfecto lip balms; this summer, a lavish “In Love With Dazzling Beauty” tea paid homage to the shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti’s glamorous aesthetic; and a newly launched “Back to The Roots” tea (through Nov. 17) honors Shanghai Tang, the Hong Kong luxury label. So it’s no surprise that the lounge’s Instagram geotag is a stream of 20-something women — largely in pairs — posing behind crystal-encrusted flowers and chocolate butterflies.

“We’re 15 or 20 years removed from ‘Sex and the City’ — the era of going out for cocktails,” said Mr. Richardson. “Tea has become the new way of getting together in the afternoon.”

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