On the dreariest of winter days, fog obscures otherwise gorgeous views from the 23rd floor of The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Three of us linger nearly two hours anyway.
High tea at the Victorian-era hotel is a matter of refined, silver-service elegance. We begin with a flute of champagne. Then tea butler Juan Rodriguez wheels over a cart with 13 glass containers, each with a different blend of tea leaves.
He describes each as we take a whiff.
Our guide proceeds more like a sommelier than waiter. Descriptions are not simple. In the hotel’s anniversary blend, for example, is jasmine and rose-scented white teas with an infusion of peppermint and lavender.
Most choices are good all on their own, we are told, but it’s possible to customize. On the cart are little dishes of lemon, apple, ginger, mint, hibiscus and more to add to a pot of tea.
We share first impressions (“smells like ice cream,” a friend says, of the vanilla bean blend), quiz Rodriguez about caffeine levels (the tangerine ginger has none) and eventually make decisions.
Our expert disappears briefly, then delivers three silver tea pots, each with a different tea blend simmering in a tea infuser ball. Each pot sits on a base that swivels, so we fill a cup by tipping the pot instead of lifting it.
The self-tipping teapots are reminiscent of what was used in the 18th century.
Wait two minutes before removing the tea ball, the tea butler advises. At the appointed time, I manage to drop the chained tea ball into the water. As multiple attempts to fish it out with a fork fail, Rodriguez discreetly swoops over to save the day.
“You’ve done worse,” says my friend of 40-some years, which is true. And it takes way more to feel mortified as I age.
While we settle in with our tea, a tiered silver platter of one-bite sweet and savory treats arrives. That means quail egg mousse on rye with caviar, cucumber canapes, mini quiches, smoked salmon, chocolate-raspberry ganache tarts, caramel-apple pastry triangles, macarons, mini scones. Among the condiments: lemon curd, clotted cream, preserves.
We had leftovers.
In the background was a pianist’s classical music. Lessening winter’s chill was a working fireplace. Enriching the afternoon was pleasant conversation.
Cost: $54. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are available. Bring children, for lessons in manners, and the cost is $29 for ages up to 12 years (their menu is simplified and kid-friendly).
High tea at The Pfister continues from 12:30-2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday until the end of April. Reservations are required.
At night, this same setting is Blu, a cocktail lounge with jazz or other music on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. thepfisterhotel.com
For a homier afternoon tea experience, head to Attica, an unincorporated community in Green County that doesn’t make it onto every road map.
Attica is home to Franklin Grove Etc., a combination antiques store and bistro. Shoppers and diners mingle in the same space. Specials are printed on chalkboards.
Owner Cathy Cryor serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and a four-course afternoon tea.
Ours began with sips of Poinsettia (champagne and cranberry juice), then a black tea that was infused with gingerbread, a fine match for this after-Christmas visit. Our cups were replenished as needed.
Showing up during mid afternoon on a weekday meant we had the place to ourselves. First came a curry squash soup with sunflower seeds. Then, a flatbread with herbed cream cheese base and toppings of fruit, nuts and greens.
Peanut butter banana bread was among the assortment of savory and sweet breads and scones. Then came a mix of protein: quiche, deviled eggs, baked chicken salad, salmon spread with capers.
Dessert was fresh fruit served with clotted cream and a cookie from nearby Sugar River Bakery, Brooklyn.
Cost: $25. Open Wednesday through Sunday, and reservations are advised. Franklin Grove is about 25 miles south of Madison. The business closes for a part of winter and reopens in March. facebook.com/franklingroveetc
Twelve miles southeast of the slopes of Granite Peak Ski Area, Rib Mountain, is the rural Johanna May’s Fine Teas, a converted storage shed that is furnished with a mix of antiques from auctions.
“Nothing has cost more than $100,” owner Katrina Isaacson told us during a visit. In her inventory is more than 50 kinds of tea, apricot jasmine to winter mint. Your choice is scooped into a petite filter that hangs from the lip of the teacup.
In the four-course formal tea: little sandwiches (apple chicken salad to turkey pesto), a scone (chocolate cherry to orange raisin) with lemon curd and clotted cream, sorbet and a mix of desserts.
Cost: $25. Open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch. Reservations are required for the formal tea.
Johanna May’s is nine miles southeast of Wausau, and the business is named after Isaacson’s mother, a much-loved coffee drinker. johannamaysfineteas.com
Afternoon tea is a century-old tradition from mid May to mid October at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. It is served in the parlor from 3:30-5 p.m., using the hotel’s signature green china with rose inset.
Expect beautiful nibbles of finger sandwiches and pastries, nips of sherry and champagne. Cost is $56 (plus $10 for non-hotel guests), and reservations are advised. grandhotel.com