inn at irving place 2

My sister and co-blogger, Wendi, recently visited me in NY and and kindly offered to take me to afternoon tea at Lady Mendl’s. She managed to hide her disbelief that, after living barely an hour outside Manhattan for over 10 years, I hadn’t managed to get there on my own. (Side note: Wendi spent a year studying outside London and has been a fan of all things English ever since).

A charming find, Lady Mendl’s is located at the Inn at Irving Place in lower Manhattan (www.innatirving.com). Just setting foot inside the doors sets you back about 100 years. We were seated among floral paneled walls, button-tufted furnishings, shaded lamps, white tablecothes and well-dressed women who’d opted to spend their Saturday afternoon the same way we had.

Cracking open the tea menu (4 pages of tea options alone), I was surprised to find out that Lady Mendl was Elsie de Wolfe. The famed de Wolfe is a well-known interior designer of the early 20th century and, in fact, helped put the interior design profession on the map. A purveyor of all things beautiful, she labeled herself  a rebel in “an ugly world” that included, but wasn’t limited to, the works of William Morris and others of arts and crafts ilk.

Elsie de Wolfe married Sir Charles Mendl and lived next door to the present-day Lady Mendl’s. It doesn’t take much to picture early 20th century social society in this New York City relic that pays attention  to proper Victorian-inspired details.

Mother Daughter May 09 017Speaking of details, our afternoon tea was high on them, including miniature everything, from the sandwiches and scones to the floral vase and candle on our table to the single sugar cube beside our tea cup with a tiny rose on top of it. My sister managed to hold on to her sugar cube for the duration of the event (see photo, to the right of her tea cup). Mine was tragically absconded by the waiter when tea spilled and the saucer was exchanged.

If you’re not a fan of the afternoon tea ritual yet, give it a try. It’s not cheap (count on $25 – $40 per person) but you won’t need to eat for days and it’s a great way to spend a relaxed couple of hours with your favorite friends or family.

Lady Mendl’s is one of the more authentic environments if you’re in NYC, but restaurants or hotels that offer afternoon tea options are found in many cities. Or try it at home. Besides plenty of tea, such an elegant affair could include:

* mini-sandwiches (best served on a multi-level serving tray)
* scones with clotted cream
* delicate pastry deserts
* pinkie finger in the air while drinking (optional, but a lot of fun!)

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