Next, the Washington power tea?

The would-be presidential candidate needs to confer with her prospective backers in a nonthreatening setting. She wishes to project an agreeable, negotiable, but essentially reserve-comment stance. They agree to meet for tea in the Potomac Room at the Watergate Hotel.

Two colleagues might become lovers, but at the moment, neither is prepared to commit, in public or in private. He suggests dinner at his place. She suggests lunch at the Maison Blanche. They compromise on tea at the Jefferson. He figures tea can start at 4, and go on to, well ... She thinks if, after an hour, it isn't working out, she can plead a cocktail date.

A famous politician is looking for a job to support him while he runs for office. The Washington law firm would be just right. But are the partners interested? Lunch at Duke Zeibert's would make him seem too available, too eager. The firm feels the same way. The partners are not yet willing to promise too much, not until they know what he's asking. They meet for tea at the Hay-Adams.

Tea for two -- or more -- is now served in Washington hotels.

Rose Narva, the empress of 16th Street hoteliers, claims to have introduced the hotel tea to Washington when she was manager of the Sheraton-Carlton in 1975 and redid its lobby to make a tea court. At the Hay-Adams, in 1983, she remodeled the Lafayette bar, a great paneled room, into a dining and tea room complete with a Christofle-made tea cart. (Tea continues there under the direction of Bill Trimble.) Now on her second reign as a director at the Jefferson (she first ran it between her stints at the Sheraton-Carlton and the Hay-Adams, and has been back since 1985) she's setting the tables with a complete tea. Her watercress sandwiches are actually rolled, not layered, and salmon sandwiches (not suited to her taste) are only served on request.

Alan H. FitzGerald, managing director of the Watergate Hotel, inaugurated his afternoon tea in the newly decorated Potomac Lounge recently with two tea parties, both managed by party giver Maggie Wimsatt. One was for Effi Barry, the mayor's wife; Caitriona MacKernan, wife of the Irish ambassador; writer Jayne Ikard, and Countess Ulla Wachtmeister, wife of the Swedish ambassador. And another for residents of the Watergate complex, including writer Pauline Innis and Carolyn (Mrs. Russell) Long.

Michael Twomey, who presides over the palm court afternoon tea at the Ritz Hotel, the Watergate's London sister, came to the Watergate to show how it's done -- trying to keep the waiters from removing the sandwich plates before people had finished eating and giving advice on tea varieties.

Twomey said he went to London at age 15 from Ireland "where tea meant fried bread and a two-ounce ration of tea during World War II." He started at the Ritz making sandwiches -- 910 a day for the 150 tea covers it serves. "Now so many people want to come to tea, they must reserve for one of the two seatings."

FitzGerald, also an Irishman, said he could match stories. "I began at the Dorchester in London, with a supervisor sandwich maker called Slasher Reynolds."

Ever since the Boston Tea Party, Americans have had mixed emotions about tea. They had the home country taste for tea. But when the British government wanted to tax them for the privilege of exercising their inalienable right, coffee suddenly tasted better.

Gingerly, with this history in mind, the British, who sometimes seem to have a monopoly on tea packaging, have recently been selling tea in the United States as aggressively as the Japanese do TV sets.

Samuel H.G. Twining, the ninth generation of the tea purveyors, has been pouring tea wisdom in an ocean-to-ocean effort in the United States, giving tea seminars in leading hotels -- most recently in Washington at the Four Seasons, amid its palm-court-like Garden Terrace, with Robin Brown, resident manager, pushing teas.

Sometimes the Four Seasons serves as many as 150 teas on Saturdays and Sundays, says Sharyn Thomas, the hotel spokeswoman. The hotel has gone as far as buying up a great many tiered tea stands on which to serve a full tea: 3/4 tea sandwiches (crab meat, salmon, egg salad, watercress, with all the crusts trimmed, obviously); tea breads (banana, ginger); scones with double Devonshire cream, a fruit tartlet and three cookies.

"The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea: the Art & Pleasures of Taking Tea" (Ebury Press, London), by Helen Simpson, claims that tea first came to England during Cromwell's Protectorate (1653-1658), touted for medicinal purposes.

Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662, as a dowry, brought a full chest of tea to her marriage to Charles II.

Anna, seventh duchess of Bedford, is said to have invented afternoon tea in 1840. And the Aerated Bread Co. in 1864 opened the first tea shops in London.

Simpson quotes Lady Diana Cooper, a London socialite, as saying that the Ritz was the first place where unchaperoned young ladies were permitted to take tea.

0h, yes, if you're going to have a proper tea, you'd better be careful of what you call it. "Afternoon tea" is the dainty repast with crustless sandwiches and scones, 3:30 to 5:30. "High tea" is a later, hefty informal supper, for those who aren't planning to dine.