WITH the temperature approaching 100 degrees for the umpteenth day recently, my daughter and I sought an illogical form of relief: We put on our best dresses and went to tea.
To our delight, the outing proved a refreshing break from the swimming and picnicking we'd been doing all summer.
Several hotels in the D.C. area offer good, old-fashioned teas. And traditional tea time doesn't mean simply dropping a bag in a cup of hot water. The hotels that offer the meal provide patrons with a variety of scrumptious beverages including gourmet teas, apple juice and hot chocolate, as well as finger sandwiches and pastries. Some hotels even feature tea times designed exclusively for children, with special themes.
My 5-year-old daughter, Rebekah, and I were guests at a tea held recently at the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Upon entering the lounge, we found several small wooden tables set up with lovely floral-patterned china tea pots, cups, plates and saucers. When we sat down our server removed Rebekah's adult-size service pieces and replaced them with a beautiful miniature Beatrix Potter setting. At Rebekah's request, her pot was filled with hot cocoa. Mine was filled with a blended tea combining apple and apricot flavors, one of the 13 teas offered there.
The theme of Rebekah's tea was Peter Rabbit. It included a selection of tea sandwiches (those more appealing to kids, such as peanut butter and jelly, and ham and cheese); a blueberry scone with Devonshire cream; and a selection of cookies. I had the "Royal Tea," which included a whole lot more: champagne; an assortment of finger sandwiches spread with smoked salmon, dill cream cheese, caviar, watercress or poached gulf shrimp; a variety of sweets including scones, honey walnut bread, a Grand Marnier fruit tart and cookies; and fresh strawberries with whipped cream.
We were entertained by a pianist who played classical music and familiar tunes from Disney movies. During our lunch we were greeted by Ritz C. Bear, the hotel mascot who not only visits the children during tea time (a huge hit) but is known throughout the community for visiting hospitals and schools.
Ritz C. Bear hosts the "Teddy Bear Teas" that are scheduled every fall. These teas invite children of all ages to bring their favorite teddy bears while Ritz C. Bear entertains, along with a magician and a storyteller.
Taking afternoon tea is an English custom dating back to the early 19th century. Legend has it that tea time was started by the Duchess of Bedford, who ordered her servants to bring her a pot of tea as well as light refreshments every day around 4. She began inviting her friends to join her, making afternoon tea a fashionable practice.
"Bringing children to tea is a welcome alternative to McDonald's," said Ellen Gale, director of public relations of the Ritz-Carlton Hotels. "It helps teach them etiquette while creating very special memories."
Other teas offered by the Ritz-Carlton throughout the year include "A Not So Scary Halloween," featuring a costume contest and pumpkin carving, and a "Nutcracker Tea," which brings characters from the classic ballet to the hotel and sends the children home with their own nutcrackers. Children get to watch a mini-performance by the Maryland National Youth Ballet and then meet the dancers afterward. There is also a "Mother and Daughter Tea and Etiquette" event where Dorothea Johnson, director of the Protocol School of Washington, discusses the social do's and don'ts of tea etiquette.
And, says David W.B. Rothwell, director of food and beverage for the Ritz-Carlton, theme teas aren't just for girls. "Boys and girls enjoy all of our teas, because of the characters, especially `The Nutcracker' because of the Mouse King."
Hotels aren't the only places that host teas. Ballet Petite in Bethesda is primarily a dance studio. But it, too, offers teas that both boys and girls can enjoy. Ilana Locker, of Bethesda, was very pleased with the studio's party for her daughter's fourth birthday. "The children loved both the tea party and the ballet dancing," Locker said. "Being able to use real china and pour their own tea was a wonderful experience for the children," she added.
The Christian Heurich House Museum, a Victorian home housing the Historical Society of Washington, hosts teas for young girls, re-creating as much as possible the old-fashioned custom. The Heurich House teas are based on a character named Samantha out of the American Girl book and doll series. The tea is a component of a two-hour program designed to re-create life of the early 1900s.
Looking for a cozier atmosphere? Try having a tea party right in your own home. The book "Let's Have a Tea Party: Steps to Making a Tea at Home" by Emilie Barnes (Harvest House, 1997) gives helpful step-by-step tips on making the menu as well as coming up with fun and original themes.
During the drive home from our tea at the Ritz-Carlton, my daughter and I agreed that we could get used to such elegance and well-mannered service. More than just a summer respite, this was a treat we could treasure in any season.
THE TEA TOTAL
The following places have teas that welcome children, and some offer teas specifically designed for children. Reservations are highly recommended. Call for more details.
BALLET PETITE -- 4701 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda. 301/229-6882. Call to schedule children's tea parties. $400 for party of 12.
CHRISTIAN HEURICH HOUSE MUSEUM -- Home of the Historical Society of Washington, 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202/887-8936. Offered as part of the "Samantha" program, teas are offered (Sept. 11- Nov. 21) Tuesday-Friday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. $25.
MONTPELIER MANSION -- 9401 Montpelier Dr., Laurel. 301/498-8486. Tea time is Friday from 3 to 5. $18 per person.
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL -- 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202/342-0444. Tea times are Monday-Saturday from 3 to 5, Sundays from 4 to 5:30. $12-$18. Children's teas are $9.
RITZ-CARLTON TYSONS CORNER - 1700 Tyson Blvd., McLean. 703/506-4300. Teddy Bear Teas take place Sept. 18, Oct. 16, Nov. 6 and Nov. 20, from 11 to 12:30 and cost $38. Peter Rabbit and regular afternoon teas follow from 2:30 to 4:30. Peter Rabbit teas are $13. Regular tea time is Monday-Sunday from 1 to 4:30 and costs $17-$27. Nutcracker Teas are Nov. 26 and 27 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Dec. 4, 11, 18, 20, 21 and 22, 23 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and cost $40. The Not So Scary Tea is Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and costs $38.
RITZ-CARLTON PENTAGON CITY -- 1250 S. Hayes St., Arlington. 703/415-5000. Regular tea time and Peter Rabbit Teas are Monday-Sunday from 1 to 3. Regular teas are $17-$27. Peter Rabbit Teas are $13.
ST. REGIS HOTEL -- 923 16th St. NW. 202/638-2626. Tea time is Friday- Sunday from 3 to 5:30. (Restaurant where tea is held is closed this month and will reopen Labor Day, Sept. 6.) $19.
STRATHMORE HALL -- 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. 301/530-0540. Tea time is Tuesday and Wednesday at 1 p.m., recommended for ages 10 and older. A tea for children of all ages is scheduled for Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. $12.