Afternoon tea is one of my favourite things in life. I keep a lookout for exceptional examples of this time-honoured indulgence when travelling, so while I’ve never stayed at London’s Ritz or New York’s Plaza, I have enjoyed a few hours at these hotels, living the life of luxury without the massive bill. Beyond five-star hotels, distinctive tearooms can also deliver memorable moments, such as Angelina in Paris and Gunners Barracks on Sydney’s majestic harbour.
I love afternoon tea close to home, too, because above all it’s a chance to press pause on ordinary life and share some special time with friends. Back in Melbourne, I regularly indulged at the historic Windsor Hotel, or at one of many unique tearooms (State Parliament’s hushed, wood-panelled dining room is one the city’s best-kept afternoon tea secrets). So I was disappointed by the comparatively limited afternoon tea options when I arrived in Montreal, but lately things have been looking up. In fact, I’d say there’s a little afternoon tea renaissance going on here.
Being a fan of Fairmont hotels, famed for luxurious heritage properties such as Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac and the The Empress on Canada’s west coast, my first Montreal afternoon tea port of call was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth. Trying to ignore the bland 60s architecture, I had high hopes for the dining room and the meal itself, but was disappointed by a tired Tuscany look straight out of the 90s, and boring food including flat, dry scones.
It was a few years ago, so perhaps it’s improved, and surely will after imminent renovations, but I was unimpressed, and set to work discovering what else was around. The Ritz-Carlton had recently completed major renovations, and I’m pleased to say they do a very nice afternoon tea: great scones and tea, finger sandwiches with creative fillings, and very fancy sweeties. It’s served in the Palm Court, which is elegant, but the lounge-style seating is set so far apart that the room lacks atmosphere.
I was even more excited when Cardinal Tearoom opened in 2013. It’s a wonderful balance of masculine and feminine heritage style, posh and casual, savoury and sweet. The menu is a la carte, so you can make a big occasion of it or just pop in for tea and cake. They do excellent cakes, tarts and sandwiches – the egg-and-cress open sandwich, while difficult to eat with refinement, is completely amazing – so I can forgive them their strange scones (triangular, sugar-crusted things that are nothing like traditional English scones, and cream costs extra, because proper cream is like gold in Quebec for some reason).
A little while later I was further delighted by the arrival of Le Parloir almost on my doorstep on the Plateau. This charming tearoom on a quiet residential street has loads of vintage charm, from a silver pressed-metal wall to the pretty china cups and saucers, but it’s not at all old-fashioned. It feels light and fresh thanks to the flowers, mirrors and natural light, while dark-wood furniture and heavy metal Chinese teapots keep it grounded. Then of course there’s the delectable food and quality tea – yum! Everything reflects the owner’s care and good taste.
Another nice neighbourhood tearoom, but which has been around for years, is Gryphon d’Or. It’s very casual, with sensible furniture, books and boardgames, and afternoon tea fare that’s really home-style both in terms of generous quantities and unfussy presentation. It begins with two big, beautiful scones served with six condiments including lemon curd (which seems to be a popular scone topping in North America). Then the three-tiered tray arrives, groaning with delicious sweets and savouries, including something rarely seen outside Britain: pikelets (essentially mini-pancakes, or blinis). Really good value!
These neighbourhood tearooms keep popping up, as La Brume dans mes Lunettes opened recently. It’s actually a mix of tearoom and cafe, as it’s quite casual, with the usual cool cafe fare and furniture, but there’s also some comfy vintage armchairs, pretty china cups and saucers, and afternoon tea treats. I’ve only been once for tea and quite good scones, but must return for their proper afternoon tea offering …
Apart from Chateau Frontenac’s afternoon tea up the road in Quebec City, which I wrote about earlier, the only other afternoon tea I’ve found in the province is at Birks. This jewellery store is a downtown institution, and includes a “cafe” (it’s fancier than the word suggests) for when you want to consider that million-dollar purchase over a light meal. Or if you love afternoon tea, and haven’t got a million to spare. In this subdued space, refined dainties (including little sandwiches that are, surprisingly, lightly toasted) are served on sleek, contemporary trays and the teapots are those heavy Chinese affairs, so it’s an enjoyable meeting of old and new.
Have I missed any Montreal afternoon tea experiences? Where else is it served in the province? I’m always hungry for more!