Uncovering Beijing’s Best Afternoon Tea
A few months ago, CityWeekend presented LumDimSum with an opportunity to go on a mission to uncover Beijing’s Best Afternoon Tea.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was up for the challenge. Growing up in California, I can’t say I had much previous experience with this time-honored English tradition. With a useless background, I can hardly say it has improved much living in Beijing. I can only count a handful of times I’ve sat down and enjoyed sipping on tea while munching on scones (really only the rare occasion I found myself surrounded by Brits).
But I figure no one is born an expert into anything and I took up the challenge and committed myself to learn the art behind a perfect afternoon tea. After a bit of research and with a British foodie friend to accompany me at each tasting, together we dissected every aspect of each afternoon tea experience, nit-picking every detail and analyzing the pros and cons of each venue ambitious enough to try their hand at serving what they deem to be an afternoon tea.
In only a few months time, we managed to taste our way through a total of 9 different afternoon tea experiences at the top rated venues in the city. To our surprise, each venue conjured up their very own unique selection with no two afternoon teas the same. When I say each one offered something entirely different from the others, I mean that we’ve had our tea inside vs. outside, served in tiered displays vs. served buffet style, while listening to a 12-piece orchestra and even while listening to a background playlist of top 90′s hits including Christina Aguilera and Enrique Inglesias.
To sum up, we’ve seen everything from the good to the great and unfortunately also a few not-so-good, a bad and even an ugly. Now that we’re confident that we’ve seen what Beijing has to offer, it’s time to reveal the best of the best.
There is one clear winner, but I would also like to give due credit to many of the venues who stood out on some note-worthy categories relating to the overall afternoon tea experience. While some venues excelled in superior service, others stood out with their beautiful interior design, lively atmosphere, quality scones or wide variety of tea selection and gourmet coffee.
Without further ado, I present to you the awards summary for Beijing’s Best Afternoon Tea Experience.
List of Awards for Best Afternoon Tea:
Winner: JE Mansion
Stepping into JE Mansion is like stepping into a divine fairyland that begs to be explored. You can spend hours studying its design and decor and still find touches of detail that surprises you. Walking up and down the grand staircase, going in and out of the private VIP rooms and private gardens, slowly walking around the premises of its outdoor patio and walking across its elongated green backyard in what seems to be a never-ending stretch of picture-perfect lawn that continues for 50 thousand square meters, we only fell more in love with this venue and came to the conclusion that the world might have a different impression of China if more venues could accomplish such an air of elegance, sophistication and style.
Not only does JE Mansion uphold the same international quality standards and attention to detail as a 5-star international hotel, it is not under the corporate umbrella of a major hotel chain and distinguishes itself from any other place in the world as an entirely original design and style. The owner Mr. Kang has done wonders with the architectural design of the venue which is composed of exquisite woodwork seen in its roof, pillars and beams that compose the framework of the structure, the Ming and Qing dynasty pavilions, brick, stone and wood structures, Suzhou-style gardens and the intricate folding screens, windows and furniture.
JE Mansion has an understated elegance that integrates artistic architecture and traditional culture for a design style that will undoubtedly appeal to a global audience.
Winner: Capital M
Sipping our tea and tasting our way through Capital M‘s three-tiered display of sweets and finger sandwiches while looking around and observing everyone around us smiling, laughing, chattering and genuinely enjoying themselves is like something straight out of a film set. Everything is set in a vibrantly colorful backdrop, everyone is dressed to look the part – tall, beautiful women dressed in elegant floor-length summer dresses and men dressed smart with glossy sunglasses perched on top of their head. If you enjoy people-watching, Capital M is the place for you.
While most of the tables were occupied when we arrived, by the time we left, there was not a single open seat. Although there was quite a lot of us in a relatively confined space, it never felt crowded. Every table was full but strategically spaced out with just enough space that everyone is just out of “eavesdropping reach” so you can still enjoy an intimate afternoon tea experience with the benefit of lively chatter and laughter all around you.
Winner: China World Hotel
My ears perked up as soon as I heard the words “12 piece orchestra” and “afternoon tea” incorporated into the same sentence. A live classical music concert every Sunday afternoon in the lobby of China World Hotel makes it a trip worth making.
China World Hotel’s Afternoon Tea Concert has been a regular event since it first opened over 20 years ago as a part of the China World Trade Center (hotel, offices, apartments, exhibition halls and shopping center). Every Sunday, China World Hotel has invited students and young musicians to play a classical concert for its guests in the glamorous lobby of their hotel, a setting reminiscent of a Chinese imperial palace.
Seamless, consistent live classical music throughout the entire 3 hours of afternoon tea, they even feature a pianist and flutist through the interlude while the 12-piece orchestra goes on break. The 12-piece Classical Orchestra really sets China World Hotel aparts from all other Afternoon Tea events in the city.
Winner: China World Hotel
The China World Hotel Lobby Lounge is an institution in Beijing that has been around for over 20 years. The amounts of big business deals discussed and signed at these very tables and couches are countless and beyond imaginable. And there’s no wondering why these big heads are all still coming to this very lounge after so many years. They really look after each and every customer with a personable and equally professional demeanor that makes us want to bow down in respect.
Lobby Manager Kimberley Tso was by far the most courteous and charming host we encountered along our journey.
Winner: China World Summit Wing
The Lounge of China World Summit Wing offered a wide range of Black Teas including Mokalbarie, English Breakfast, Nurbong (Darjeeling), Earl Grey, Rose Tea with Petals, Vanilla, along with a range of Green Tea (Japan Fancy Sencha, Jasmine Gold) and Herbal Infusion Teas (Peppermint, Camomile, Roibosh Lemon).
I enjoyed the Shangri-la Tea Set: The Rich Pineapple-Kiwi-Plum Aroma of the Babaco Fruit is the Secret of this full-bodied tea blend from Java, Ceylon and India.
I can’t praise this tea enough. It was incredibly fragrant and simultaneously soothing for a sensation that has left a deep impression on my taste buds that I will not soon forget.
Winner: Raffles Beijing Hotel
While I should also give praise to the Ritz-Carlton for serving a scrumptious scone, Raffles Beijing Hotel takes its rightful place on the throne and proudly wears the crown as the winner for best scones in Beijing.
The scones here are super soft, freshly baked and light as a cloud. Unlike the other stodgy, crumbly scones which felt like a rock in my stomach, this scone is fluffy with a soft, doughy consistency and the plain scone even goes to the trouble of adding a light smear of lemon peel on the top crust. Served with very spreadable clotted cream (not the clumpy, cottage cheese consistency I’ve found elsewhere) and famous raspberry and orange marmalade Tiptree jam from Essex, England, I imagine this is about as good as it gets in the world of scones.
Best Finger Sandwiches
Winner: China World Summit Wing
The Summit surpasses all prior tasting experiences by serving the most fresh, moist, delicious finger sandwiches of all. I can’t say I was sold on the presentation with each one wrapped within a different textured outer shell and each one being a bit too large to be considered bite-sized, but each savory sandwich was exquisite in its own right.
The vegetable wrap was filled with tasty mushrooms, bell peppers and soft pesto sauce wrapped in a soft tortilla shell. The Parma Ham was wrapped in Focaccia bread spread with buttery cream cheese. The Smoked Salmon wrapped in thin strips of cucumber was also a winning combination but the best sandwich of all was the shrimp cocktail wrapped in a layer of egg omelette.
Perhaps this method of wrapping the sandwich bread within an outer shell is in fact a strategy to contain the bread’s moisture rather than an aesthetic purpose. In any case, these were really the best sandwiches we’ve come across and we delightfully savored every last bite.
Winner: China World Hotel
The lovely chocolate butterfly delicately perched on top of the Chocolate Éclair was almost too nice to eat, the Strawberry Cheesecake Tart was thick with a strong cheesy flavor on top of a soft, crumbly shortbread biscuit base and the White Chocolate Lemon Tart tasted like a light lemon meringue pie decorated with white chocolate disks and lime jelly cubes, a combination best described as a “zesty interlude” (phrase coined by Sarah Keenlyside, a native Brit, fellow taster, talented journalist and founder of Bespoke Beijing travel and events company).
But what really gave China World Hotel over all others was the Fresh Strawberry with Vanilla Cream. A perfect ending, the mini fresh strawberries were sweet and juicy, floating on a cloud of light and fluffy vanilla cream. The only thing that could have made this dessert any better would be to provide an extra side of strawberries as the proportion of cream outnumbered the handful of fresh strawberries.
FINAL AFTERNOON TEA RESULTS:
Bronze Medal (3rd Place):
Raffles Beijing Hotel
As soon as you step into Raffles Beijing Hotel, you are engulfed in over a hundred years of historical relevance. While other famous hotels in Beijing have made big names for themselves in modern day China, few can boast a legacy as long as Raffles.
Built in 1901, Raffles Beijing Hotel is one of the most iconic hotels in the city. With a long and colorful history, it was once known as “the only deluxe hotel in the Far East”and they even have 9 Personality Suites named after its most famous patrons who have paid homage to this fabled hotel including Charles de Gaulle, George Bernard Shaw, Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Clearly a place that instigates inspiration, both Chinese and foreign literary legends like Kipling, Conrad and Coward have been in residence, visited or written about Raffles Beijing Hotel over the years.
With glittering chandeliers and high arched ceilings, you feel like you’ve just stepped into the 1920′s. History is everywhere you turn – from the black and white photographs of China’s leaders including Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai to the original timber sprung dance floor, all these pieces together in one place evokes the spirit of a long-established rendezvous for both social and business gatherings.
The lounge was awkwardly quiet and not every delicacy served on the elegant three tiered display was flawless, but the scones are the best I’ve ever tasted and Writers Bar in Raffles Beijing Hotel is an exquisite and lovely lounge and no one can argue with that.
A great escape to spend a quiet afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of Beijing’s famous Chang An Avenue, just sitting within a venue that has witnessed many of the city’s significant social and political events across a hundred years of history is bound to inspire anyone to take to a pen and follow in the footsteps of all those literary legends who sat in this very lounge and wrote something brilliant.
Silver Medal (Runner-Up):
Overall, Capital M takes the gold for its lively atmosphere. With such an exquisite interior design as a backdrop and plenty of tables full of happy guests chattering away and laughing throughout the afternoon, you can’t help but feel like you’re on a film set. It’s so lovely, it’s almost impossible to replicate and like it’s too good to be natural, but of course it is and Capital M should receive well-deserved recognition for being the only ones to manage its venue’s atmosphere so flawlessly.
While the food seems to value quantity over quality and service can be a bit of a hit or miss, I would definitely recommend Capital M as a worthy destination for those who enjoy this time-honored tradition of afternoon tea and for any travelers who may not have the budget to have dinner here, an afternoon tea would be a great alternative to come and see this spectacular venue and impressive views.
Gold Medal (1st Place Winner):
China World Hotel
I was beginning to lose hope. I was beginning to get jaded. I was beginning to believe that a truly authentic English afternoon tea just does not exist in Beijing. And just when I least expected it, I discovered China World Hotel’s Afternoon Tea Concert.
With so many advantages, it’s easy to see why China World Hotel so easily swooped the Gold for Beijing’s Best Afternoon Tea:
- The 12-piece Classical Orchestra really sets China World Hotel aparts from all other Afternoon Tea events in the city.
- The most traditional English Afternoon Tea I’ve tasted so far with authentic British bites easy to share and eat in an elegant, dignified way (as it ought to be) and true finger sandwiches (no crust and soft, fresh bread that hasn’t been pre-cut and served dry and crusty)
- Charming and courteous lobby manager Kimberley Tso wins China World Hotel the Best Afternoon Tea Service in the city.
- Their “Strawberries and Cream” dessert totally sold us all on this being the best dessert we had across all the delectable sweets we consumed across 9 different afternoon tea spreads. There is nothing more evocative of a British summer than strawberries and cream.
- The China World Lobby Lounge is plush and glamorous with individual couch chairs and a general ambiance reminiscent of a Chinese imperial palace with Ming and Qing dynasty style, the red and gold chamber gives guests a grandeur worthy of royalty.
Music to my ears and joy leaping from my taste buds, China World Hotel Lobby Lounge’s Afternoon Tea Concert is a weekend treat that both Beijing residents and out-of-town visitors should make a point to enjoy at least once. I say “at least once” because every month they change the theme of their Afternoon Tea Concert to serve something fresh, something new while maintaining the same high-quality standards and upholding this treasured, time-honored English tradition.
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
— Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
LDS’s Afternoon Tea Reviews in Beijing:
Click here for previous review of the Ritz-Carlton Beijing’s Afternoon Tea.
Click here for previous review of the Park Hyatt’s Afternoon Tea.
Click here for previous review of the Sofitel Beijing Hotel’s Afternoon Tea.
Click here for previous review of the Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center.
Click here for previous review of the China World Hotel.
Click here for previous review of the Beijing Raffles Hotel.
Click here for previous review of the China World Summit Wing.
Click here for previous review of JE Mansion.