Brits Throw Down With Starbucks on Streets of New York

Won’t you take a break and spend the afternoon sipping tea before you catch your train home, Jason Hicks, co-owner of the Peacock in New York, suggests.

What is he, nuts?

Easy there, New Yorker. He's just saying if you’re near Grand Central and crave a languorous escape from reality, you’ll find it a few blocks from the terminal. There, in what was the Williams College alumni club library and is now part of the boutique hotel William , the upholstered vibe is stately, if a bit stiff. It's the perfect place to engage in civilized chat over lemon curd and crumpets.

"The concept is to showcase the best of the British," says Hicks, who began his invasion on the Upper East Side in 2011 as chef of Jones Wood Foundry and is also co-owner of the Shakespeare, a second restaurant in the William. The 42-year-old farm boy from England's Cotswolds has teamed up with another Brit, chef Robert Aikens, of Norfolk. They say they’re selling out dinner and turning a profit, and that it's important to provide the tea service for the complete experience.

"Not a lot of people can come in and sit for hours," Aikens, also 42, concedes. "We're hoping to find those with the means to do it." You can opt for the Champagne Cream Tea with a half-bottle of Ruinart's Blanc de Blanc for $100 for two, or the Afternoon Cream Tea for $50.

What is he, nuts?

All right, so why would stressed-out New Yorkers addicted to coffee stop long enough to "take tea" on frilly tiers of china? They wouldn’t. Not in droves, anyway, or not here, or not yet. My American lunch date, Daniel Curtis, and I shared the room with a single pair of well-dressed shoppers at 3 p.m. on a Saturday.

Still, whoever invented clotted cream is a genius, I think, over rose-infused sips of the Queen's Guard. Across the table, Daniel, a prolific coffee drinker, is disgracing himself with a mint and ginger herbal blend called Pic du Midi.

"It's very light. The ginger comes across stronger on the nose than on the tea. It awakens the palette," he says, confirming that you can’t say that and sound like Bogart.

Aikens, with his wiry red beard, pale skin and gruff speech, seems more like a disgruntled Thatcher-era union man than a passionate pastry maker. So much for first impressions. His Victoria Sandwich Cake with Devonshire cream and raspberry jam sits so prettily next to raisin scones and almond-vanilla Battenberg cake, you feel like a Hun biting into its pristine marzipan shell.

A tall, blond maitre'd, Gareth Tootell, pops round the corner to top us up. "You'll find a mixture of lemon and natural bergamot in the classic Earl Grey. We don't use flavorings used in mass-produced teas to extend the shelf life," he says, in a strong Derbyshire accent.

Tootell (come on, really? Tootell?) admits to drinking Twinings English Earl Grey at home. It contains bergamot flavoring. Well, no self-respecting Brit drinks Earl Grey without bergamot, he explains, as he shines the silver canister with a white cloth napkin.

No, I shouldn’t think so. Suddenly I am Lady Mary. Wherever is Papa?

Michael Shannon, founder of Bellocq Tea Atelier , shares my impressions. "It's a very ‘Downton Abbey’ service, with classic English desserts, Queen's Guard tea and Wedgwood china," says Shannon, who supplies the Peacock with its black and herbal tea selection.

Brits take tea seriously, but you knew that. The ceremony dates back to the mid-1600s, when Thomas Garraway started selling tea, a rare Oriental luxury, to the aristocrats of London City. Over the centuries, tea became a fixture of high society. It wasn't until the early 1900s that King Edward VII, that storied socialite, set new standards for traveling and stylish living, and luxury hotels had to add tea lounges and palm courts to keep up. Tea in Edward's day was the respectable drink that allowed high-society ladies to entertain without the risk of gossip.

This culture has allowed Shannon, a Brooklyn-based artisan, to carve out a niche in the luxury tea market dominated by larger brand names like Mariage Frères ,Kusmi Tea and Tealeaves . It may be a while before the luxe hotels of the afternoon tea world, like the Plaza and the Ritz-Carlton, will take a chance on a small artisan like Bellocq the way Hicks did -- though taking menu chances is what's winning Hicks and Aiken acclaim .

New Yorkers have other options -- the Ritz's British tea, the Plaza's highfalutin Gatsby-style tea, Lady Mendl's Victorian-era ladylike afternoons. For true anglophiles, the Ritz is the real rival.

"Our traditional British afternoon service has grown considerably over the past few years, to the point where we have nearly doubled our capacity and sell out nearly every weekend," says Steve Hadley, director of food and beverage at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. The Star Lounge for tea was fully booked last Saturday, on Loot's Spring outing.

Things have changed a little since the 1600s, but you can still get a whiff of aristocracy and imperialism in Bellocq's Queen's Guard black tea, I'd say. Shannon laughs at this, before describing the process of making "royal tea."

"We honor the flavor of the leaf in our blends, much like a chef uses ingredients," he says. "We do not use any synthetics, which are disruptive on the palette and unsophisticated. No Irish Mist or Mango Surprise here."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.