World-famous afternoon tea returns to renovated Empress

The famed tea room at the Empress Hotel is back in operation in its usual spot after a major makeover to the space and menu.

But expect to pay a little more to experience the afternoon tea tradition that made the majestic hotel — and Victoria — world famous. Tea is priced at $75, up from $62 last year, but management says there are many new tea options in the redecorated room. There are gluten-free and vegetarian options, plus menu items for children. The cost includes a three-tier stand filled with goodies.

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“Tea at the Empress is something that has been very, very successful for many, many years. It was on everybody’s bucket list when coming to Victoria,” Jan-Peer Lehfeldt, hotel director of food and beverage, said Thursday. “We felt there was room to bring it up to an even further level of international recognition, comparing ourselves with the Plaza in New York, the Savoy in London.”

Hotel manager Indu Brar said the Empress’s tea “rivals the best in the world.”

Rethinking the tea service is part of the bigger picture in the hotel’s $30-million-plus makeover. Food and beverage service, menus and serving locations have all been redone.

Near the tea area, in the renovated lobby lounge, are the Q bar and the Q dining room, which are filled with natural light. They are hipper and more casual in some ways than the bar and dining areas they replaced. Food menus feature plates to share, for example. Seafood plays a prominent role.

But the Empress is still a National Historic Site, filled with ornate columns, original light fixtures and refurbished tables overlooking Victoria Harbour.

A wall of wine holds 850 bottles, including one priced at nearly $20,000 — a 1998 La Tache Romanee-Conti from Burgundy, France.

Tea service had been temporarily moved to the area above the lobby. With its return to the lobby lounge, tea service starts at 11 a.m. and the last seating is at 5:30 p.m. The 138-seat lounge remains open for guests in the evenings, when they can order classic drinks. The adjacent balcony opens in June with 55 seats.

New this year is a wooden menu in the shape of a book. It opens to reveal tiny compartments showcasing loose-leaf teas. They run from $6, up to $15 for Tong Mu Phoenix Lapsang Souchong blend that has flavours of smoke, molasses and malt.

Only loose-leaf teas are now served, Lehfeldt said. The choice of teas has more than doubled with 21 types available.

A timing device holding three hour-glass-shaped vials, each filled with coloured sand, goes on every table when tea is served. Green sand runs through the glass in three minutes for those who prefer mild-flavoured tea, white sand is medium-strength at four minutes, and taupe sand gives you strong tea in five minutes.

“People are very particular about tea,” Lehfeldt said.

This is all part of his mission to “elevate” the experience.

Little pots filled with three types of sugar and one of honey have replaced white refined sugar offered in the past.

Colourful, custom-made Empress tea china is used, including teapots sitting on warmers. The pattern was developed in 1914 and has been used by the hotel since 1939 during a royal visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

An emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal and hotel-made products is reflected in menus. For tea, staff make strawberry jam from local berries, using lavender grown in the hotel’s roof-top garden. A signature Empress cake is still in development and a hotel pastry chef is heading to France to work with experts to create a signature chocolate.

Q was chosen to name the

90-seat restaurant and 65-seat bar in a “modern twist on royalty.” Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the restaurant, which has been designed to be “approachable.”

The hotel’s bar team also tapped their creative juices to concoct a collection of signature cocktails.

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