Text and Photos by Bruce Richardson
Tea is hotter than ever in the Windy City. From the glittering hotels along Michigan Avenue to the friendly tea stores of the suburbs, residents and visitors alike can be seen drinking tea all day. Tea is everywhere and served any way you desire—hot or cold, fast or slow, green or black, in porcelain teacups or in paper mugs.
It’s obvious why tea is having a renaissance here. Chicago weather can be frightful in the winter, and tea is the perfect antidote to ward off the cold winds swirling in from Lake Michigan.
Plus, tea and high culture seem to blend as well here as they do in Paris or London. Chicago has earned its reputation as a world-class city—with a Midwestern attitude. It has an incredible mixture of museums, public art, architecture, food, theatre, and shopping. The Magnificent Mile, formally known as Michigan Avenue, has one of the largest collections of name-brand stores outside New York City. Fortunately, the kettle is on along the avenue so that tea lovers are never more than a few steps from a great cup of tea.
The Peninsula Chicago
108 E. Superior Street
Ask anyone along Michigan Avenue for directions to The Peninsula, and they might simply say, “Turn right at Tiffany’s.” But while Tiffany & Co. is linked to a made-for-movie breakfast, The Peninsula is synonymous with a more glittering meal—afternoon tea.
Since the first Peninsula opened in Hong Kong in 1928, this legendary collection of exquisite hotels has been known for outstanding afternoon-tea service. And the Chicago property, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, continues to set the gold standard for hotel teas along the Magnificent Mile.
Tea is celebrated every afternoon in The Lobby, a palatial, gold-encrusted room filled with light from a wall of 20-foot windows and from bejeweled crystal chandeliers and golden wall sconces. Making the ethereal setting more serene is the music of violinists, emanating from a curtained balcony above the diners.
The tea foods created for this setting are delicately crafted and skillfully balanced so that no one item overwhelms the palate or the appetite. But the secret to the success of this world-class hotel—after the glorious setting—is the staff’s attention to details. Each member is keenly attuned to the needs of every guest, and each makes sure the tea service unfolds as smoothly as a Noel Coward play. It’s no wonder that international guests seek out Peninsula hotels wherever they travel throughout the world.
The Ritz-Carlton Chicago
160 E. Pearson Street at Water Tower Place
The Chicago edition of The Ritz-Carlton is located directly behind Water Tower Place, Michigan Avenue’s fashion mall and home of American Girl Place. Ritz-Carlton hotels everywhere have a commitment to outstanding tea service, and this location is one of the best.
Afternoon tea is served just off the lobby, with a dramatic view of the neighboring John Hancock Building rising into the Chicago sky. On an overcast day, the top of the skyscraper sometimes disappears into the low-hanging clouds, but on a clear day, diners are tempted to gawk at the soaring skyline.
Executive Chef Mark Payne hails from London and takes teatime seriously. The mix of flavors on the silver three-tiered tray often features vegetables, cheese, or meat from local sources. And Chef Payne does a stellar job creating new and unusual items, such as a roasted cauliflower with butternut squash tart topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.
The trademark Ritz-Carlton service is always on display here. After a hard day of shopping, it’s nice to be pampered and cared for in this oasis.
140 E. Walton Place at Michigan Avenue
Michigan Avenue has, for nearly a century, had a common living room. It is simply known as The Drake. The classic 13-story hotel with its mammoth rooftop sign has been an icon on Chicago’s famous lakefront since 1921. Built by brothers John and Tracy Drake, this National Registry landmark has hosted numerous world leaders from Emperor Hirohito of Japan to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
The heart of the hotel is the opulent Palm Court, located off the lobby and up a short, wide flight of stairs. A fantastic crystal chandelier casts a golden glow as its light reflects off the mirrored ceiling. The focal piece of the Palm Court is a fabulous antique urn fountain in the center of the room. Stone cherubs and dolphins frolic around its enormous floral arrangement. Although the urn looks as if it has always been part of the Palm Court environment, the 270-year-old antique was purchased from New York 30 years ago, and the room was redecorated around it.
Chicagoans often choose this sanctuary to mark the passing of time. Celebrations regularly unfold here as children enjoy birthdays or couples toast an anniversary with a champagne tea. This is a place where memories are made. During teatime, a harpist sits at the top of the stairs, her music mystically luring guests into this palatial setting. The familiar strains of “As Time Goes By” often drift from the harp and waft their way across the room as guests enjoy afternoon tea.
Time does go by here—just a bit slower than in the rest of the bustling city.
Todd & Holland
7311 W. Madison Street (Forest Park)
Bill Todd launched Todd & Holland Tea Merchants in 1994 with a simple Web site and a mailing list. His new location is a bustling brick-and-mortar store on a busy corner of Madison Street in downtown Forest Park, just blocks away from Oak Park and the Frank Lloyd Wright house and studio.
Bill has the honored reputation of being the local tea guru, and his devoted customers stop by regularly to seek his counsel. He is constantly adding new teas to his wall of tea wonders from around the world.
“The sheer number and variety of teas can be overwhelming,” Bill admits. “But one of our tasks is to demystify loose-leaf tea so that our customers will find themselves well on their way to a good understanding of tea in all its varieties.”
His enthusiasm and passion are contagious. Bill travels to countries of origin to source many of his single-estate selections. His firsthand knowledge of the gardens has helped launch a growing tea culture in suburban Chicago.
Todd & Holland is close to the Green and Blue CTA lines and is easily accessible from downtown Chicago. A visit here after a tour of the nearby Wright-designed homes adds the perfect accent to an enriching day.
11 S. Fairview Avenue (Park Ridge)
TeaLula can best be described as a teashop and classroom where longtime student of tea Sheila Duda hones her craft and enlightens her customers, one eager novice at a time. Like many tea entrepreneurs, Sheila, one day long ago, stared at a weak teabag floating in her teacup and thought, “There must be more to tea than this!” That moment of awareness was her first step toward creating TeaLula.
The way of tea led Sheila to study at TEA 101, World Tea Expo, and An Occasion for Tea and, most recently, to attain three levels of Specialty Tea Institute certification. She and her husband, Fred, opened their teashop (named for granddaughter Lula) in 2008 in the village of Park Ridge, just a 30-minute train ride north from downtown Chicago.
Sheila designed her store with shelf after shelf of teas displayed along a front wall, all within view of passers-by. The genius of her plan is an inviting tea bar, where customers are encouraged to sit and sip awhile. Sheila’s well-trained tea baristas are adept at steeping tea to precise standards, all the while dispensing information about individual blends. Several regular customers are in the process of sipping their way through her entire menu of more than 150 teas.
Because of all this individual attention, it would be unusual to see TeaLula customers exit with just one tea in their bags. These eager tea groupies take several teas home to keep their tea closets well stocked.
The Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Avenue
No visit to Chicago would be complete without a visit, short or long, to the Art Institute, a museum that delights you again and again. And with more than 30,000 works of art in the collection, it is a cultural cornucopia that is best appreciated in small bites. First-time tea lovers might want to begin with the impressionists gallery at the top of the main stairs, and then wind their way back to find a table and chair created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, designer of Glasgow’s famous Willow Tea Rooms.
The Asian galleries on the first floor house a fascinating collection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tea wares. In the Japanese Gallery, the restored panels from the Japanese pavilion displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago are must-sees. These panels were commissioned by Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea.
Downtown Chicago is one of the easiest of the world’s big cities to navigate. It’s great for walking, and with a convenient elevated train system, known as the EL, you can be anywhere in a matter of minutes.
Before setting out on foot, consider starting with an overview of the city. Both the Willis Tower Skydeck and John Hancock Observatory offer sweeping vistas from more than 1,000 feet above street level. Next, consider a visit to historic Navy Pier. Beautifully set on Lake Michigan, Navy Pier features the Chicago Children’s Museum, IMAX Theatre, and many interesting restaurants and retail shops. The Field Museum of Natural History, the Adler Planetarium, and Shedd Aquarium are only a short walk south of Millennium Park.
To view a slide show of images, click here.
Bruce Richardson is the proprietor of Benjamin Press and Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. He lectures regularly on tea and has authored many books on the subject. Read his blogs at theteamaestro.blogspot.com.