Not by any particularly special planning, I saved the reveal for just the right moment. The boys were getting out of control around a hotel pool table and my niece’s patience with their mischief was running out. I took a second to stop berating them and told her, “When we get back I have such an awesome treat planned for you. Afternoon tea at the very, very fancy Hotel Bel-Air.” I got to feel like the cool indulgent aunt for a few minutes. Then I got lobbed in the nose by an errant solid wood pool ball.
Afternoon tea is one of my favorite special and rare treats. For those obsessed with hotels, sipping tea and eating dainty food while practicing the rigorous art of pinky raising is ideal hotel culture voyeurism and a way to enjoy distinguished spaces (ah, Ladies’ Tea Room at Bullock’s Wilshire, circa 1980!). So when I was invited to check out the special tea menu for kids at the Hotel Bel-Air, I was psyched — also because I’d have a nine-year-old girl to bring as my guest who would behave and appreciate the ritual. (Unless I want to face the prospect of fishing a boy out from the swans’ pond, I’m not taking my own kids anywhere near that place.) Thanks an American Girl Doll phase, she’s been to her fair share of afternoon teas, but certainly none like the spread and service at the recently revamped Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air.
Along with renovated and spruced up digs by NYC-based David Rockwell that’s a showcase of every shade of white imaginable at L.A. most quintessentially private and discreet hotel, the kitchen has upped the game for hungry guests who might be dropping in for a few hours or a few days. I’d spent an afternoon out on the Bel-Air’s covered patio restaurant space a few years ago with girlfriends, and was disappointed with the mediocre bagged tea and ho-hum sandwiches served on stale bread.
No longer. The extensive tea list features all loose teas from Art of Tea, including some custom blends like the Hotel Bel Air Swan Song with guayusa, white tip jasmine, hibiscus and green rooibos. The special children’s tea menu ($36) offers caffeine free options, such as mint, chamomile, and the rooibos-based HBA Rejuvenation Blend with apricot and lemon myrtle. Most hotels stick to the classically conservative tasteful set-up of afternoon tea; the tiered plates, crust-less sandwiches and so on. The Bel-Air has found ways to make it even more elegant.
Munchies are deconstructed favorites along with hearty bites such as smoked shallot marmalade and gruyere sandwich slice, yet presented in a way to prevent any worrying about dripping grease on your afternoon finest. Yes, this repast does absolutely involve some paper thinly sliced cucumbers. If ever a combination of smoked salmon, capers and flowers could be so enchanting as this, I haven’t seen it. I saved the Jidori chicken liver mousse with pear rosemary butter crostino for last, while my niece went right for the smoked turkey on brioche roll and the Nutella and banana open-faced sandwich chunk.
The menu has some overlap between the savory and sweet nibbles kids and adults are served on the beautiful rectangular plates sparingly adorned with hummingbirds and butterflies, along with some distinctions. In our case, the generational taste assumptions happened to be accurate. She had chocolate chip cookies, and I got a perfect peanut macaron with a tiny dollop of strawberry jam in the middle. We both ate raspberry financiers, caramelized apricot tarts, cream puffs, and cream filled wafer cones topped with gold dusted crispy balls. No fighting over food or bickering with siblings.
After tea wrapped we retreated to the show stopper of a bathroom with its nods to the Hollywood Regency style, amazing poppy motif wallpapered stalls and glam central vanity station. (And a changing table!) I can’t think of a better one in the greater Los Angeles area; my niece would have moved in, or at least spent a night in there if she could.
Tea service of this caliber is rarely inexpensive. The Hotel Bel-Air is no exception. Its $60 price tag for tea is steep (so to speak), and if I hadn’t been a guest of the hotel’s PR firm, I would’ve driven myself crazy comparing the cost of these delicate bites to more substantive but nonetheless still upscale meals, like the $58 three-course bar menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Meanwhile, the $36 price tag of the Bel-Air children’s tea buys you a dozen kids’ meals at LGO in Pasadena. And so on.
But that’s not the point. This kind of memorable rare afternoon is about tasting delicious hot beverages, filling up on scones with thick devonshire cream and jams, ogling the gorgeous place settings (god, that china pattern!), primping in the OTT bathroom, watching Athena, Hercules and Chloe gliding around, spotting a celebrity checking in, and seeing a flurry of activity around an elaborate wedding that will be happening a few hours later. And having a souvenir stuffed swan and iced cookie to show off to your suddenly jealous younger brother.
701 Stone Canyon Road, Bel Air
Cuisine: Haute Stuff/Eclectic/French
Hours: Afternoon Tea service Friday and Saturday, reservations from 3-4:00 p.m.