Afternoon tea manages to sound civilized and superfluous at the same time. Let's face it, sitting down to a pot of tea and some prissy little cucumber sandwiches sometime between lunch and dinner doesn't quite jibe with the schedules of most Filofax-clutching Americans. "Tea" sounds like an archaic ritual preserved at anachronistic women's colleges and snooty hotels. Who, besides students and rich people, has time to waste in the afternoon? Well, occasionally, I do. And even if I didn't, I'd try to make time to take tea every now and then. You should, too. Think of it as part of your personal program to reduce stress. If you go with the right attitude, this relaxing ritual might do you as much good as an hour in the gym.

Locally, we have a limited but varied choice of tea rooms. There is an environment to suit all your tea-taking moods.

For special occasions, I recommend afternoon tea at the Phoenician. I go for the breathtaking view and elegant atmosphere as much as for the best tea offerings in the Valley. This might be the perfect place to take out-of-town friends. I know I plan to add it to my itinerary for special visitors.

The tea court is part of the Phoenician's large lobby. It consists of loveseats, armchairs and tea tables. The panoramic view from the terrace windows below looks south from Camelback Mountain. The people-watching inside is primo as well. You and your party seat yourselves; a tea attendant will greet you shortly. Today I am here by myself, a splendid treat. Full tea at the Phoenician is generous and unrushed. It is entirely possible to make an afternoon of it. First on the agenda is selecting your pot of tea. The Phoenician has at least a dozen varieties of the number one beverage in England. Several, including rosehip, peppermint and chamomile, are caffeine free. I choose an old favorite, Earl Grey, a blend of Chinese teas flavored with oil of bergamot. A young lady brings over a teapot and sets it down on the handkerchief linen covering my table. "We'll let it steep for a few minutes," she says. Earl Grey is a highly aromatic tea. It smells divine. One of the reasons I like tea so much at the Phoenician is the china. Made in Hungary, Herend's "Rothschild's Flower" pattern is covered with birds, bees, butterflies and rosebuds. More delicate and much more expensive than Wedgewood's "Wild Strawberries" pattern, it might be the perfect tea service.

My tea attendant brings over a plate covered with dainty sandwiches. She points and describes the four different types to me: salmon and cream cheese, egg and watercress, cucumber and dill, and chicken. Blunt individual that I am, I ask her how many I may have. "Four," says she. "Fine," say I. "I'll have one of each."

Dilled cream cheese is smeared on a round of fresh white bread, layered with cucumber slices and decorated with green olives. It is quite delicious. Chicken salad on pumpernickel is cut like an isosceles triangle and perky with sweet pickle relish. A rose curl of salmon sits on a round of pumpernickel and is enhanced by cream cheese, fresh dill, Bermuda onion and a smidgen of leaf lettuce. It is picture perfect. Finally, a three-layer watercress and egg sandwich defines the word "delicate." The white bread layers are as light as angel food cake, the filling decidedly refined.

I lounge on my couch, nibbling my sandwiches, sipping my tea. Behind me, two violinists play baroque chamber music. The trickling sound of the lobby fountain soothes as well. Lest you think this is all pleasure, I am using this pleasant atmosphere to sort and read my voluminous New Times mail. You see? Tea time needn't be downtime.

Next come the scones. Two of them, plus a chilled pot of pasteurized Devonshire cream, imported--I am told--from England and whipped up in the kitchen. Each tea table is also supplied with tiny jars of Tiptree preserves.

Scones, if you've never had one, are best described as close relatives of biscuits or Irish soda bread. They are slightly sweet, but more like bread than cake. Often they are studded with raisins or currants. These are quite good, still steamy hot, and light brown outside. They split easily into halves.

The proper method for eating scones is as follows: Place some jam and a dollop of Devonshire cream onto your tea plate; spread jam onto a bite-size section of your scone, top with cream and devour; continue until you have no more scone. I usually skip the jam. The way I slather it on, Devonshire cream has more than enough calories for my metabolism--probably an entire day's worth. Come to think of it, I think I'll hold off on that second scone. My server is wheeling over a cart laden with French pastries. She describes eleven different goodies for me; again, I must select four. It is a tough choice. I pick a lemon tart, a Napoleon, a dark chocolate-coated butter-sponge cookie and a slice of poppy seed bread. Only the sponge cookie is less than wonderful; the lemony poppy seed bread is excellent. All items, by the way, are available for purchase a la carte, if full tea sounds like too much for you.

I feel very pampered and productive when I signal my server for my check. I have read all my mail in a most congenial atmosphere. I pay my bill and after one last gaze southward from the terrace, I head for the elevators and my waiting automobile.

Because of its central location, the Ritz-Carlton's afternoon tea should be viewed as a great midday, midtown getaway. The lobby of the Ritz is darker and more staid than the Phoenician's; it feels more like a Victorian living room than a resort. I'm alone once again when I visit this time, and I position myself at one of the more secluded tea setups so I can watch everyone else, but retain a bit of privacy.

Again, first on the agenda is picking today's tea. I choose Formosa Oolong, a mixture of Chinese green and black teas. While it steeps, I note its fruity aroma and the amateurish playing of the pianist in the corner. This is not Horowitz.

Full tea at the Ritz is not the three-course meal I experienced at the Phoenician. Instead, I receive a large plate filled with all my tea items: sandwiches, scone, breads and pastry. I've been allotted a mere dab of my beloved Devonshire cream. It, too, is already on the plate. And frankly, if the presentation is not as spectacular, neither are the fixin's themselves. The ham on the ham-and-asparagus rectangle tastes like the packaged Danish product at the supermarket. A smoked salmon dainty is marred by bread that seems stale. Though bland, the better two sandwiches are a round egg-and-chive and a pinwheel of cucumber and cream cheese--at least the bread is fresh.

The one scone I receive (the menu says "scones," by the way) is muffin shaped and not outstanding. It tastes too much of baking soda. The skimpy portion of Devonshire cream pales in comparison to the Phoenician's generosity. Again I'm told it's real Devon cream imported from England and beaten in the kitchen, but this version is too airy.

As for sweet treats, my plate includes a fresh raspberry tart, which is fabulous, and a slice each of banana-walnut and fruitcake-like breads. The former is fresh and light, the latter too laden with annoying candied citrus rind. Fruitcake season will be here soon enough.

But I feel positively pampered by the attentive service. My tea is poured for me at the Ritz; all I do is sit on my divan, munch and review some notes. My only complaint is that the language of the staff sounds scripted and unnatural. Who, besides a robot, says "My pleasure" instead of "You're welcome"? Or "certainly" instead of "okay"? Probably people whose favorite adjective is "classy." I hate the phoniness of it.

It takes me about an hour to savor my tea and crumpets. When I'm through, I feel relaxed and ready to face the world again. File the Ritz-Carlton's afternoon tea under "R" in your Filofax for Refuge. Maybe the goodies aren't as thrilling as the Phoenician's, but an hour out of the bustle and traffic in a comfortable, plush environment does much to rejuvenate the soul. When you and the girls need a place to gather and discuss a shower, divorce, elopement or affair, head to Gooseberries. This restaurant, nestled in one corner of a gift shop, is a feminine place if ever there was one. The merchandise here has three themes: country, wedding or baby. No children or smokers are permitted.

"Cream tea" is a simple affair at Gooseberries. There's no fussy china, no fancy sandwiches or pastries. Just scones, lemon curd, Devonshire cream, jam and tea. The shop's very floral tablecloths are covered with plastic for protection.

Today I'm here with a girlfriend. When she and I are seated, we are not given the expected choice of teas. Rather, two cups are brought to our table, filled with steaming liquid. Our young waitress tells us it is a caffeinated blend of black currant, apricot and passion fruit teas--though it's as dark as coffee. When I request a caffeine-free selection, she removes my cup and returns with hot water and a nondescript herbal tea bag. A pot of tea never graces our table; cups are refilled somewhat stingily from a master pot. But the scones here are a treat. We receive a ribbon-and-flower-decked basket filled two kinds of scones: "fluffy cloud" and cinnamon-walnut, shaped like hearts. Hot from the oven, the cinnamon scones feature a toasty crust. I love them. I'm less enthusiastic about the "fluffy clouds." When I think of scones, I think of words like heavy and dense; these are as light and airy as their name implies.

Of our scone accompaniments, I like the zesty lemon curd--similar to the lemon sauce that topped my schoolgirl gingerbread desserts--and the liquidy Devon cream. Without the sandwich and pastry calories to worry about, I make use of butter and jam, too. The order of application? Butter, jam, cream, of course.

Reservations are required at Gooseberries, as scones are baked to order. For a casual, just-girls get-together, perhaps combined with a bit of shopping, keep this pleasant little tea room in mind.

Afternoon tea, no matter where you go, is more than a fad. It's a necessity, especially for go-getters who work nonstop from an early breakfast till ®MDRV¯?? four o'clock. Of course, as an alumna of one of those women's colleges where afternoon tea was a weekly affair, it's my duty to push outdated rituals like this. We take an oath.

Power tea. What a concept. Think it'll catch on?

The Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 423-2530. Hours: 3 to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Reservations accepted, but not required.

The Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Hours: 2 to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 2 to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Reservations recommended, but not required.

Gooseberries, 15414 North Seventh Street, Suite 1, Phoenix, 789-0622. Hours: 3 to 4 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, by reservation only.


Power tea. What a concept.

The way I slather it on, Devonshire cream has more than enough calories for my metabolism--probably an entire day's worth. ritz-carlton

Who says "My pleasure" instead of "You're welcome"? Probably people whose favorite adjective is "classy.


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