Short Stop

A Tea Party for the Ages in Victoria, BC

The pinkies-up treat at the Fairmont Empress Hotel has to be sipped to be believed.

By Allison Williams July 1, 2022

Though tea holds a special place in many cultures, it never quite caught on in America (see that famous tea-overboard situation in Boston Harbor). But Canada's British roots left a tradition of afternoon tea in the city of Victoria, nowhere more than at the Fairmont Empress Hotel—both named for the queen who still reigned when the latter was constructed.

The Empress serves afternoon tea to more than 80,000 people per year in its Lobby Lounge, an $89 Canadian (about $69 in American dollars) per person experience that reclaims the tea party. The signature china features an ornate pattern selected by King George VI, Victoria's great-grandson, and the hotel's bustling tea room serves as singular sensation of "special occasion."

And to get one thing straight—this is not high tea, which certainly sounds fancier; that Britishism actually refers to a heartier repast enjoyed by servants and laborers. This delicate treat is afternoon tea. Sound backwards? Welcome to the absurdities of posh British tradition.

The Empress carefully balances the divide between an over-the-top, kid-friendly spectacle and a legitimately grown-up indulgence. Well-behaved children are a common sight, dressed in their Sunday best and fluffiest dresses, but adults always outnumber those guests eating off the cheaper "Prince and Princess" menu. A pianist provides the soothing background music; a rendition of the Downton Abbey theme is perfectly on brand, and acute ears can pick out familiar choruses of popular songs.

Once seated, wait staff deliver menus that include a specimen tray of the the various teas on offer. Ask for advice or risk a strange brew on the table; one tea described as "market fresh" ended up both looking and tasting like hot Kool-Aid. (Tip: The 1907 Orange Pekoe delivers a classic black tea experience.)

Food arrives via tiered serving plates, sandwiches cut with surgical precision. For all the savory delights of dill whipped cream cheese with cucumber, or smoked Pacific sockeye on a blini, the standouts come on the dessert level, where fresh-baked golden raisin scones pair with clotted cream. All the small bites serve to deliver a deceptively filling meal; the experience should replace, not complement, lunch.

Various cafes around Victoria do their own, much cheaper, version of afternoon tea; Butchart Gardens, a botanical wonderland a half-hour north, claims the best backdrop. Given the high price and competitive reservations for an Empress table, the experience must pass a high bar, but the hotel's high service standards justify the expense. Wait staff speak several languages and snap photos that include the spread of teapots and macarons; the white pillars and curved couches convey space without feeling cavernous.

The entire Empress underwent a thorough renovation in recent years, downplaying some of the more cringe-worthy decor (the Bengal Lounge alluded to Britain's colonial rule over India, for example) while emphasizing the classic curlicues few other buildings can boast. Pop into Q Bar next door to appreciate pop-art Queen Victoria portraits that drag her highness's image into the modern era.

No, it's not gauche to request a to-go box for leftovers; the Empress even does a carry-out iced tea version of the meal to be eaten as a picnic. The menu is set, though can be adjusted for allergies; the children's version features peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served with the same pomp, and adults can add a glass of champagne. Fancy afternoon tea comes from a tradition steeped in glamour and style as much as class superiority and cultural appropriation—but the Empress proves it can continue to evolve in these days beyond the empire.

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