High Tea, Low Tea

At the time when spring was threatening to morph slowly into summer, I was fortunate enough to attend two high tea sessions in two of Boston’s premier restaurants: L’Espalier

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and Upstairs on the Square.

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Although any season is a splendid season for high tea, summer really lends itself perfectly to afternoon tea parties with girlfriends.  There’s something about the sun, the warmth, the inescapable propensity for relaxation and contagious happiness of the season that says, “be super girly today.  Drink some tea and eat some scones.”  Ok, Summer, if you insist.

With summer being halfway over, I thought it might be fun to do a little side-by-side comparison of the experiences to help you decide which place to choose.  If you ever DO decide to do a high tea or afternoon tea in the city, I would definitely suggest both places.  In fact, I think everyone should try both for themselves.  The experiences are different and special in their own ways, and both restaurants delivered excellence.

 

Atmosphere

This is tough.  L’Espalier is a place I’d take my grandmother or mother-in-law, whereas Upstairs on the Square is a place I’d enjoy more with my girlfriends, sisters or nieces.  L’Espalier is traditional and classic and elegant; Upstairs is funky and irreverent and really unique, but still stunning.

If my life depended on making a choice here, my personal taste (as you’ll know if you read the Upstairs review) lends itself more to Upstairs on the Square.  BUT!!  By a very, VERY (very) small margin.  I love both but Upstairs inspires those feelings of nostalgia and I feel a special connection to its whimsy.

LESP: 0; UOTS: 1

The Service

This is easy.  Although both restaurants are fine dining establishments (some of the finest in the area, in fact) and both deliver exceptional service, L’Espalier goes above and beyond to make patrons feel special.  From the moment you walk through the sleek steel doors and into the elegant foyer, to being whisked upstairs in the elevator, to the attentive hosts and hostesses who dash away with your coat and practically offer to carry you to your table while fanning you with a banana leaf, to the service throughout the meal, to the homemade macaroon with which they send you home, L’Espalier’s service sets the bar to an almost unreachable level.

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At Upstairs on the Square, the service is attentive and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable, but it doesn’t boast the special touches of L’Espalier.  You’re escorted to your seat, your waiter serves you, you’re sent home.  Bam.  (Can I um, get your last name…?)  This being said, I DO prefer the way the tea is served at Upstairs on the Square.  Rather than bringing each selection to the table individually, I appreciate that they bring you three tiers of happiness and let you gorge yourself at your own pace.

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Although I wouldn’t usually recommend (or not recommend) a restaurant based on service, L’Espalier demonstrates an understanding that part of the experience of dining there is in being pampered to the fullest degree.  For this reason, the point goes to them.

LESP: 1; UOTS: 1

 

Sandwiches

For the purposes of being fair, I’m only going to compare similar dishes.

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Overall the selection of sandwiches goes to L’Espalier.  I like that they included the classic cucumber sandwich, and I always enjoy some lobster salad.  That being said, they should talk to Upstairs on the Square to learn how to stuff a sandwich and enhance the flavors with inventive flavor components.  L’Espalier’s fillings, though delicious, were laughably scarce.

  • Ham Sandwich

Upstairs on the Square has chunks of cold ham served on a heavenly biscuit.  Although that chive biscuit is maybe one of the best pieces of carby perfection I’ve ever tasted, the cold ham was off-putting.

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L’Espalier’s ham sandwich was surprisingly delicious.  Thinly sliced, slightly sweet ham was served warm with melted cheese on toasted bread that delivered a beautiful crunch.

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This one goes to L’Espalier.

Both sandwiches tasted almost exactly the same.

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I liked the addition of chives in the Upstairs on the Square sandwich (right), but (again) those big chunks of cold ham did not enhance the texture of the egg salad.  My disdain for cold ham chunks aside, I think the egg salad sandwich at Upstairs was a little more creative and contained more filling, so I’ll give this one to Upstairs on the Square

  • Salmon Cream Cheese Sandwich

HANDS DOWN UPSTAIRS ON THE SQUARE.  The salmon and cream cheese sandwich at L’Espalier was seriously lacking filling (to the point where you could barely taste it), and was otherwise nothing special.

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Upstairs on the Square presented a salmon and cream cheese sandwich complete with a refreshing slice of cucumber and surprising, tangy and delicious, caper cream cheese.

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LESP: 3; UOTS: 3

Scones

The scones portion of the program is incredibly difficult.  The currant scone I devoured at Upstairs on the Square is one of the best I’ve ever had.

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That being said, the scones from L’Espalier were wonderful, and I really enjoyed the accompaniments that elevated said scones to their fullest flavor potential.  So who gets the point?  One exceptional scone?  Or four great scones with the perfect accompaniments?

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I’ll go with L’Espalier on this one.  Although the scone at Upstairs on the Square was better, the scones at L’Espalier were delicious.  Scones are a critical component of high tea, and at L’Espalier, they play a bigger role in fulfilling the afternoon tea experience.

LESP: 4; UOTS: 3

Desserts

Since the desserts were different, I’ll compare the selections offered as a whole.  At Upstairs on the Square, any sweet tooth will find itself satisfied after biting into one of the pastries offered.  The mixture of pastries and baked goods also provides a nice assortment of sweet textures to hit all notes of ooey and gooey.  As far as selection goes, I prefer Upstairs on the Square.

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However!  They will not be getting the points for this one.  At L’Espalier, the dessert selection was right out of food styling photos.  They were beautiful, but incredibly rich.  We were unable to finish most of the desserts, owing to this richness.

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So why does this point go to L’Espalier?

The dessert selection, though extremely rich and heavy, was exquisite.  Each dessert portrayed the care taken to ensure that every component was in its place and looked beautiful.  It was a feast for both the eyes and the mouth, full of bold, complex flavors that truly display the expertise for which L’Espalier is known.  Because of the sheer skill and artistry demonstrated among its dessert choices, L’Espalier deserves the point.

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LESP: 5; UOTS: 3

The Bill

Both places are similarly priced for afternoon tea.  L’Espalier’s Red Riding Hood’s Basket is $36 and Zebra Tea at Upstairs on the Square is $35.

But, hands down, Upstairs gets the point.  It’s a dollar less than L’Espalier, and a glass of champagne is included.

LESP: 5; UOTS: 4

And the winner is…

L’ESPALIER!

 

The points don’t lie, and L’Espalier won by one point, if that shows you how difficult this decision was.

L’Espalier is where you go if you want a more traditional high tea with some of the finest food in Boston.  This is where you go to get all gussied up, drink tea with your pinky out and enjoy the prim and proper hell out of yourself.  Upstairs on the Square is where you go if you want a more relaxed atmosphere that caters to the girliest of your girly side.  You will still get gussied up, feel like a lady, enjoy fine food and utilize your etiquette skills, but in a more whimsical setting.  Upstairs on the Square is a little warmer.

In reality, both places are exceptional and provide patrons with an all-encompassing and memorable experience.  Go to both.

(If I HAD to choose a favorite, I would say Upstairs on the Square.  Something about that place just gets me every time.)

 

Question: Have you had high tea at either of these places?  If so, what did you like/dislike, and which was your favorite?  If you’ve never been, talk about your favorite high tea location in your hometown.

Question #2: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re feelin’ girly?

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3 comments on High Tea, Low Tea

  1. Katie says:

    I’ve had tea at both places. Hands down my fav thing about both was the company. :)

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  2. What a fun idea for a post! I haven’t been to either, but it definitely sounds like a great idea for a girls get together!

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  3. Daisy says:

    I have had high tea at UTOS- it was actually for a bridal shower in the zebra room, my experience garnered high praise. haven’t been to L’espalier but it’s definitely on my list!!

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