My baby sister Emily FINALLY moved to Chicago from Indianapolis three weeks ago!!
While she introduced me to some fabulous restaurants down there (including one of the most delicious dessert pizzas I’ve ever had), to say I was excited when she told me she’d be moving to the Windy City would be a serious understatement. She’s always been my partner-in-crime (and someone to embrace being a five-year-old at Disneyworld with again) so I have been furiously whipping her around Chicago, eager to introduce her to a few of my favorite haunts.
And being the anglophile that I am, you had to know one of our first stops would be afternoon tea.
As much as we love the pomp and circumstance surrounding an elegant tea service (say, at the Peninsula?), we wanted to find something a little less orthodox. Something FUN! And preferably not too expensive.
Something that DOESN’T immediately remind you of grandma’s tea service doesn’t hurt either.
But where can you find a tea service turned upside down… outside of Wonderland??
Virgin Hotel’s Commons Club!
Thanks to their Upside Down Tea Party, boozy cocktails served in fine tea cups are no longer the stuff of dreams and we couldn’t wait to start sipping the experience for ourselves, pinky fingers out and all! The menu is short and sweet with six tailored boozy tea cocktails to suit any palate. Each marries together artisan teas with fruits, spirits and lots of fresh flowers making them perfect for spring sipping sessions in the Loop. Virgin also offers an impressive list of more traditional artisan tea blends including a 1982 vintage reserve cave-aged Pu-Erh. Aged like a fine wine (and YES, it does have mold on it to add complexity and depth of flavor), these teas are for the true connoisseur.
Being tea novices and twenty-somethings we opted to stick to the boozy tea menu but the selection of teas was incredibly well-researched and offers a lot for those not wanting a strong libation with their finger sandwiches. Each drink on the menu comes in a different signature glass or tea-cup — making for a charmingly mismatched service.
I told you everything would be upside down!
We especially loved the boozy options served in actual tea cups. There’s nothing like getting a little refined with your afternoon day drinking.This frothy little number is called “Sunny Day in London”: bombay dry gin, d’usse brandy, amontillado sherry, black tea, honey, cream. It’s creamy, rich and delicious with a strong tea flavor that manages to hold up to all the spirits. My sister Em opted for the “Spring Fling”: grey goose la poire vodka, st. germain, green tea, jasmine, bitter lemon soda.Which she found very amusing being served in such a cute cup!
*SIP* *SWALLOW* *POW*
These aren’t the libations of your grandmother’s tea service! They pack a serious punch of flavor — such a fun, youthful spin on the traditional tea service! They will literally turn your idea of tea service upside down! Or at least you might find yourself upside down under the table after…
The floating flowers have such an elegant effect and hide the true power of these concoctions.
My favorite libation ended up being this charming “Pomp and Circumstance”: hendrick’s gin, chareau aloe liqueur, blue cornflower petal, butterfly pea tea, passionfruit. The flavors are sweet and bright though I did feel like the tea flavors were lost in the booze (not necessarily a bad thing considering what a nice cocktail it made). Hubby went crazy for the “Gentry Cove”: hendrick’s gin, martini bianco vermouth, strawberry, lemon, earl grey.
A sweet, gin-infused earl grey libation served with fresh strawberries and a cucumber spear. Doesn’t this drink just SCREAM summer? This was the perfect thing to order on a gloomy, chilly spring day — a delicious reminder that warmer weather is on its way. We also sampled this brightly-hued “Fields of France”: reyka vodka, herbsaint, creme yvette, raspberry syrup, lavender-rose tea. This one also lost a lot of the tea flavors in the spirits but, like all of Virgin’s offerings, was seriously drinkable and beautifully presented. Next came the nosh!
When I lived in India, my homestay family first introduced me to the afternoon tea ritual — everyday at 5 pm we would sit down to tea on the veranda with crackers, sandwiches and cookies, sipping our chai and just talking. No screens, just us, chai, nibbles and excellent conversation. It’s such a beautiful daily ritual and one I often think about.
But one thing my Indian family taught me was that afternoon tea isn’t intended to be a “meal” — it’s really a snack to tide you over before dinner. So you never want TOO much food.
Virgin’s edible offerings are the perfect size and quantity for a true tea service. And at $10 per person, it’s also the most inexpensive option in Chicago (Soho House is also a great price but is much more of meal, with piles and piles of offerings on towering trays). I loved that Virgin kept their edibles small — it’s the perfect size to whet your appetite before dinner.
Sandwich selections included a thinly-sliced Cucumber Finger Sandwich filled with gin spiked cucumbers, cream cheese, and lavender & orange all on brioche. Fresh and delicious!Virgin also offers this fresh Crab & Shrimp Salad Finger Sandwich with romaine on brioche. Creamy, surprisingly packed with seafood and a divine compliment to the Pomp & Circumstance cocktail! But my personal favorite was this sinfully salty Smoked Salmon Finger Sandwich. Filled with chive cream cheese and served on marbled rye, the smoked salmon was cut thin enough to just melt on your tongue.Hello, you sexy little thing you!Sweeter offerings on the lower tier included fluffy scones with strawberry preserves and cream…A sinful little chocolate tart topped with candied hazelnuts. And two varieties of short bread cookies (one regular, one orange). These were delicious and melted right into your mouth as you took a bite. They even rival my favorite shortbread recipe with their silky texture. I was surprised by how delicious these were! And the tea bag shape with custom tag was such a clever presentation!
Virgin’s Upside Down tea service isn’t for the faint of heart! You may very well find yourself upside down and on the floor after several libations (luckily there are plenty of comfy couches in the Commons Club). The selection is just perfect for a fun afternoon nibble after sight-seeing at The Bean and possibly before a late, casual dinner at Miss Ricky’s — not too filling but SO MUCH FUN!
Upside Down Tea is offered on Saturdays and Sundays from 3 to 5 pm and is guaranteed to be unlike any tea service you’ve ever had!
Disclosure: I received a complimentary meal to facilitate this post. Review and all opinions are my own.