Brunch? Yawn. Cocktail gatherings? Been there, done that. If you really want to surprise your friends with an unexpected fête this spring and summer, opt for an informal tea party. “Everyone has cocktail parties,” says Heidi Johannsen Stewart, cofounder of the Brooklyn-based boutique tea brand Bellocq. “We love the notion of dusting the fussiness off the concept of a traditional tea service.” But before you dismiss the idea as antiquated or too precious, consider the benefits. “A tea party can be an excellent segue into the evening, and it’s a wonderful way to socialize without having to commit to an entire night,” says Stewart. “It’s an opportunity to be creative and inspired in your planning.” It can also be easier to pull off, less expensive, and more inclusive than a typical cocktail party (since no one is stuck playing bartender). Here, Stewart offers her tips for throwing a modern tea party that’s an affair to remember.
Strike a balance “Offer a couple of teas—a black, oolong, and green or white tea, as well as an herbal or noncaffeinated tisane,” says Stewart. “Some guests may be sensitive to caffeine, especially later in the afternoon.”
Simplify the setup “A combination of store-bought and homemade, savory and sweet items will make your gathering a bit more manageable,” says Stewart. “Serving a lovely Japanese sencha or gyokuro with, for example, take-out sushi arranged beautifully on serving dishes is more than acceptable.”
Be prepared “Plan ahead and have everything ready: flowers arranged, music selected, table set, food prepared and arranged on serving dishes,” says Stewart. “Remember to have plenty of water heated before guests arrive. We use teapots that rest on a warming stand to keep everything hot during the party.”
Show guests something new “At our parties, there always seems to be a sense of discovery because people are tasting teas they’ve never experienced before,” says Stewart. “So we’ll introduce our guests to the pleasures of our favorite obscure chocolates with a full-bodied Darjeeling Second Flush, a French Camembert with a smoky Chinese black tea, or peppery breakfast radishes with a blended Ceylon, lavender, rose, and rose geranium tea.”
Think seasonally “We treat tea parties like we would a cocktail party, with a beautifully arranged buffet or nibbles scattered around the room. In the darkness of winter, we’ll have a fire in the fireplace and candles, and in the late spring, we’ll take the tea party outside, sometimes in picnic fashion, arranging colorful, antique Bolivian blankets and oversize pillows. In the summer, the tea gets iced or tossed into a cocktail.”
Keep it casual “We usually prefer not to have formal place settings, which allows guests to mingle,” says Stewart. “We are generally not inclined toward everything matching—just use what you love.” As for the table, Stewart suggests seasonal branches from the flower market or yard, or tied-up bunches of flowering bulbs hung from the door to welcome guests. And don’t forget a favor. “We often send people home with the tea we served at the party as a fond reminder.”