Melbourne's best afternoon teas

Riff on a theme: Jazz High Tea at the Arts Centre.
Riff on a theme: Jazz High Tea at the Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied

A generation ago, you could count on one hand the places in and around Melbourne serving afternoon tea (not including grandma's house). Back then it was sidelined for being fussy and old-fashioned, but these attributes have become virtues as we search for ways to slow down and leave modernity's mayhem behind for a while.

Today, taking afternoon tea at traditional venues such as the Windsor and the Hopetoun Tea Rooms is so popular that securing a place requires serious planning (fortunately Hopetoun is opening a second, larger venue later this year).

Hopetoun Tea Rooms is expanding in the Block Arcade.
Hopetoun Tea Rooms is expanding in the Block Arcade. Photo: Luis Ascui

There are plenty of other options though, as the best hotels rarely fail to offer a weekend meal of dainty treats on pretty china, while tea rooms, tea salons and cafes serving afternoon tea continue to proliferate.

Indeed this much-loved repast can now be enjoyed almost anywhere and at any time – perhaps why it's often given the grand misnomer of high tea (formerly poor folks' main meal around the big, or high, table). From galleries to zoos, cinemas and ferries, it's so on trend that tea and cake – and a glass of bubbles – are probably on the menu.

Here are some of the unusual settings for high tea in Melbourne and beyond – and if you are looking for an excuse to indulge, remember that Mother's Day is just over a month away. (Dietary requirements listed below should be advised when booking.)

Botanic Gardens punting. Afternoon Teas by Patricia Maunder. Pub date: April 9, 2017. Mmag.

Spend a romantic interlude punting, followed by afternoon tea at the Botanic Gardens. Photo: Supplied

Take a punt

Being punted around an ornamental lake by a nattily dressed boatman, followed by a traditional high tea overlooking a glorious garden. It's like something out of a romance novel, but a few years ago this daydream became reality at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The handmade wooden punts are based on those that famously glide along Cambridge's River Cam, and Anglophile nostalgia is heightened by the early-20th-century attire of the gents pushing them along with a pole. It's Alessandro under the straw boater when I board an extraordinarily stable punt with red velvet seats.

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He punctuates a blissful half-hour on the lake with insights about the gardens' history, flora and fauna – including ducks and swans almost close enough to touch. It's an idyllic morning, but blankets and picturesque white parasols are available should the weather intrude.

The easy-access jetty is steps from The Terrace cafe. A white-draped table awaits, set with charming china and a three-tiered stand filled with the usual suspects, nicely done. It's something of an oasis amid what's essentially a large cafeteria that can buzz a bit too much, but sipping sparkling wine makes it easy to hold onto the dream.

When: 10.15am and 12.15pm daily; weekends only during winter.
Dietary options: Gluten-free (additional $5), vegetarian.
Price: $55 child, $70 adult.
Where: Royal Botanic Gardens, South Yarra, 9820 9590, puntingonthelake.com.au

Afternoon tea at Cafe Heide. Afternoon Teas by Patricia Maunder. Pub date: April 9, 2017. Mmag.

Sweet treats at Cafe Heide. Photo: Supplied

The art of the tea

Art patrons John and Sunday Reed's mid-20th-century afternoon teas, at what is now Heide Museum of Modern Art, saw artists such as Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd gather for treats conjured from the farmhouse garden and kitchen. New management at Heide's cafe is finding inspiration in the Reeds' seasonal, almost rustic approach to cooking, and also reviving afternoon tea.

The Afternoon Tea Indulgence combines a private tour led by an expert guide, and light refreshments. The tours are tailored, either focusing on the history of this place at the centre of modern Australian art, or current exhibitions – which include an unprecedented gathering of John Charles Blackman's evocative schoolgirl series until June 18.

Alternatively, explore the museum and grounds (including the cafe's kitchen garden) at your own pace before settling in for the gastronomically indulgent high tea. There's no need for dinner after this seven-course feast, which might include seasonal pleasures such as baked peaches smothered in cream, caramel and berries.

When: Afternoon Tea Indulgence by appointment. High teas monthly, with next sitting Sunday, April 30; groups by appointment.
Dietary options: Vegetarian, vegan.
Price: $150 (Indulgence) and $49 (high tea; excludes museum admission).
Where: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Rd, Bulleen, 9850 1500 (Indulgence) or 9852 2346 (high tea), heide.com.au

Monkeying around

After having a wild time watching seals swim, orangutans swing and lemurs scurry about, sitting down to high tea – that most civilised of human activities – is both an amusing contrast and pleasant pause during a day at the zoo.

Wait staff serve tea, coffee and some of the best scones I've ever had, made at the zoo's on-site bakery. The generous bowls of cream and jam on the tables suggest diners should give in to their animal instincts, so I dollop enthusiastically. Tamarin – funny little monkeys notable for elaborate white moustaches – frolic behind the dining room's wall of glass, and remind us of this tea's extraordinary location.

The rest of the menu, an unfussy affair that includes savoury polenta cakes and lemon-curd tartlets, awaited at the buffet during my recent visit. From the next sitting on April 23, however, sweet treats will be served to diners, which will hopefully shorten the buffet queue. Other changes beginning in a fortnight include pretty new Cristina Re china.

When: 1.30pm, one Sunday each month, fortnightly during winter.
Dietary options: Vegetarian
Price: $36 child, $71 adult or $79 with a glass of wine (includes zoo entry); discounts for members. Where: Melbourne Zoo, Parkville, 1300 966 784, zoo.org.au

Hihou Afternoon Tea. Afternoon Teas by Patricia Maunder. Must credit: Photography by www.janaka.com.au Pub date: April 9, 2017. Mmag.

Afternoon tea with a Japanese twist at Hihou. Photo: Supplied

Japanese tea ceremony

A bar with an obscure entrance (press the buzzer outside the unmarked black door), and big windows that survey Treasury Gardens and the passing vintage trams, say classic Melbourne. Eaten with chopsticks, in a space where black dominates, this afternoon tea is far from classic, however, as the nearest it gets to the British tradition is tea.

Skip the English Breakfast and throw yourself into the cultural adventure with an Eastern option, such as delicate plum green tea. Given the venue is a Japanese bar, consider the additional boozy beverages paired with the food, including a gin-based cocktail pepped up with tea syrup, and garnished, ikebana-like, with an exotic leaf and berry.

The first, savoury round of little Nipponese bites are wonders of taste, texture and aesthetics, including the vegetarian-friendly fried tofu and shiitake rice puff balls that simultaneously melt and crunch in the mouth (it's prawn rather than tofu on the regular menu). The curious sweeties, presented in an elegant lacquered box, range from yummy mini donuts to jellies and marshmallow.

When: 2pm-5pm, last Saturday of each month.
Dietary options: Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, onion/garlic-free.
Price: $40, $70 with alcoholic beverages.
Where: Hihou, first floor, 1 Flinders Ln, Melbourne, 9654 5465, hihou.com.au

Jazz it up

Stepping into the Arts Centre's spacious, rarely seen function room, with daylight pouring through the long wall of windows, it's clear this isn't your typical dark and cosy jazz session. Nor is it a typical afternoon tea, as instead of intimate seating there are round tables for eight, bringing strangers together. I'm soon making the acquaintance of a lady seeking different experiences. Next on her list after this Jazz High Tea: belly dancing.

The sense of being in neither jazz den nor tea room is confirmed by the food, which is the unremarkable catering kind (there are about 200 people dining after all). It's nice enough to make me want to chow down, however, so I'm regretfully full when interval unexpectedly brings some different mini savoury pastries.

Ultimately this monthly event feels like a function, with classy live entertainment aimed at genteel audiences: consummate professional Ali McGregor explored the Great American Songbook when I attended, with Nina Ferro up next on May 7. This is not for jazz hounds, but may be the different experience mum is looking for.

When: Noon and 4pm, first Sunday of each month.
Dietary options: Gluten-free, vegetarian.
Price: $85; discounts for members and full table bookings.
Where: The Pavilion, Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, 1300 182 183, artscentremelbourne.com.au

Silver screen service

After being ushered from foyer to cinema, comfy foot cushions and piccolos of rather good sparkling wine are provided as we sink into big seats fitted with little tables. Already, Cinema Nova's High Tea at the Movies feels like flying in the pointy end of the plane as there are only 22 of these luxurious, armchair-like seats, and a friendly staff member dedicated to patrons' needs.

The one difficulty is choosing from bubbles, Pimm's cup, tea or iced tea. The rest is decided for you, as individual cardboard boxes of petite goodies are delivered to seats just before the lights dim: four savoury and four sweet, made from ingredients of noticeable quality, including goat's cheese and salmon. The attentive "hostie" also served a bonus treat of popcorn because our punctuality meant there was a bit of – very pleasant – sitting around.

The quantity of fare is modest compared with most high teas, probably because of space limitations and the need to keep things uncomplicated in semi-darkness. However, considering a regular movie ticket is $20, this indulgence is good value.

When: One afternoon session each Saturday and Sunday.
Dietary options: Vegetarian.
Price: $45.
Where: Cinema Nova, 380 Lygon St, Carlton, 9347 5331, cinemanova.com.au

Parliament. Afternoon?teas by Patricia Maunder Pub date: April 9, 2017. Mmag.

Afternoon tea at the Victorian State Parliament. Photo: Supplied

Political party

This must be the only afternoon tea in town that requires patrons to first step through a metal detector and have their bags X-rayed. Everything else that makes this experience unusual is very civilised, however, from walking up the grand sweep of stairs to State Parliament's front door, to settling into the masculine, wood-panelled dining room usually reserved for Parliamentarians (don't be deterred by the words "Members Only" painted above the door).

There's no music and few other diners whenever I have visited this hushed space known as the Strangers Corridor. Reminiscent of a venerable private club, with quietly attentive staff, it's perfect for an unhurried tête-à-tête or solo retreat from the world.

The traditional afternoon tea fare, from finger sandwiches to petits fours, is more modest than in days gone by: scones are small, and those generous sparkling-wine refills are now just nice memories. It's still tasty and satisfying, however, and the complimentary guided tour of this historic building delivers plenty of high-Victorian eye candy, including sculptures, mosaic floor tiles, Gold Rush gilding and massive chandeliers.

When: 2.30pm-4pm weekdays when Parliament is not sitting.
Dietary options: Gluten-free, vegetarian.
Price: $47.
Where: Parliament House, Spring Street, Melbourne, 9651 8944, parliament.vic.gov.au/visit/high-tea

More novel-teas

OPERATIC ESCAPE
The Mornington Peninsula's posh Woodman Estate serves afternoon tea several days a week, but on the first Sunday of each month an operatic duo's popular arias turns the heritage elegance up to 11.
$79-$135, 5978 8455, woodmanestate.com

DIVA'S RETREAT
Starting on May 10, A Glimpse of Melba tours offer a rare look inside Dame Nellie's lavish Yarra Valley home, from the music room to the late, great soprano's boudoir and bathroom, followed by high tea.
$125, 9739 0173, coombeyarravalley.com.au

BAY WINDOWS
Watch Port Phillip Bay and the peninsulas that embrace it drifting by while enjoying the Queenscliff-Sorrento ferry's Sunday treat, High Tea on the High Seas. This return journey's food is fancier than several years ago.
$45, 5257 4500, searoad.com.au/high-tea

OCEAN VISTAS
The founders of Miss Marple's Tea Room in Sassafras are behind Port Fairy's Time and Tide Cafe, where floor-to-ceiling Southern Ocean views are the backdrop to High Tea by the High Sea on weekends.
$59, 5568 2134, timeandtidehightea.com.au

SPORTING CHANCE
Melbourne Cricket Club members and their guests can take afternoon tea in the MCG's members dining room on game days. The simplicity of the fare, including scones and party pies, is inversely proportional to the epic view.
$12.50, 9657 8888, mcc.org.au

WALK IT OFF
Sample several of Melbourne's best teatime treats (but try not to lick Hopetoun Tea Rooms' famous window of cakes) on the fortnightly High Tea Walking Tour, which also delivers a little history and etiquette.
$65, 1300 394 041, foodi.com.au

JUNIOR SWEET
Until April 25, the Langham hotel's latest school holiday high tea serves Smurftastic-themed treats to kids, such as village jelly clouds and Papa Smurf cookies, while their grown-ups savour traditional fare.
$35-$49 child, $55 adult, 1800 641 107, melbarestaurant.com.au

The writer received assistance from Visit Victoria.