The Best Afternoon Tea in Victoria
In 2009, I set out to explore afternoon tea in Victoria. While I thought I could do it inside a year, it took a number of summers. I tried a lot of different tea services in the area, from the simple cream tea in the lovely Abkhazi Gardens to High Tea at the Empress. While I didn’t make it to every afternoon tea in the region, I did get a good sample. Here are some of the highlights and notable disappointments.
One of the first places I tried, after many recommendations, was White Heather. Located in a rather non-descript strip mall on Oak Bay Avenue (though not in the heart of the Oak Bay Village). I’ll be honest, the interior felt a little like “lacy cafeteria” and I don’t think they could have crammed another single table in there. However, the tea service was outstanding. We had the “Big Muckle Tea for 4” shared with 4 adults and one child, and we had leftovers. Since I visited, White Heather has changed ownership so my recommendation has that as a caveat. ****
Another early visit was the Gatsby Mansion. Located on the Inner Harbour, the service left a lot to be desired. I was also disappointed in the presentation -- no tiered tray (sandwiches and desserts were served separately) and modern teacups and teapots with no cozies, so the tea cooled too quickly. There is no way I would recommend this as an option. It also looks like no one else would recommend it; I can no longer find mention of tea on their menu. **
Next was Abkhazi Gardens. While the gardens are beautiful, the tearoom is small and the tea is not a full tea. It’s what is considered a “cream tea” -- just the scones with cream and jam plus a big pot of tea. What we were served was tasty, and well presented. The scones were warm (but I don’t know that two scones make “a plate of scones”) and fresh and the tea well steeped. It is well worth visiting the gardens and planning for tea, but don’t expect a meal. ***
When I started my search, I was looking for alternatives to Tea at the Empress but it turns out the Empress was pretty much worth the expense. The presentation, food, and service were all excellent. Each tiered tray is set for two so a table of four gets two trays. Everyone got to leave with a small package of Empress Tea and a small jar of strawberry preserves. The nicest touch was how frequently the service staff checked the water level in the tea and just generally made sure we were happy. The pianist and the general surroundings put it over the top. The only reason it lacks the 5th star is the price which, at almost than double most other options, puts it out of the market for most locals and many visitors. ****
I’d heard rumors of Venus Sophia but nothing could have prepared me for how perfect their tea service was. Tucked in between Dim Sum restaurants in the heart of Chinatown, it is the most unlikely location for a vegetarian tea house! There is a huge tea menu to select from -- that was the most difficult thing. When the tea arrived I was stunned. In addition to the tiered tray and pots of loose leaf tea, there was a plate of fruit. Even though my daughter had the children’s tea (smaller portions and kid-friendly sandwich fillings) we couldn’t finish everything. To top it off, Venus Sophia is accessible, affordable, and the service friendly. *****
Historical attraction Point Ellice House was a disappointment. The house itself is nestled into what is now a semi-industrial and somewhat sketchy neighbourhood. The cost for afternoon tea includes admission to and a tour of the house. The tea is served on the lawn, in wicker furniture that looks quaint but feels like it is best kept for your grandma’s deck. Worse, the tables are low which is difficult when soup is part of the tea service. The food was tasty, but not a traditional afternoon tea. The price is right but everything else is just a little off key. ***
Perhaps the only other location with more cache than the Empress is the Butchart Gardens. I was able to go out for the High Tea (offered in the winter months; Afternoon Tea is offered only in the summer). The big catch here is that in order to get to the tea room, you also have to pay for entrance to the Gardens and, like the Empress, this might put tea here out of your price range. However, if you are already planning a visit, do consider reserving a table for tea. In addition to offering their own blends of tea, everything is made on site -- even the bread for the sandwiches. Tea is brought out first, then the scones, followed by the tiered tray. Everything was excellent, the service was prompt without hovering and the location is lovely. ****
Bottom line: try Venus Sophia, especially if budget is an issue. If it isn't, treat yourself to the Empress or make the trip to the Butchart Gardens and book tea after taking in the landscape. Note that both the Gardens and Venus Sophia can provide gluten free and vegan options with a minimum amount of notice. The Empress can also cater to special needs diets.