In polyglot Shanghai, anything goes.
We picked six restaurants offering everything from super-mod skyscraper Italian tea to faux-French restaurant tea and a fancy Chinese afternoon tea in a former diplomatic compound.
Remember, common etiquette these days is to tuck the pinky in.
The Old Guard: The Peninsula
It doesn’t get more high-society Asia than this. Afternoon tea at The Pen in Hong Kong is practically a rite of passage. In Shanghai, it’s a bit more relaxed, taking place in the airy ground-floor lobby. It takes the (bite-sized) cake for ambience — not that it needs to be reassured. The large pillars, chandeliers and art deco design call back to glamor of 1920s Shanghai, lifted out of time, polished off and deposited here in the lobby for posterity.
Sitting down on the pistachio green chairs, with the real silver tea pots and silverware and the pianist in the corner, it’s all just so… elegant. Refined. Serene. It’s got the confidence of a classic.
What’s it cost? 399rmb for one person, 728rmb for two, plus a 16.6 percent service charge so 465rmb and 849rmb in all. Includes tea (British blends and Chinese varietals) and bites like scones with tangy lemon curd, a yuzu cake with coconut cream and lime zest, and chicken, pesto and tomato on ciabatta.
The Chinese Diplomat: Yongfoo Elite
Yongfoo Elite is in the diplomatic neighborhood on Yongfu Lu, in a historic mansion that once housed the consulates of the United Kingdom, Russia and Vietnam before becoming the Michelin two-star restaurant it is today. The estate has multiple buildings and a beautiful three-story tall magnolia tree.
The experience here is more Chinese than British, with teas like a 1994 pu’er, “big red robe” oolong (大红袍) and pre-Qingming festival Longjing green tea — all the expensive ones. Food is also more Chinese than western, like cherry tomatoes in a floral jelly, a soybean panna cotta and an osmanthus-scented sticky rice cake.
What’s it cost? 380rmb for two people, plus a 15% service fee. So, 437rmb all in.
The Other View: Kathleen’s Waitan
The Cool Docks may be dead but Kathleen’s Waitan is anything but. Afternoon tea here is for one thing — the view of Lujiazui and the Huangpu Riverside boardwalk, from a different, southern angle — and it’s usually bustling. Kathleen’s has pull.
The food and drinks are very straightforward classics — I mean, they only have one choice for actual tea, English breakfast. The other drink choices are coffee, juices and soda. Food is similarly conservative, like red velvet cake, Iberian ham and melon and smoked salmon on blinis.
Nothing wrong with that. You’re here for the view anyway.
What’s it cost? 328rmb for two.
The Most Cultured Pavlova in Town: M on the Bund
On the day we went, the 7th floor patio wasn’t open to guests but sitting inside the refreshingly non-futuristic dining room, eavesdropping on other guests in Shanghainese and English, it felt comfortable, comforting, and lived-in. It has a reputation for an artsy, cultured crowd, many pulled in by the strong gravity of owner Michelle Garnaut, and it felt that way when we went.
The star of the afternoon tea here is M’s Very Famous Pavlova, a fluffy triangular slice of meringue covered in tropical fruit. How many of these has this kitchen served in its decades in Shanghai? Thousands? Tens of thousands? More? Delicious. Sweet. Sour from passionfruit. Sweet again.
What’s it cost? 288rmb for two, plus about a 10 percent service charge comes to 316rmb. Tea menu has 19 selections from classics to blends and herbal teas, plus coffee and upgrades to boozier choices like Champagne.
Hidden in Plain Sight: Chartres Restaurant
You’ve passed by this restaurant a million times and wondered: what is this huge French restaurant in the heart of Xuhui that no one has ever heard of, and yet remains packed with Chinese guests every night? That’s Chartres. It’s crazy popular — 10,000+ reviews on Dianping — just not with expats.
The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, an everyday café to chat the afternoon away. The weathered salmon-colored walls give a feel of being on the Mediterranean coast. We got a table in the glass corridor on the first floor on a sunny day that looks out onto the leafy shaded street. Sublime. Magnifique.
Food was better than expected! They are trying to stay on-trend, with things like the popular Basque Burnt Cheesecake, though it was not on the tea set menu (had to buy a la carte). For the environment, the view and the price, Chartres is a steal. No wonder people like this place.
What’s it cost? 162rmb for two.
The Super Modern One: Bvlgari
The Bvlgari’s 47th floor bar, Il Bar, is the site of one of the city’s most popular, most future and most expensive afternoon teas. They highly suggest reservations to make sure you can get a seat among all the people wanting to get into the super-luxe hotel tower and take selfies against the backdrop of Suzhou Creek and Lujiazui. And the views are sweeping. Some of the best in the city.
Food too. Modern stuff. Best of all the places here. Favorites: the "chicken roll with summer black truffle, shallot, cucumber, pepper puree and chili bread", the "pistachio cheesecake with lemon chocolate diplomatist cream and lemon zest", and "strawberry choux with mascarpone cheese mousse, strawberry compote and sponge cake". Decadent. Glorious. So chic.
Teas are a good split between Chinese (seven) and western blends (six). The signature blend is a mix of Yunnan dianhong and Qimen (Keemun) black tea.
What’s it cost? An arm and a leg. 828rmb for two plus 16.6% service charge. So, 965rmb all in.