Biltmore's Afternoon Tea: High-Class Living for Only $20

More and more these days, we hear Miami touted as a "World-Class City." Putting marketing copy aside, it isn't really a town to which you'd attach adjectives like old world, el;egant, or classy.

So it's not the kind of place you'd expect daily afternoon tea accompanied by live classical music from an acoustic guitar. But head to the Biltmore. There, you'll find more than two dozens varieties of tea rolling around the lobby on a hardwood cart along with dainty, crust-less finger sandwiches and sweets.

Perhaps there are pockets of class around town. Yet we remain gaudy and over-the-top, which helped make us a poster child for the nation's residential and commercial mortgage meltdown (Here's looking at your Jorge, can't wait for the opening of the Perez). We work too much, but never more than we party. We never dress appropriately, and many of us are never on time.

Despite making me feel like I have terrible manners, tea at the Biltmore costs only $20. The hotel opened in 1924 and today nearly 800 people toil here daily. It just drips of George Merrick's fortune and expensive taste. Each weekday at 3 and 4:30 p.m. you can find Ligia Russell, setting out teacups, strainers and small glass vases holding a single orchid.

She carts around two dozen varieties of Kusmi Teas, serving everything from green tea with ginger to English Breakfast to chai. It's a job she's done for about 13 years after falling into it by accident. The former tea lady was pregnant, on maternity leave and the hotel needed a replacement.

"They tried a lot of people but nobody could do it," Russell said in a thick Dominican accent. "My manager asked me to cover, then the lady never came back."

The hotel sent her to a few seminars in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale and there she's been ever since.

Along with the teas come towers of sweet bites and plates of sandwiches. There are scones, rosewater macarons, tiny pieces of chocolate pie, salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, and on and on and on.

Russell's tea recommendation is the Black Darjeeling; it's caffeinated and more intensely flavored than English Breakfast tea, which she described as "the basic."

As far as lemon or milk, it's a matter of personal preference. Even though Russell said you can use either without breaking protocol milk is set on the tables "and lemon [is available] upon request," she added.

"Just don't mix the two."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson