At the Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge, tea is not just a warm drink: it’s an event.
Carl Libonati, manager of the Gallery Restaurant at the hotel, is the mastermind behind the hotel’s afternoon tea.
Libonati immigrated to the United States with his family from Vienna, Austria. He came to Charlotte eight years ago from New York City, where he worked in corporate dining.
Afternoon tea has been served at the hotel since 2008, but it was called a high tea. Libonati arrived and changed the name, “because in the United Kingdom, high tea is basically dinner on a weeknight,” he said. “It’s Sunday leftovers, often referred to as Bubble and Squeak, cooked in a pan and served with tea and a side of HP sauce, on a high dining-room table.”
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“It took me a year to stop the vocabulary around the hotel so it would be known as a proper afternoon tea.”
Served from 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in the main lobby of the hotel, the tea costs $32 for adults and $16 for junior patrons.
Reservations are recommended but not required, “except for the holiday tea, which runs the month of December; it is safer then to have a reservation,” said Libonati.
The holiday tea includes a harpist, and it runs in conjunction with the hotel’s Gingerbread Lane contest.
While afternoon tea is served every day, specialty teas are held monthly. For those events, Libonati creates blends: hand-flavored teas suited for the occasion.
From Sept. 24-27, the hotel will host a Scottish tea, and attendees are encouraged to wear their clans’ tartan or favorite plaid. “It’s fun to play with the theme. Suits and dresses are also encouraged to make it more festive,” Libonati said.
Nov. 5-8 will feature a Marie Antoinette tea, with blends similar to those the ill-fated former queen of France would have liked.
Other specialty teas include a Valentine’s Day Father/Daughter Princess Tea, Mother’s Day and Easter, Queen’s Tea in April or June – marking Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday – Indian Raj Tea and Summer in the Carolinas.
Each month, Libonati also features an astrological tea, specially blended with a Zodiac sign’s signature flavors.
The tea, however, is not the only highlight of the events. “Our executive pastry chef, Keli Fayard, just goes crazy with desserts,” Libonati said. “They are the showpiece, and we leave it to her to surprise us every day: little puff pastries in the shape of a swan, layered petits fours, lemon curd, flavored scones anywhere from raisin to lavender, with devon cream and jam.”
Libonati uses Harney and Sons loose-leaf teas. Savory items include an array of delicate sandwiches. Sherry, champagne and the French aperitif Lillet are on the menu but not included in the price.
Families with children are welcome, Libonati said: “Tea is a social moment with dear family and friends, and that’s what it should be all about.”