First Bite: Tea Service at The BPL

TeaWhen we’re in the Back Bay and looking for a place to chow down, the Boston Public Library doesn’t really jump to mind. This past spring, however, The Catered Affair took over culinary operations for the library’s two restaurants. The more-casual MapRoom Cafe offers quick breakfasts and sandwiches to-go from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and its formal restaurant, The Courtyard, offers lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and tea service ($20 per person) Wednesday through Friday from 2-4 p.m.

Sounds lovely, but we had our doubts. The BPL? A caterer? But craving a spot of tea on a recent afternoon, we dropped in and found that—fancy that!—the food and service were both spot-on.

In the Courtyard, tea is served indoors, but French doors open up into the library’s famously stunning Venetian courtyard with great views of the towering fountain. And the tables are outfitted just as you’d expect for a proper high tea: crisp white cloths, real china, and shiny flatware, along with servers who’ll actually pull out chairs for you. We half-expected to see ladies in big hats and white gloves. (There was none of that, but we did hear a British accent or two, which we took as a good sign.)

The tea list is made up of exotic loose-leaf varieties like Darjeeling, Ceylon & India, and peach and ginger, all served in giant porcelain pots. We savored the aroma of peach and ginger while pillaging a three-tier tower of treats, including currant scones with fresh fruit marmalade and clotted cream, smoked salmon canapes, and crustless tomato and bacon tea sandwiches on white bread, followed by dainty desserts and fruit tartlets. Service is attentive, but can dawdle when it comes time to pay the bill. But then again, this isn’t fast food, it’s tea. High tea. At the library. If you go, just plan to sit back, maybe even crack open a book, and take your sweet time.

The Courtyard Restaurant at Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St., Boston, 617-859-2251,