Together for Tea, and even Therapy

As many North Shore men and women know, there’s something about afternoon tea that can transform. Anyone can do lunch, but tea is a truly special occasion, and it can be an unforgettable celebration with—and of—friends and family.

And what started as a tradition for only aristocrats is now affordable enough for many to enjoy.

“It gives people the beautiful feeling of going back in time,” says Gerri Gwarnicki, 52, of Riverwoods—and she would know, since she is, without a doubt, the North Shore’s high priestess of tea.

This year, High Tea with Gerri, a company composed of Gwarnicki and a few assistants, celebrates its 10-year anniversary of staging authentic Victorian English teas throughout the North Shore. Gwarnicki, an native of Ireland, is present for almost every party, and she pours the tea dressed in an emerald green, floor-length Victorian gown, complete with a lace collar held in place with a brooch and fingerless lace gloves.

Don’t know a thing about tea, or etiquette? Gwarnicki would be more than happy to school you (or your children), and she provides the perfect classroom: A in-home Victorian tearoom that seats 30, complete with an 1840s piano and other originals, thanks to her late husband, a professional antique restorer.

Rule No. 1: A tea bag is “a no-no,” Gwarnicki says. Real tea is boiling water poured into dry leaves. From there, it goes into your cup, which at High Tea, is English bone china.

And you really ought to add milk to Gwarnicki’s tea—a blend of two black teas, English Breakfast and Earl Grey—as the the Duchess of Bedford would have done. The English added milk because the tea is so strong and because it cooled the drink and kept the fragile bone china from cracking.

Then there’s the food: Buttery and addictive Irish raisin scones, with clotted cream, traditional strawberry and lemon curd jams, a variety of finger sandwiches and petit fours. Everything is prepared fresh that same day. For Valentine’s day, Gwarnicki makes rose petal jam and rose petal sandwiches.

All this comes naturally to the mother of three because of her Irish upbringing. She lived in London before coming to the United States 25 years ago, and she got the idea for High Tea while working as a caterer for A La Carte in Wilmette, whose clients couldn’t get enough of her Irish accent.

For Gwarnicki, tea is much more that an elegant ceremony. “It’s an outreach,” she says of her passion. She’s had women with cancer request afternoon tea as their last wishes. Another elderly couple from Northbrook had her stage a tea at their home to thank all their neighborhood friends for helping them through a surgery.

And tea is therapeutic for Gwarnicki, too. The same day that her husband died of a brain tumor, Gwarnicki was out and about, serving tea to the ladies of the Kenilworth Garden Club, who she already knew well.

And 12 hours after her mother’s funeral in Ireland, Gwarnicki was back in Chicago, in full costume, pouring tea once again. “It was so beautiful and inspiring, that tea,” she remembers, hoping that there will be many more to come in her future.

It’s Teatime

Haven’t been to tea yet? Well, you’re late, for a very important date. While High Tea with Gerri may be the most authentic, there are many fancy tea rooms in Chicago that will make you and your loved ones feel just as special. Here are MIB’s favorites, and reservations are recommended.

The Palm Court at the Drake Hotel

The Queen of England, Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton and the Empress of Japan are just a few of a dignitaries who have enjoyed tea at the Palm Court, which centers around a limestone fountain with a giant urn at the center. Afternoon tea, served 365 days a year from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. features live harp music.

140 E. Walton Place, Chicago, 312-787-2200

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel

The Ritz serves afternoon tea every day from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the greenhouse atrium, with a view of Chicago’s lakefront and downtown. Special touches include homemade passion fruit curd.

At Water Tower Place, 160 E. Pearson Street, Chicago, 312-266-1000,

The Peninsula Hotel

The Peninsula’s royal tea, including caviar and champagne, is served from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. On selected Fridays, luxury retailers including Escasa, Bloomingdale’s and Ralph Lauren present informal fashion shows during afternoon tea. Live classical music is provided by a cellist and a violinist.

108 E. Superior St., Chicago, 312-573-6695,

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate