The British have put their finger on something crucial with afternoon tea, something we have not understood here in the colonies. Around 3:00 p.m., the hard-working heart cries out for a little something to eat and a little something to drink, something to keep you going a few more hours before dinner.

Of course there is something profoundly not American about the idea of bringing everything to a screeching halt and putting up water for tea. We tend more to the "keep your head down and teeth gritted and then have a few stiff drinks at the end" model (which is a shame, and leads to hangovers).

Should you decide to give the British version a try, you might want to visit the teahouse in the lobby of the Panama Hotel. This is tea wrestled back--mostly--from the empire, with a selection of leaves that makes your head reel. (Unlike E. F. Benson's Godiva Plaistow, who briskly offers, "Indian or Chinese?") It's not a precious place, however, but a clean-feeling one with glossy dark-wood floors, yellow walls, Asian-American artifacts, and long, rambling exotic music playing in the background. It's a place more suited to reading and thinking than conversation, more about coming down than amping up.

The other day at the Panama Hotel, I learned about white tea, which is harvested at such a young age that the plants' little white hairs (which are full of those antioxidants I hear so much about) are intact. This gives the tea a delicate, crystalline taste, and you don't get too much of a caffeine blast, either (cup $3.75/pot $6.50).

Needless to say, whatever your tea needs are, you can slake them here. The sandwich menu is small, with two fresh sandwiches and three prepared ones. The latter are croissant concoctions; I ordered a Panama Green ($5.75), the ingredients of which-- cucumber, blue cheese, spinach, avocado-wasabi spread--suggested a high-tea sandwich. It was, unfortunately, too cold; a cold croissant is not a beautiful thing, and the temperature was not kind to the delicate flavors of cucumber and wasabi.

I will, however, go back to try the Panama Yellow (with pear, caramelized onion, and artichoke spread). Cold or not, it is the perfect sandwich for an interlude. I am all about the screeching halt.

Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee
605 1/2 Main St (International District), 515-4000. Mon-Sat 8 am-11 pm, Sun 9 am-9 pm.

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