There’s nothing quite so relaxing as a summer rain pattering outside my window and that first inhale of freshly brewed Earl Grey tea, bergamot scents swirling in the air. The gently spicy steam warms my nose as I unwind from a long day.
I acquired this particular infusion from the Mary Cassatt Tea Room and Garden, an elegant dining option at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. This creamy Earl Grey, nicknamed the “Duchess” First Love,” is blended with rooibos, vanilla, and whole cardamom pods. Though this brew is tea connoisseur Nini Ordoubadi’s novel creation, tea itself is an ancient pleasure that is still the second most consumed beverage in the world (after water).
“Americans probably didn’t grow up with Afternoon Tea, so it’s a niche market, but tea is steeped in tradition,” says Justin Hersker, manager of the Mary Cassatt tea room, which is named after the Pennsylvania-born, 19th-century Impressionistic painter. “I don’t think tea will be displaced just because this is a coffee-drinking country.”
Indeed, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, who has recently purchased the hip specialty tea retailer Teavana (several stores can be found in eastern Pennsylvania), said that Starbucks plans to “do for tea what we did for coffee.” But even with the many flavors and varieties the company plans to popularize, Starbucks does not deliver the old-fashioned approach to drinking tea. For that, one must visit a tea room.
Tea rooms, several of which are located in and around the Brandywine Valley area, capture the 18th-century British afternoons we read about in Henry James novels. They range from cozy, family-friendly chambers to sophisticated halls.
At Mary Cassatt, a recently renovated, high-ceilinged venue with tall glass doors that open into a luscious courtyard, the intimate seating areas are garnished with matching gold-rimmed chinaware, including sugar bowls and sauce trays.
On weekends, a harpist strums gentle background music as patrons choose from a classical menu. By ordering the Signature Tea package for $49 per person, one can sample a selection of scones, canapés, and sandwich tasters, from tuna tartare to smoked salmon rillettes. “We’ve taken a lot of the sandwiches and updated them without losing the conventional flavors, but adding a twist,” Hersker explains. “Instead of plain scones, we rotate variations seasonally.”
Next comes a three-tiered platter decked with a collection of petite cakes, tarts, and confections, all served with a dollop of jam, Devonshire cream, and lemon curd. For drink, the table receives glasses of Marquis de la Tour Brut and pots of loose-leaf tea. Mary Cassatt offers specialty tea blends, such as the creamy Earl Grey I could not resist buying; fruity and floral infusions; and single note teas. Black, green, white, and more, these brews celebrate tea culture from around the world.
Mary Cassatt ensures that the traditional is also ageless by offering a “modernized tea experience,” Hersker says. “Tea has a connotation of being stuffy or boring, and we really try to change that.”
Mary Cassatt is not the only tea room offering an urbane hot tea experience. The British Bell, a delicately beautiful tea room in Newark, Del., proffers an afternoon of quality and friendly service. “The British Bell is more than just another restaurant choice,” says proprietor Dawn Viggiano. “Our goal is to create treasured memories with family and friends.”
In deference to the time-honored English style, the British Bell offers a long list of black teas, all with their own distinctive flavoring. These and many more brews are kept hot by individual tea lights. The accompanying food for Afternoon Tea, the customary light meal served between 4 and 6 p.m., is equally delectable, with sundry choices of tea sandwiches, scones, and miniature desserts. The large sandwiches bear names such as the Blair, the Thatcher, and the Churchill. During High Tea, an evening meal typically eaten between 5 and 7 p.m., one may additionally order a soup du jour (two favorites are the Mushroom Brie Bisque and Roasted Red Pepper with Gouda Cheese) or house salad, and the signature pastry, a wrapped turkey sausage with cream cheese, chive, Dijon, and horseradish. Both offering extensive À la carte menus, Afternoon Tea is $19.75 per person, and High Tea is $25.75 per person.
“We are committed to ensuring all our patrons, including the gentlemen, need not worry about leaving hungry,” Viggiano says. “It is one of our primary goals to make sure that our portions are generous.”
For a more intimate setting, the British Bell affords a lavishly furnished tea lounge as a private venue for parties, bridal showers, birthdays, or even a girls’ day out. “We hope that every reservation at The British Bell Tea Room ends up being a special occasion even if it wasn’t originally scheduled to celebrate an event,” Viggiano explains.
She adds, “We are different from many other tea rooms in that the tri-state area has so warmly and faithfully embraced us, so that instead of being a quiet tea room, it’s quite the exuberant hubbub everyday.” The best opportunity to enjoy a quiet tea time at The British Bell is during the Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday 3 p.m. seating. Patrons seeking a peaceful lunch may even choose a classic novel from the shelves on the walls.Noting that the British Bell celebrated its fifth anniversary in December 2013 and, two years earlier, opened an adjoining upscale, resale boutique called Avantea, Viggiano is thankful that “through difficult economic times, the tea room has continued to thrive.”
Tea rooms have a clean, cultured atmosphere in which people can enjoy each other’s company. Though not typical dining choices, they have found a unique place in the community. As Viggiano explains, “We believe that quality can endure the trials of time.”