The holiday madness is winding down. We're approaching that delicious hammock between Christmas and New Year's, during which we can indulge ourselves a little. Perhaps you'll troll the après-Noël sales, looking for something for yourself rather than for others. Maybe there'll be time to take in a movie, visit a museum, or attend a theatrical event. It's the perfect time to catch up with a friend over a meal — or perhaps over a pot of tea.
Two recent festive little meals were so satisfying that we were reminded of how much we love the ritual of afternoon tea. Tearooms are bastions of a certain sensibility, often caricatured as fussy and overrefined. In truth, the two we visited were havens of comfort and relaxation and proffered delicious meals as well as soothing draughts of perfectly brewed, fragrant tea. It's "the cup that cheers but does not inebriate," as poet William Cowper had it, but in fact both these shops, while not exactly pubs, also offer such sophisticated tipples as champagne, prosecco, sherry, and madeira as a gentle nudge to your afternoon.
Open only a couple of months, Crown & Crumpet advertises itself as a "doily-free zone." This is a somewhat bewildering distinction when its bright and stylish room features many other girly touches, including mad amounts of flowered chintz, pink-and-white checkerboard flooring, and a carefully curated array of painted wooden furniture groaning with silver, pastel cake stands, and covetable antiques. "Vibrant" is the word owners Amy and Christopher Dean have for their decor, "not a stuffy, Victoriana 'ye olde tea shoppe,'" and vibrant it is. But a bit of twee does creep in: The servers are called "Trolley Dollies."
Early risers can augment their tea (or, shhhh, French-press coffee) with pastries or boiled eggs ($8, including a pot of tea or coffee). At lunchtime, there's soup ($7), quiche ($11, with salad), and crumpets with sandwichy toppings ($12, with salad). On Friday and Saturday evenings, there's a light supper menu.
But we're here for the full-on afternoon tea experience, and order the tea for two ($42), which includes two pots of tea that are called endless (i.e., refreshable). There are 38 choices on the tea menu, divided into black, green, white, premium, oolong, and fruit and herbal. We choose ginger oolong (described as "good for the soul as well as for the digestion") and a black tea, Calcutta Assam.
Along with the teapots come milk, sugar (dressed up with holiday-colored trinkets), and, since we requested honey, an unusual wooden stirrer tipped with hardened honey. A silver three-tiered stand bears three scones, two toasted crumpets, eight tea sandwiches, and eight tiny sweets. Alongside are clotted cream, jam, lemon curd, and butter.
I love to eat this way, grazing among lots of different tastes and textures. There are tiny classic cucumber sandwiches, smoked salmon ones, ham ones with a thin layer of chutney, and chicken salad ones perked up with pesto. As I'm toying between buttering a bit of crumpet or choosing a sweet or a savory bite, I think this is like the English version of tapas — little plates of food meant to encourage you in your drinking.
Everything is baked in-house (except the crumpets), but I find what Crown & Crumpet calls scones to be a little perplexing. I'm expecting cakey, crumbly pastries with perhaps some currants, but these are more like Southern biscuits — though very hot and tender ones, excellent when anointed with the rich, thick cream and/or the tart curd and sweet jam.
Under the crystal chandeliers oddly obscured with drum shades, we finish the tiny brownies; wee lemon tartlets topped with exactly three fresh blueberries; mini chocolate chip cookies; and adorable baby cupcakes with purple icing and multicolor sprinkles, all washed down with the excellent teas, one spicy, the other smoky. Through a big window we glimpse a view of the bay.
On the way out, we peruse the gift shop, which sells the white-and-pink porcelain designed for Crown & Crumpet, and other tempting items, not necessarily tea-related. We couldn't resist buying some of those clever honey stirrers (4 for $6).
A lovely, relaxed afternoon of tea drinking, delicious nibbles hearty enough that we each take leftovers home (sweetly augmented by our Trolley Dolly with fresh containers of cream and jam), and interesting conversation induces a desire to, well, do it again (apologies to Miss Britney Spears). And so I book a table at Lovejoy's Tea Room, a beloved Noe Valley institution operated since 2000 by Gillian Briley and Muna Nash.
Lovejoy's might be exactly the olde tea shoppe Crown & Crumpet announces it isn't, but that's exactly its allure. The layered, quintessentially British feeling of its decor feels like it has accrued over many decades. There are comfy upholstered chairs and couches as well as tiny wood tables and chairs, mismatched china and silver, and, yes, doilies everywhere. The walls are covered with an assortment of framed art, signs, and tchotchkes that somehow work. Little signs on tables say "Reserved for Royalty" or "Reserved for the Queen."
I encourage my companion, male this time, to pick a hearty dish like shepherd's pie (minced meat topped with mashed potatoes, $9.95), or a beef or curried chicken pasty (with greens and baked beans, $8.95), but he's in a tea-for-two mood. We go the whole hog and order the Queen's Tea ($24.95 for one; $24 for each additional). It includes a classic scone with double Devon cream, lemon curd, and strawberry jam; a crumpet; fresh fruit; a petit four and a shortbread tea biscuit; coleslaw (!) and organic spring greens with vinaigrette; and my favorite thing, two tea sandwiches from an amazing array of 17 choices.
I love tea sandwiches and I don't care who knows it. It's painful to try to choose from among such delights as ham and English mustard, chicken and asparagus, smoked turkey and Dijon mustard, and egg and onion. We choose roast beef with sharp horseradish; bay shrimp and mayonnaise; smoked salmon and cream cheese; and the surprise winner, ripe pear with tangy Stilton. We get three crustless quarter sandwiches of each. They are so good that I would happily return and eat my way through the tea sandwich menu (available on their own — with coleslaw and greens — for $9.95 for two choices, $12.95 for three. And I'd get the three!).
The tea menu features seven black teas, seven flavored black teas (some also available decaffeinated), three green teas, and half a dozen herbal tisanes. We're both feeling blackish, and go with a superb smooth afternoon Darjeeling and one of the most memorable smoky, winey Lapsang Souchongs I've ever tasted.
From a number of different petits fours, we choose a chocolate-and-orange cake and a lemony one, though strawberry shortcake and a walnut-topped brownie look tempting. Then we reflect over our happy tea experiences and decided we'd already made our first New Year's resolution: afternoon tea, on a regular basis. Or — reality bites — semiregular. Or as regular as we can make it.