Now that cigar clubs and Super Bowl parties have been integrated, tearooms are the last fully gendered culinary space in America. Like Victoria's Secret shops and Estée Lauder counters, they seem to be hallowed feminine ground, full of ladies who lunch and girls who still want to grow up to be princesses.
Take Lisa's Tea Treasures in Lafayette, for example, part of a tea-house franchise operation that includes several locations in the greater Bay Area. When my friends Chris and David and I walked in, a server dressed in a maid's costume, lace-wrapped bun in her hair and all, asked, "Would you guys like a beer or something?" She looked at us warily when we replied that we were there for high tea. We were the only men within a hundred-yard radius of the little house. There was a baby shower in the back room and a five-year-old's tea party on the side. Little girls with ballerina hairdos sporting boas that trailed down to the hems of their satin dresses sat primly amid their heavily perfumed and pearled mothers. I haven't felt so butch since the day I lit the pilot light of my deep-fryer with a blowtorch. The table near the front window was the last empty spot, and as she sat us I could see the server praying that no potential customers would walk by.
Why is American Anglophilia solely the provenance of the ladylike? A country that has produced David Beckham, Terence Stamp, and the fry-up only seems to elicit nostalgia here for its most chintzified and Victorian side.
Truth be told, the tea ladies aren't completely Epcot Centering the English. After reading too many club magazines and watching Hanif Kureishi movies too many times, I hit London for the first time prepared for ancient brick buildings outfitted with sleek, cold, stripped-down interiors, the last wisps of smoke from the Brixton riots still sooting up the windows. But no, every flat I entered was full of pastels and cheery tchotchkes that wouldn't have been out of place in Better Homes & Gardens. I soon realized that there is a deeply dowdy side to middle-class Brits that wave after wave of glam, punk, and rave can't dispel.
This is the cultural vein that teahouses mine. The B&B set goes to town with the lace, the painted china, the relics of the decayed Empire. Every window was rimmed in lace and you could barely see the pink-and-baby-blue walls through the clusters of teacups and ornate tea-making implements. There's a lovely escapism to the ritual of high tea. When you're sitting in front of a cup of dark, smoky Russian Caravan and a warm, cakey scone slathered in clotted cream and strawberry jam, it's hard to think about the war and the recession.
But perversity is a powerful force. First, Chris started talking about a botched booty call he received from a stranger. We stared at him until his voice dropped to an asthmatic whisper. Then I spilled a crumb on my shirt and exclaimed, "Shit!" I could hear the mother-daughter confab behind me swell protectively. By the time we were hopped up on petits fours we had embarked on a discussion of color consciousness that bordered on the -- gasp -- overtly political while we watched the princess party running off their sugar high outside.
I'm not sure if we brought it on ourselves, but the service bordered on the gruff. Lisa's seats only at set times, so the waiters were busy with the big parties and let us sit. After fifteen minutes, we received our menus but no apologies. Another thirty minutes later our plates arrived, packed with dainty things.
I got the "Forget-Me-Not" tea, with cut-crust sandwiches, petits fours, a scone, an itty-bitty cheesecake, and a Joseph Schmidt truffle. Chris ordered the "Iris" tea for the tuna sandwiches, potato knish, cheese puffs, and a slab of sherry-soaked cake. David skipped over the flowery meals for a special St. Patrick's Day meal with meat pasty, a couple of sandwiches, and a slice of grasshopper cheesecake topped with a candy shamrock. Each of our teapots came swaddled in a quilted tea cozy.
The impeccably arranged and garnished plates made more of a visual splash than a culinary one. I enjoyed the scone, which was soft and flaky, in contrast to the over-buttered, crumbly pastry triangles that Americans call scones. The clotted cream hit that fluffy half-point between butter and cream that allows you to pretend you're not spreading a quarter-inch of pure fat on your pastry. The fluffy mashed potatoes inside the potato knish seemed to inflate the pastry around them.
The petits fours were high-quality store-bought, and I don't know many people who can say no to a Joseph Schmidt truffle. But many of the little things tasted like they had come from packages, and half of the sandwiches had been sitting on a tray in the back, crusts sliced off, until new crusts started to form. More distressingly, my Darjeeling and Chris's Scottish Breakfast teas were weak -- not too-little-tea weak, too-old-tea weak.
The pastry wasn't quite right on the pasties, microwaved versus baked, but the insides got a thumbs-up from both of my Commonwealth-reared companions (pay-stees, the server corrected us incorrectly when we ordered past-ees).
We recognized the same ones a week later in the freezer cases at B.J. Gardner's English Tea Room. The back half of the slim, deep storefront in downtown Pleasanton stocks the kind of groceries that make Brits sigh with nostalgia: The left wall was stocked with Milky Bars and Lion Bars, and the rest of the shelves were packed with jars of piccalilli, six-packs of dry cider, and even smoky bacon-flavored crisps.
Many of the products make it onto the silver trays in the tearoom out front, whose decor combines authentic British tearoom with small-town Midwestern antique shop. Price tags hang from all the pictures, clocks, swords, and cabinets. Instead of pink, B.J. Gardner's goes for a hunter-green theme accented by rose-covered chintz tablecloths and swags. The only lace I saw adorned a hundred-year-old customer smiling from her misty Olan Mills portrait in the corner.
Owners Barry and Sally Gardner have owned the import store for five years, but only opened the tearoom about eighteen months ago. They've done well enough to expand and include a real British breakfast. And boy, is the charming Gardner a real Brit. He uses his ethnicity to get away with the kind of banter -- "Oy, out of the way!" he barked at one woman after she ignored his first entreaty to move -- that might not go over so well in Pleasanton without the lacquer of a thick accent.
The menu, like the decor and the owner, manages to be classic but not precious. Sure, the teas are named "Balmoral" and "Sandringham," but the owners are going for pure, ungourmet-ified Britishness. My friend Matt and I ordered the highest of teas, which included scones, sandwiches, slices of sausage rolls, a wedge of pork pie, and pastries and petits fours.
I wasn't as fond of B.J. Gardner's too-cakey, bland scones as I was of Lisa's, but I daintily mowed through all the fresh tea sandwiches on my half of the double tea tray: cucumber-mint, smoked salmon mousse, ham on raisin bread, egg salad. And the house Yorkshire Red had been perfectly brewed so that it was dark and full-bodied without unnecessary bitterness. Like the sausage rolls, David's Cornish pasty, looking like a bloated pot sticker, suffered from soft pastry but the shredded beef inside tasted as if it had been made in the Old World. It came with mashed potatoes, brown gravy, and canned mushy peas (yes, that's their official name, and I don't get them, but real English folks do). Sweets for two included more high-quality petits fours, imported packaged cookies, and a little jam cookie sandwich.
The Saturday afternoon crowd, 80 percent female, was more relaxed and a little more subdued in its rampant femininity. B.J. Gardner's isn't the place to hold a private event or a little girl's birthday party, just a place to have tea and scones and conversation. Perhaps I felt more comfortable there because we were tucked away in a corner where we didn't have to hush our voices. Instead we eavesdropped on a smart-ass teenage girl sassing her father while her brothers squabbled over the cookies. She was hardly a princess, but then again, neither were we.
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