It’s true. People here do drink tea. Don’t let that coffee-shop-per-every-block thing fool you.
A recent convert myself, I went looking for places to sit and sip tea and was pleasantly surprised to find a divergent community of tea haunts.
I found places where ladies feast on scones and crustless sandwiches. I encountered tea purveyors carrying 300 varieties of teas, botanicals and tisanes, which are concoctions that don’t actually contain tea, but often are referred to as tea. I found quiet corners to sip, relax and thumb through a book.
My goal here is to introduce you to places where you can simply enjoy a cup of tea.
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Cream tea. Afternoon tea. High tea. Find myriad tea sets — or tea services, as some call them — at three ladies-who-lunch tea rooms in East Pierce County (plus updates on two former tea rooms). For the uninitiated, tea sets come with an assortment of snacks, ranging from scones and tea (cream) to tiered racks layered with pastries and tea sandwiches (afternoon or high tea).
SECRET GARDEN TEA ROOM AND GIFT SHOP
Consider Secret Garden the finest themed tea destination in the area. That’s largely because of its location inside a beautifully maintained Victorian home (finished in 1890 by hop farmers). Husband-and-wife owners Elizabeth Kleingartner and Mark Elliott opened Secret Garden in 2006. They reside upstairs in a private apartment. Downstairs, a series of pristine rooms are outfitted for tea parties large and small, with a gift shop on the other side of the house. Outside, find resting benches and grounds for wandering.
The decor appeared spot on for an ideal ladies-who-lunch destination, with every detail tended: delicate tongs for sugar cubes, ornate metal spatulas thoughtfully placed for hot foods, elaborate strainers for pouring loose tea with ease.
The Larkspur Luncheon Tea ($26 per person) astounded with the volume of treats. (A tea set can be split, as long as a basket of scones is also purchased.)
A pot of tea for each table member arrived first, followed by scones, baked until lightly golden — but not dry — and served with lemon curd, jam and cream (ask for as many scones as you like).
Raspberry sorbet preceded the big affair: a three-tier tray that was loaded with goodies. I wasn’t surprised to learn that everything is scratch baked by the owners. It tasted it.
Tier one held sandwiches, one wedge each of a delicious cranberry-pecan salad, an egg salad flecked with dill and a cucumber-butter sandwich with pepper thoughtfully dancing up the flavor. Layer two was an array of hot items: a Greek-themed sun-dried tomato quiche; a creamy-centered artichoke popover; a puff pastry filled with a warm onion dip — all flanked by fruit.
Layer three nearly did me in: a red velvet cookie, orange fudge, crunchy shortbread, a chocolate cupcake, a chocolate cup filled with peppermint mousse, and a cheesecake cupcake topped with a cherry. All that was followed up by warm towel service. Just lovely.
Tea selection: More than 70 loose leaf teas and other items are for sale in the adjacent gift shop. Antique tea sets are for rent here.
Reservations: Strongly advised.
Other tea sets: Cream tea ($12, all prices are per person); Violet Sweet Tea ($14); Lavender Light Afternoon Tea ($18); Hollyhock High Tea ($29); Rose Celebration Tea ($39). Cafe fare also is served for lunch.
Contact: 1711 Elm St. E., Sumner; 253-826-4479 or sgtea.com.
STEEPED IN COMFORT TEA ROOM AND GIFT SHOP
Step through the threshold at Lakewood’s Steeped in Comfort and straight into your grandmother’s living room, outfitted with cushioned farmhouse chairs and adorably mismatched floral linens. The charming mismatched theme carried to vintage patterned cups and saucers.
The tea room belongs to Heather Todd and her husband, Benjamin, who bought it eight years ago with Benjamin’s mother, who has since retired.
Lady Grey’s Afternoon Tea ($20.95 per person) started with a pot of tea for each of us, followed by a strawberry-topped tart filled with silky pastry cream. Individual two-tier platters came next, holding crustless finger sandwiches containing straightforward egg salad on white; ham and cheese on an outstanding marble rye; tuna on that same rye; and chicken salad on wheat, kicked up with dill. An eggy wedge of ham-and-cheese quiche was the sole baked offering.
Topping the tier were two large scones with cream, lemon curd and raspberry preserves. One bite proved that Steeped in Comfort baked the best buttery scones.
“I use a lot of eggs, butter and cream,” Heather said. “It’s all real ingredients. I didn’t really care for scones when we were going to start this place. I figured I better come up with a better recipe. It’s somewhere between a cake and a scone.”
Tea selection: More than 30 listed, but not for sale. Gifts and accessories at the front.
Other tea sets: Cream tea ($11.95 per person); high tea ($26.95) and children’s tea ($12.95). Split tea service available for a $5 charge (comes with extra tea, scones and quiche). Cafe fare is served for lunch.
Part bakery, part store, part cafe, part tea room. British Bites is an all-purpose destination for anyone wanting a true British experience. Owner Terry Williams hails from England. She started a baking business, then merged with the former T-4-2 on Meridian in Puyallup before relocating to East Main in 2013.
The grocery store is front and center, with the bakery to the rear. To the right is a fuss-free, bistro-style dining room crisply appointed with white walls and matching white linens.
Tea service must be pre-ordered here, which means your food will be ready when you arrive. The Downton Abbey Afternoon Tea ($38.95 for two) started with a pot of tea, followed by a three-tier platter. The first tier held one sandwich each of ham-and-tomato on white, smoked salmon and cucumber on wheat with a smear of butter, and a curry-kissed chicken salad on a flaky croissant. A sausage roll was a two-bite affair. Tier two held desserts aplenty: a tiny gingerbread man; a mini Victorian cake filled with buttercream; a cherry bakewell with an almond backbone; a buttery oatmeal cookie; a lemon tart; and the bakery’s finest creation, buttery shortbread with a satisfying snap. Flaky scones with cream, curd and jam filled the third tier.
I took note of something quite interesting. The tea room specializes in gluten-free tea service, something I’ve never seen. The facility is not gluten-free, although the items served are.
Tea selection: The finest selection of British teas I’ve seen in the area. British groceries also for sale in the shop.
Other tea sets: Crawley House Afternoon Tea ($22.55 per person). Gluten-Free Afternoon Tea ($24.95 per person, 48 hours notice). Cafe fare is also served for lunch.
Contact: 720 E. Main, Puyallup; 253-200-2342 or britishbites.net.
STEEPED TEA ROOMS
These tea rooms sell steeped teas and offer plenty of seating for sipping. The tea rooms all specialize in hundreds of varieties of loose teas, tisanes and botanical/herbal infusions.
Mad Hat Tea: If ever there was a tea speakeasy, it’d be Mad Hat Tea. It’s a modern tea room with the vibe of a subterranean tea society, but you don’t need a secret tea handshake to enter. Open the door at 1130 Commerce St. to find a sign declaring “Tacoma Welcomes You” and a come-as-you-are clientele of gritty hipsters, grandmas, students, artists and chefs.
It looks just like a coffee house, but built for people who love tea. The front room is flanked by books; the rear is a salon with board games. It’s absolutely the best destination for serious tea drinkers, with 300 varieties of teas, tisanes, botanical infusions and an expert staff. The tea shop is known for its unusual blends. Want to try before you buy? Sit and sip a cup or pot. It is the largest tea room in the area, but also had what I find to be the best price for the product. 1130 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-441-2111 or madhattea.com.
Sariah Spices and Teas: Tucked off Pioneer just before it collides with Harborview in Gig Harbor, find the fragrant offerings of Sariah Spice and Teas, a store divided between whole spices and teas. Looking for black teas married with botanicals or spices? This is your place. Teas here are tended by a staffer with a serious love of tea. There’s hot water for steeping to sample the inventory, but just two seats beside a stove for lounging. 7801 Pioneer Way, Gig Harbor; 253-649-4903 or sariahspicesandteas.com.
Ubiquitous Journey: This combo store stocks spices, herbs and essential oils, and serves coffee and light cafe fare. Head to the back to find shelves filled with green, white and black loose teas and tisanes. This business started in South Hill before moving to Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood in 2013. Ubiquitous Journey is called “Ubi’s” for short. Sit and sip a pot of your choice; there’s also a menu of tea blends. 2607 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-572-2550 or facebook.com/tea.spice.merchant.
Crescent Moon’s Starlight Tea Lounge: I didn’t even know this funky gift shop was known for its teas until I popped in and stumbled right into a tea counter stocked with 100 teas and tisanes, plus an adjacent room decked out in a cavernous celestial theme (read: tweens will love it here). Find teas listed alphabetically in a binder at the counter. The store also hosts tea parties about every month. 2502 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-572-8339 or facebook.com/crescentmoongifts.
LOOSE TEA SHOPS
These shops don’t offer steeped tea or seating, but they do have helpful staffers to assist in the exploration of the wide world of tisanes and loose teas.
Tea Madame: As spring awakens, so does the bustling nature of Sumner’s Windmill Garden Center, which is home to the tiny tea shop Tea Madame. It specializes in loose leaf teas and tea accessories. Explore the world of smoked teas; green, white and black teas; oolong and darjeeling; tisanes and rooibos. 16009 60th St. E., Sumner; 253-891-2900 or tea-madame.com.
Mimi’s Teas: Tucked into one of Fircrest’s few retail centers, Mimi’s Teas is much like Tea Madame in that it is solely a place to buy roughly 100 different kinds of loose teas, tisanes and a few tea accessories. 618 Regents Blvd., Fircrest; 253-820-8998 or facebook.com/mimisteasfircrest.
The Tea Room: Ask the owner and she’ll tell you that loose tea and herbs are just a hobby, but it’s also a family calling. Her father spent his career working with herbals, as she does. Find all organic teas and herbs from far-flung global sources, which might explain prices ranging from $14-$19 for two ounces. (Note: Don’t confuse this tiny tea shop with the nearby tea room, Steeped in Comfort.) 11122 Gravelly Lake Drive SW, Lakewood; 253-584-2664 or facebook.com/thetearoom.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Olive Branch: Terry Waller is about to move her Olive Branch Cafe a second time. When she reopens in Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square this spring, she’ll once again offer tea sets and tea service in addition to her cafe menu — and she’s also planning to expand to a wine bar. She expects to close her Commerce Street cafe and tea room Feb. 23. Check for updates at facebook.com/OliveBranchCafe.
Hawthorn Tea Room: Cathy Russell says she had a terrific run as the owner of the Hawthorn Tea Room, which she operated in Tacoma’s North End from 2007 until the tea room’s closure about a month ago when Russell retired. New owners are taking over the space now, and the site is undergoing a transformation (more on that soon, I hope). Russell is looking forward to being a full-time grandma.
Steepers Tea: Steepers Artisan Teas in Gig Harbor closed in December, but owner Melanie Allen is still selling her teas. Find her at local farmers markets, as well as at Harbor Greens. Follow Allen’s business at facebook.com/SteepersArtisanTeas.
FOR YOUR TEA CALENDAR
This might be Tacoma’s best kept tea secret: The first Saturday of every month at 10 a.m., the Asia Pacific Cultural Center explores a different tea of Asia. February’s event focused on tea of the Philippines, and March will feature the tea of Korea. Tea service is $10, or $5 if you’re an APCC member. Find more details at asiapacificculturalcenter.org or call 253-383-3900.