Dee Jameson thought she was out of the food business. It had been nearly a year since she closed her English Tea Room in St. Mary's County. The real estate agent, who had been searching for a new location, hadn't called in months, and Jameson was investigating ways to sell her collection of china teacups and pots.
When the agent told her about an old house in downtown La Plata that was available, Jameson said, she went to look "out of obligation." Today, after a year spent restoring and refurbishing every inch of it, the former Christ Episcopal Church rectory has been transformed into the Royal Tea Room.
The specialty, of course, is afternoon tea. Reservations are required for either the "Royal Tea" -- the largest meal, which includes soup and salad, scone, tea sandwiches, other little savories, fruit, cheese and small sweets -- or a slightly pared-down version, the "Full Afternoon Tea."
But, in the Southern tradition, the tearoom isn't limited to just tea. There is an extensive luncheon menu of light fare -- mostly sandwiches and salads -- served every day but Monday, and Jameson plans to add Sunday brunch and weekend dinners in the coming months.
Walk across the front porch and into the foyer of the house that dentist Aubrey Posey built for his family in 1929, and it seems as though you also have traveled back in time. There are lace curtains on the front windows, a commanding fireplace, Victorian-style prints adorning the walls and deep-green cloths covering the tables that fill the two dining rooms.
There are teapots, cups and various accessories in the foyer and more on sale in a small shop off the main dining room. Visitors who choose tea are invited to select a cup from several dozen stacked on two tea trolleys. There are many styles, from ornate to starkly modern. Tea is served in individual pots, complete with decorative cozies.
Most dishes are served on ornate china, and even cups of soup are served in -- what else? -- teacups.
Chef Betty Knabe, who was working at Blair House in Washington and learned all about tea service during a sojourn in England, is a La Plata resident whom Jameson hired a scant two weeks before opening in mid-March.
Luncheon entrees are generously sized. A tuna salad sandwich, served on thick, hand-cut slices of flavorful white bread, was at least three inches thick, savory and filling. Sandwiches served as wraps are similarly endowed. Even a simple green salad is a plate overflowing with greens.
The house soup is cream of crab, a silky-smooth base with lumps of crab. And no Southern Maryland cafe would be complete without a crab cake sandwich; this restaurant's has already attracted a steady fan club.
The luncheon menu alone would make the Royal Tea Room a find in Charles County, but the afternoon teas are the true specialty.
Knabe explained that the Royal Tea (which, like the afternoon tea, is served only from 1:30 to 4 p.m.) is more like an English high tea. Despite its lofty name, high tea is really a workingman's supper. The Royal Tea Room's afternoon tea is more like the English afternoon version, served to the upper classes as an elaborate snack between lunch and a late dinner.
For either, the Royal Tea Room offers a choice of about a dozen types of tea.
The first course of the Royal Tea is soup and salad. The vegetable tortellini soup served on a recent afternoon consisted of a deep-flavored broth replete with diced vegetables and several light cheese-filled tortellini. The soup was served in a fine china cup, which sat on a fine china plate alongside the mixed green salad.
A warm scone, accompanied by faux clotted cream (actually a cream cheese base lightened with a bit of confectioner's sugar), forms the second course. Scone flavors vary daily, but both the poppy seed and blueberry scones served the day we visited were light and tea-party perfect. (Scones may be ordered separately or as part of a "Cream Tea," which requires no reservations.)
A three-tier serving of tea sandwiches, savories, sweets and other goodies came next. The sandwiches -- each properly crustless -- were delightful. There was egg salad with a touch of dill on brown bread, chicken salad with crunchy almonds, thin slices of cucumber and turkey with a smear of cranberry sauce. They occupied the bottom tier.
The middle tier held tiny spinach pies, beggar's purses of brie, miniature quiches, sliced pear, cheese and a giant strawberry half-slathered with sweetened whipped cream.
The sweets occupied the top tier: cream puffs and eclairs, petits fours and multi-layered, cream-filled cake. It was almost too much!
The Royal Tea Room has quickly become a favorite for multi-generational tea parties, and Jameson also offers "Princess" teas for the younger generation, complete with a tiara for the honored guest.
--Nancy Lewis (May 26, 2005)