The waiter in cutaway and ascot cautions you that your tea still has two minutes to brew, as he sets the English teapot on your marble-topped table. London seems closer than Alexandria, which is true in terms of mental geography. It is tea time in the Old Vic Tea Room and Emporium, the first floor of a nineteenth-century Victorian house set with potted palms and doilies, fresh flowers on the tables and Daumiers on the walls. Full tea - at $3 - is a proper ritual of carefully brewed leaves (choose from two types) served with milk and a plate of lemon slices. The waiter serves delicate little sandwiches of minced ham and watercress and such. When you have had your fill of savories, the sweets tray is brought. It might include eclairs and gingerbread, shortbread, tarts and a sherrydrenched trifle. Or you could - for $1.75 - order only tea and a sweet such as just-baked, barely sweet scones with strawberry jam. You could settle for just a pot of tea ($1) or, early in the afternoon, eat a hearty plate of sausage rolls and cheese or crusty bread and a hunk of cheese, even an English rarebit, which costs $3.50 with tea and a sweet.
You can buy English tea and shortbread to take home, as well as a pot to brew it in and a handknit cozy to keep it warm. If you're visiting someone in the hospital or a housebound friend, you can buy tea for two to go, $5 for a prettily packaged box of sweets and tea sachets.
But all that is really beside the point. The Old Vic is a place to relax, to gather your thoughts, to linger and to muse on the benefits of civilization. In fact, you will have to tell your waiter if you are in a hurry, because he will expect you to linger. And you'd better reserve ahead, because a civilized tea break is much in demand these days.
The Old Vic Tea Room and Emporium, 114N. Columbus St., Alexandria. Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Reserve by calling 836-7737.