St. Philip Episcopal Church's tea room, a favorite of Charleston food writers Matt Lee and Ted Lee, who swear by the okra soup and Huguenot torte, opens next week. But the distinction of "first tea room" belongs to Old St. Andrew's Parish Church, which pioneered the springtime tradition.
Although the church dates back to 1706, it sat unused for 57 years. In 1948, it fell to the church's female members to scrub the neglected building clean. Since there weren't any restaurants near the church on Ashley River Road, the volunteers packed their lunches. Their homemade meals attracted the attention of tourists who dropped by the church between plantation stops. Realizing the fundraising potential, the women opened the first tea room in 1953.
A Lowcountry tea room is more organized than a potluck, but less polished than a permanent restaurant: It may have been the area's first pop-up. The menu typically features the sort of dainty dishes that were once associated with bridge club meetings and bridal luncheons. This year, St. Andrew's sold a cup of she-crab soup and a shrimp paste sandwich for $8. Desserts, priced at $4 a serving, included coconut cake and Magnolia pie.
Between the food and the associated gift shops, churches raise significant amounts of money at tea room time. As The Post and Courier's Jennifer Berry Hawes reported earlier this month, St. Andrew's averages $28,000 in proceeds, while Grace Episcopal Church's tea room last year generated $50,000 for charity.