Charleston visitors who spend their days looking at silver table settings and ornate ironwork often get a hankering for tea and crumpets, the British meal that many Americans consider synonymous with old money. But since Charleston Place’s Thoroughbred Club two years ago discontinued its daily tea service, citing waning interest, tourists have had to stray beyond downtown to satisfy their aristocratic urges.
“I get people from all over,” says Eve Mickendrow, owner of Time Well Spent Tea Room in Summerville. “It’s pretty popular. I think it speaks to a bygone days kind of thing.”
Over 22 years in business, Mickendrow has watched competitors come and go. While tea enthusiasm isn’t currently raging, Michendrow says, “People who go to tearooms like to look them up.” And they’re often disappointed when their Charleston-specific searches yield so little, especially since the Lowcountry started experimenting with tea cultivation more than two centuries ago.
Time Well Spent serves a cream tea, dessert tea, full tea — more of a complete meal, with an appetizer, entree and dessert — and high tea, featuring a three-tier stand stocked with scones and pastries.
About high tea: While the term is commonly applied to the most lavish set-ups, “high tea” in the U.K. refers to a working-class supper (although the wealthy sometimes partook of a similar menu on the servants’ night off.) “A ‘High Tea’ is where meat takes a prominent part,” household prescriptivist Isabella Beeton explained in an 1879 edition of her domestic arts manual. The hour and table were high, not the fashion: “Afternoon tea” better describes the gathering distinguished by crustless sandwiches, jelly cakes and roses.
Nomenclature aside, “We do get phone calls inquiring about high tea,” Jane Knight of the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island says. “Maybe we should consider it. We always have hot and iced tea selections for our visitors, and they love that.”
Knight refers tea service seekers to Mickendrow. At the Thoroughbred Club, which still offers afternoon tea by reservation for parties of 10 or more people, the standard recommendation is Twenty Six Divine.
In keeping with the upper King Street cafe’s name, the charge for four tea sandwiches, four mini desserts, scones, lemon curd and tea is $26. Sandwich fillings are left to the chef’s discretion, but may include lemon-basil chicken salad or shaved cucumber. The service is offered strictly by reservation from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.
For tea time fans intent on sampling Charleston Place’s scones and petit fours, there is one reservation book hack worth knowing: According to the Thoroughbred Club’s manager, once a full-size party has booked tea service bewteen noon and 2 p.m., the restaurant will accept reservations for parties of any size on the same date. That’s of little help to thirsty tourists, but creates an opportunity for locals prepared to spend $42 on what spokeswoman Colleen Troy calls “a civilized escape.”