It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday early in the new year and many of the tables at Bel Air’s Tea by Two are full. Ladies
are seated in twos or threes (all of the morning’s sippers are women) with colorful pots of tea, plates of cucumber sandwiches and ramekins of fluffy butter and lemon curd.
The scone of the day is almond, a powder sugar-topped baked good that is both crusty and light and, of course,
a dreamy vehicle for that butter and curd.
I am here with two friends, longtime colleagues of mine who know quite a bit about tea. They have agreed to shepherd me to three tea rooms so that I can understand their popularity (journalism can be such a grueling enterprise) and perhaps even be converted from my coffee-drinking ways.
I have a pot of Royal Wedding tea beside me, a tea that I chose from the impressive list of more than 70, in part because of its name. “Royal Wedding” and “tea” are two things my mind pairs like “coffee” and “cream.” But I also pick it because it has hints of apple, hazelnut, jasmine and regal rose. I know already that I am a fan of black teas and nothing too fruity.
You see, when I say “coffee drinker,” what I mean is espresso. As in, bitter is better. Strong is good. Almost every specialty drink on the Starbucks menu is too sweet for me. Royal Wedding, on the other hand, is delicious. So is the Tibetan Tiger, which tastes like caramel, and is a favorite of my drinking companion, Cami Colarossi, the communications director for Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. She is a tea aficionado who was thinking on her drive here that she would order Tibetan Tiger.
Cami has been coming to Tea by Two for more than a decade, sharing afternoons here with family and friends, but also enjoying the tea room’s special events, such as teas for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, as well as a history-of-tea tour and a Chocolate Tea. She also sipped tea at the Balmoral Hotel’s Palm Court in Edinburgh, Scotland, where J.K. Rowling finished writing her last Harry Potter book.
Theresa Wiseman, our other dining companion, is a good resume match for Cami’s tea experience. Theresa, who has run her own public relations firm, MediaWise, for the past 10 years, first went to high tea when she was 15 and traveling in Bermuda with her aunt. Once, on a trip to London with her alma mater, Mount de Sales Academy, Theresa went to tea. Every single day. People love tea, I am learning.
Tea by Two
On this day, the tea room still has its holiday sparkle and bows; the fireplace mantle, for example, wears greenery and snow. Customers enter through a well-stocked shop with every gadget and cozy a tea drinker would want. It looks like a fun place to find unforgettable gifts.
Owners Erin Bradley and Janet Meyers, who worked together in the insurance industry, spent two years planning,
taking business classes and visiting tea shops in Maryland and Pennsylvania before they opened their shop in 2001.
“We really felt like a tea shop was something that was going to happen, whether we did it or not,” Bradley says.
What they didn’t expect was the popularity of their specialty teas. The first one they offered was a Christmas tea, for which they set aside weekends in December. They sent out flyers in September, and the teas quickly sold out, leaving some of their returning customers without a seat at the table.
The two owners decided then to have a specific day when reservations opened for events. On their very first reservation day, they arrived at the shop to see a line of people waiting for them.
“We just did not foresee that at all,” Bradley says. (In case you are wondering, their next special event is a Mother’s Day Tea on Saturday, May 9.)
Emma’s Tea Spot
The first thing I take a picture of at Emma’s Tea Spot in Hamilton is an old rotary phone decorated with a Union Jack. This place is one big nod and tip of the teapot to Great Britain. Sandwiches here are “sarnies,” the back of the shop offers all kinds of British teas and goodies, and tea is served on a three-tiered stand with chutney, both savory and sweet scones and a wedge of blue cheese.
I am in heaven. This place is fun and tasty. The pot of Earl Grey I order comes out in a hand-knit blue cozy that looks adorably like a frayed and well-loved hat. To match the classic menu, the teas are mostly classics, which we happily drink. Theresa chooses English Breakfast, and Cami rounds out the order with Earl Grey Lavender. My egg and cress sandwich is satisfying, and there is fruit on the tray to counter the carb loading. The butter, Kerrygold, is not British but Irish, and I keep eating scones.
The no-frills shop is popular for kids’ birthday parties, showers, sprinkles and other occasions, in part because of its casual and welcoming vibe. No one is rushed here, and the food is authentic, locally sourced and prepared by hand right on location.
Owner Emma Canoles grew up in Surrey, England and moved to Baltimore nearly 14 years ago. Two years ago, she opened the tea shop with some initial worry that customers wouldn’t get what she was trying to achieve with her cheese and onion sandwiches (a personal favorite of hers), counter service and ragged cozies.
“What I am trying to give you is a place to repose,” she says. “There was definitely a place in the American market for this. The response: “Really great,” she reports. “I’m so grateful.”
On Church Circle in Annapolis, Reynolds Tavern exudes history like so much of the city. Behind the dining rooms, where lunch, afternoon tea and candlelit dinner are served, is the 1747 Pub. This is the tavern’s original kitchen, in a building where tea was served a full 26 years before the Boston Tea Party. Back then, a tavern was a place to stay overnight and grab a meal.
Throughout the 1800s, Reynolds Tavern was a bank, and for a large part of the 20th century, it was a county library. Wes and Marilyn Burge took over the restaurant in 2004 and have been serving tea there ever since. “It’s our staple,” says Wes, adding that bus trips from Pennsylvania and Virginia stop into Reynolds for the cuppa. The restaurant was originally the Reynolds Tea Room, but that name dissuaded male diners who didn’t understand what a complete meal a tea can be, Wes says.
“It’s a lot of food, and a lot of diners leave with to-go boxes,” he says. I do. This is our final tea of the day. While I actually don’t feel like my insides are sloshing about, my scone consumption is slowing. Theresa, on the other hand, has saved room for the scones here, which she considers to be the best. (“I appreciate that,” Wes says.)
I finish the day with St. Nick’s tea, which has hints of chocolate, nuts and maple. Both Theresa and Cami drink Buckingham Palace Garden Party.
Next to us, a mother has brought five elementary-school-aged girls for afternoon tea, and at the windows, pairs of women sip and gaze out on the circle.
This is why people like this: this moment of contentment and companionship over a warm cup of tea. Since our trip, I haven’t given up coffee (and never will). But in the afternoon hours when I need to take a break from writing or editing, I find myself stepping into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Like Canoles says, it is the repose that is important. And also those scones.