story & photos by Pam Lettie
Tales from magnificent venues throughout the Valley
Tea is warmth. Studies may tout tea’s health benefits, but tea is about warmth. The teapot’s warmth is an ancient and tribal warmth – connecting friends and family, good conversation and the warm memories of cozy surroundings. Afternoon tea is taking a break, a pause in the day; calm minutes set aside to sip slowly, savoring the presentation of savory sandwiches, scones and pastries. In a go-go-go world, the peace and quiet can be a balm for the soul – even when we are on our own.
Coach & Horses, Tea-Lover’s Paradise A tea lover driven by a desire to sip and sample has few places more appealing than the Coach & Horses Colonial Tea Room. Their focus? Tea. The menu lists more than 50 varieties of black, green, white tea, oolong, rooibos, fruit, herbal and yerba mate teas; all of the tea is loose leaf.
The staff is a font of information about tea service, tea place settings and teas in general. The historic building has a down-to-earth feel with visible log cabin beams upstairs. The upstairs is worth a trip, even if you are seated downstairs. The log and plaster layers add even more charm to the rooms. Shelves display jar after jar of tea blends, all labeled with the Coach & Horses brand.
It is one of the few teas we have found offering a “bottomless” pot of tea – meaning a fresh pot of tea with fresh tea leaves, at your request. Experimentation is encouraged. Every diner is welcome to try different teas.
Each pot is big enough for about three delicate china cups full of tea or perhaps one more cup if you add cream and sugar. The waitress or waiter steeps the tea upstairs, only serving the tea after it’s steeped to perfection for between three and seven minutes. They are willing to steep longer or shorter to meet your tastes. After steeping, the leaves are removed, so the taste is always right on target – never weak or bitter. The staff-intensive process works to the advantage of the diner.
Our waitress carries as many as six teapots at once, admitting that coming downstairs with full teapots is harder than going up with empties. Still, she said her coworker could carry eight.
She glowingly described the most popular teas. We tried two – the decaffeinated Darjeeling and the Pomegranate Pear – along with two others, the Chocolate Delight and the Yunnan, a black tea. We traded cups to sample more varieties.
The Pomegranate Pear looked red and fruity in the cup, while the Darjeeling was a nice rich brown, a duo that could suit almost every tealoving palate. The Chocolate Delight had a stronger chocolate flavor than any tea we’ve tried; by adding milk and sugar, it tasted almost like hot cocoa, but not quite as rich. As we moved into tea, round two, we generally stayed with our favorites from the first round. Linger, and your cold tea can be replaced with a new pot of hot tea.
“Bottomless” really was a core value at Coach & Horses.
We experimented by trying a pot of the Lapsang Souchong, described as a smoky flavor created when the tea leaves were dried over pinewood fires. It’s intense smoky taste was unlike any of the other teas, bringing back memories of campfires. In the end, it probably wasn’t something we would order often, but it was interesting.
While the tea may take center stage, the food deserves attention. About the same time that the first pots of tea arrived, the waitress delivered strawberry-banana scones. Full-size scones, with big hunks of early summer fresh strawberries were hot out of the oven. The scones barely held together as we sliced off wedges and slathered them with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The scones were a highlight (after the tea of course). While there were many delicious items yet to come, the scones stood out with a crumbly yet moist texture consistent with some of the best scones I’ve had.
The presentation of sweets and savories appealed to our visual aesthetic, accentuated by the intimate décor and a grand piano in the corner and wall stencils that added to the ambiance. The few windows let in streams of light here and there. It’s a charming environment to sit for a couple hours, drink tea and catch up.
Our second course, after the mouthwatering scones, was a tiered tray of goodies. Sandwiches came in ovals, circles, rectangles and squares. The cucumber sandwich showed itself well with marbled bread. Rounds of oranges, triangles of watermelon and elegantly edged circles of kiwi offered fresh alternatives to the sandwiches.
The ham croissant was a delicate mix of ham, cheese and mustard sauce. The croissant was flaky, on par with the European varieties, as one of several mini sandwiches – this was clearly not a safe place for someone on a low-carb diet.
Coach & Horses serves high tea, as well as a regular lunch menu and a Sunday English breakfast, and a la carte items. All meals come with the “bottomless” tea pot. But, because the Coach & Horses chef makes everything to order for the tea, advance reservations are essential.
The food tends more toward the sweet than the savory, but the flavors go beautifully with the tea and are filling. On our first visit, my husband opted for a lunch – a flaky-crusted chicken pot pie – but came to regret that choice after seeing the tea treats.
In the end, we had to take a box of leftovers home. Even though the “tea” was our lunch replacement, there was more than we could eat.
Road Trip: Keswick Hall The approach to Keswick Hall, near Charlottesville, makes you feel as though you are approaching a European villa. The lovely yellow façade sets the stage for the elegant interior and expansive views. High tea is served in a rear dining room with a wall of windows overlooking the golf course and rolling rural Virginia hills. The tables are set with linens and silver, and beautiful yellow orchids, reminiscent of the entrance outdoors.
The tea menu is simple, with a nice selection of 15 or 20 loose leaf teas, plus an optional addition of wine or champagne. The waitresses gave us time to view the menu, but were always available to answer questions. There wasn’t any hurry as we considered our tea options. We were celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday, so the pacing was perfect.
Making the right tea choice – and coordinating choices with the rest of our party – was essential, since each of us would only get one pot of tea, which was a bit of a disappointment in an experience that was otherwise almost perfect.
When the tea came, however, the challenge of a choice was forgotten, as the waitress poured our first cup from a lovely, heavy silver teapot. The tiered trays of goodies included a bottom row of savories, a middle row of breads and a top tray of sweets and chocolates.
I had clued in the staff that it was a special event for my mostly vegetarian mother, and the savories included deviled eggs and bite-sized pimento cheese sandwiches that would appeal to her. The pimento cheese had a good blend of cheese and pimento, and the bread was perfectly fresh and soft.
The scones were savories. The texture was crunchy and a little dry, but the scone was a great vehicle for tasting the butter and jam. The madeleines, however, hit a home run with smooth texture and soft interior.
Fresh berries accompanied both the breads and sweets. A range of blueberries, raspberries, sliced strawberries and blackberries not only added visual interest to the platter, but were a delightful treat.
On the top shelf, the chocolates were a final hit of energy. Unlike the other treats, which had identical items for each member of our party, the chocolates were all different, some with a crusty shell, others with a creamy filling.
By now, our tea leaves had steeped for more than an hour, so our tea had a much stronger flavor, but we had swapped pots and had the opportunity to try different flavors.
To the credit of the staff, we never felt hurried as we spent two and a half hours enjoying the tea service.
We thought we were done, but it turned out that they reservations department had really taken note when I mentioned mom’s birthday.
They brought out a beautifully plated berries and chocolates, with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate. With a surprised Mom, and a happy party, it was the perfect end to the tea, especially for my mom who has asked why she should eat anything that’s not chocolate.
— Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email email@example.com.