Whether it's a fascination with things British, or people looking for an out-of-the-ordinary way to entertain, or just a love of Earl Grey and dainty sandwiches, I don't know. But people call me regularly to find out where afternoon tea is served in Baltimore.
Before I did a little research, I knew of only two places. Bertha's in Fells Point has had tea every day except Sunday for years. It's not the traditional English tea, but a hearty Scottish high tea, with sausage rolls, scones, Scotch eggs and the like.
Offering a completely different experience, the Harbor Court Hotel in the Inner Harbor serves an elaborate two-course English tea every afternoon (with specialty teas some days, such as a Japanese tea ceremony).
So there's your pub tea, and there's your grand hotel tea. But I got to wondering what else is out there. I came up with two other places, Twin Gates in Lutherville and the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room on 31st Street.
Twin Gates, 308 Morris Ave., Lutherville, (410) 252-3131. Call for afternoon tea schedule. No smoking. Wheelchair access: no.
Twin Gates is a bed-and-breakfast located on a green and shady street in Lutherville. The meticulously restored house was built in 1857; if you tour it before tea you'll be shown the secret room believed to be part of the Underground Railroad. One or two afternoons a month, owner Gwen Vaughan offers her version of a Victorian tea. You must call to make reservations, and you must send in your $15 a person in advance.
This is a storybook tea, spread out lavishly buffet-style in the inn's dining room. There are other customers -- about eight when we were there -- but you still feel as if you're having tea in the home of someone you know.
At a side table you pick up a delicate teacup on a plate covered with a doily and a cloth napkin wrapped around a Repousse silver teaspoon. At the head of the table Mrs. Vaughan or one of her two assistants pours tea from a handsome silver service.
You circle the table, starting with the savories. That afternoon they included pretty little canapes of chicken salad with a tiny dab of cranberry, ham salad, and cucumber with minced red pepper. Next around the table was a plate of miniature muffins -- pumpkin, marmalade and pineapple -- filled with more ham and chicken salad.
I've only begun to describe the food. A plate of buttermilk scones and whole-wheat scones with raisins was served with jam, sliced strawberries and whipped cream. If that seemed a bit much, you could move on to the madeleines, spongy and appealing, or the plate of jewel-box tarts: cheesecake, lemon curd, chocolate. At the end was what Mrs. Vaughan called "heart healthy" sweets, which I liked as much as any of them. There were ginger macaroons and homemade gingersnaps, and a moist, delicious banana nut cake.
There were a few missteps here and there. If you're offering only one kind of tea, why make it something as distinctive as Earl Grey, which tea drinkers usually love -- but some don't? The bread under the canapes was quite dry. The cheesecake tartlets were topped with canned-pie-filling cherries. And it didn't make much sense to me to fill the muffins with the same fillings as were on the canapes.
But the experience as a whole pleases -- you can take your plate in by the fire, as we did on a chilly spring afternoon. Or have a seat by the window in the other sitting room and look out at the beautiful gardens. You sit and sip tea and talk with your friends while the afternoon winds down.
Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room, 414 E. 31st St., (410) 889-7112. Afternoon tea Fridays at 3, Saturdays at 2:30 and 4. No smoking. Wheelchair access: no.
Tea at the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room is a totally different animal. Donna Beth Joy Shapiro and her husband, Fred Shoken, are historic preservationists, but that doesn't prevent Ms. Shapiro from serving her afternoon tea with a large dose of funkiness. The tiny tearoom above their antique and gift shop is decorated with gorgeous Victorian wallpaper and oddly mismatched tables and chairs. The unseasonably hot day we were there, Ms. Shapiro and her assistant were in shorts, so there's no need to be formal.
Each table sported a clay pot of herbs along with antique china, some old-fashioned kitchenware and cloth napkins. In the summer Ms. Shapiro grows all the herbs and vegetables she uses for what she calls a "vegetarian tea." While that description may not sound very appealing, the food was exceptionally good.