New shop is brewing a teatime tradition

Tea on the Tiber offers patrons English fare in a Victorian setting

Ellicott City

January 26, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Chisha Johnson fondly remembers the daily ritual of afternoon tea at the boarding schools she attended while growing up in England as the daughter of a diplomat.

Now the Columbia resident enjoys introducing the tea habit to her 11-year-old daughter, Elysha.

"We love tea," Johnson said as she and Elysha sat at a corner table on a recent afternoon at Tea on the Tiber, which opened last month on Main Street in historic Ellicott City.

"It's a girls' day, just a time for us," said Johnson, who nibbled on a scone and sipped a chai brew while her daughter ate a cinnamon roll with an apricot blend.

"It's like, nice and cozy," Elysha said of the Victorian tearoom on the first floor of a 203-year-old, three-story stone building at 8081 Main St.

After four years of stops and starts, Tea on the Tiber brewed its first pot of tea Dec. 9. Manager Toni Johns, a tea aficionado, takes pride in the fact that her tearoom hews to the original British model.

"No soups, no salads, no quiches," she said, "American tearooms do that.

"Ours is just what you would get if you were in England," Johns said.

The tearoom serves an early tea at 12:30 p.m. and an afternoon tea at 3 p.m., complete with finger sandwiches, scones and desserts. Smaller items, such as tea and a pastry, are also on the menu.

The business is a collaborative effort of Johns and Barbara and Bill Andrews, owners of the 1801 building that houses the tearoom and the couple's interior design business.

A Main Street fire in 1999 caused severe water and smoke damage to the structure, and the Andrews put roughly $350,000 into the four-year reconstruction and renovation, which includes a deck overlooking the Tiber Branch of the Patapsco River.

In the early stages of the work, the Andrews revisited an idea they had been kicking around for a while.

"We'd have a client who'd be here day after day, hour after hour working on a project," Bill Andrews said. "And we thought it would be nice if we could offer them a cup of tea or a salad.

"Next thing we knew, we went from thinking about serving our clients a little lunch to a full-fledged Victorian tearoom," he said.

The couple brought their friend Johns on board to create the tearoom.

For the tea expert, the project brought back youthful memories of her job in the mid-1970s as a McCormick and Co. "tea hostess." In period dress, she led visitors through the 16th-century village built on the top floor of the spice giant's former Baltimore headquarters on Light Street.

After the tours, she served tea and cookies in McCormick's tearoom.

Johns, who retired in 1996 after more than 30 years as an executive secretary with several Baltimore companies, had no experience in the food industry. But she learned fast as she created an 1850s tearoom, selecting the teas and teacups.

"I tasted literally around 350 teas over the last 3 1/2 years, and had to pare it down to 13," she said.

Johns and Barbara Andrews also traveled to England on a tearoom tour to get ideas on decorations and menus for authenticity.

"I said, `I will never have strawberry jam in here because you can get that at the Giant,' " Johns said.

On a recent afternoon, the tearoom was full for the 12:30 p.m. tea. Silverware clinked against china, and conversations made a low hum.

"It's like being transported back in time," said Kelly Shepherd of White Marsh, who visited the tearoom with her mother.

The women poured tea from individual pots, and a three-tiered silver tray held triangle-shaped cucumber and cheese sandwiches, cranberry-orange scones, cinnamon bread and chocolate bourbon cake.

Victorian style is reflected in the room's aubergine walls and carpet, reproduction molding, heavy draperies and the floral prints and English hunting scenes that adorn the walls.

Johns' plans for the tearoom include serving tea on the new deck in warm weather, and a gift shop in the basement. So far, Johns said the ultimate compliment came when a British couple visited the tearoom.

"The man looked up at me and said, `Thank you,' " she said. " `It's so hard to get a good cup of tea in the States.' "

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