A meal at the new tea room in Ellicott City, Tea on the Tiber, can be a lovely experience, as long as you follow the rules.
The small space, on the ground floor of an interior decorating shop in the historic downtown, is charming, from the crackling fireplace in the front hall to the deep eggplant walls and elaborate china place settings on highly polished wood tables. Classical music plays, and servers drift about in black dresses with white ruffled pinafores.
But patrons who think they can just wander in for a meal will be disappointed. Afternoon tea is served only at 12:30, and high tea, slightly fancier, is only at 3. Reservations -- with a credit card number -- are required.
Not knowing this, I arrived at 12:30 one day without a reservation and was turned away, even though several tables were empty. The reason? No food.
Though customers are always welcome to sit down for a pot of tea with a scone or sweet (as long as tables are available), meals are prepared only for the number of guests expected that day. Manager Toni Johns said she keeps prices low that way.
Once I figured out the reservation system, I went for the 12:30 tea, and, as Johns said, I received a large assortment of food, all within the tea room tradition of items that are soft, sweet, often crustless and always gentle to the taste buds.
The menu, which changes each month, is served on a three-tiered platter. In January, it included creamy, paprika-spiked deviled eggs; white-bread sandwiches of thin cucumber slices and grated cheddar; sandwiches of creamy, mild curried tuna with thin slices of Granny Smith apples; a slice of bread cut into a butterfly shape and spread with a pepper-apricot jelly; a warm, delicious cranberry-orange scone; a small slice of apple-spice bread with cream cheese; and a generous slab of rich chocolate cake, topped with a gold-dusted chocolate-filled truffle. The pretty plates were garnished with green grapes, strawberries, slices of orange and cubes of jack cheese.
Everyone gets the same meal, though patrons can choose toppings for their scones out of a half-dozen choices. I opted for the clotted cream, which tasted slightly cheesy to me, and a sweet tangerine marmalade. When I ordered, my server announced that as a special treat she would give me an additional topping. That was nice, but we're talking about a tiny dollop of pumpkin butter here. She made it sound like she was doing me a tremendous favor.
Diners can also choose their tea, of course, from a list of about 20 that includes green teas, black teas and decaf teas. The teas arrive wonderfully hot, in flowery ceramic pots fitted with steepers.
The 3 p.m. tea, which costs $2 more, is more formal and adds an additional topping and an assortment of desserts instead of a single dessert, Johns said. Children under 10 are not allowed at the 3 p.m. tea.
Children are allowed at the earlier meal, though, and if you request it when making your reservation, you can get a special plate for them, which might include some fruit, cheese and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The tea room, which opened Dec. 9, is owned by Bill and Barbara Andrews, owners of the Source Unlimited design shop in the same building. The tea room is a showcase for items from the shop, and many are for sale, including prints of hunt scenes and floral arrangements, wall sconces and even some furniture. There are also three tables upstairs, which give diners a view of the Tiber River.
The original idea of the tea room was to create a refuge for shoppers, Johns said. But, judging from the pleased comments in the pretty little guest book by the front door, Tea on the Tiber is becoming a destination in its own right.
Tea on the Tiber
Where: 8081 Main St., Ellicott City
Open: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: Afternoon tea is $16; high tea is $18
Food: ** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *