Maybe it’s because I miss my mom, who lives in Canada and who I haven’t seen in more than a year, but sitting in Camellia Tea Room on a Thursday afternoon surrounded by women made me feel nostalgic; warmed from the inside.
There was the group of 12-or-so ladies in their 50s and 60s around a big table in the middle, catching up over teapots and champagne cocktails and three-tiered trays piled with scones and finger sandwiches. Then there were the two women at the table next to me, one of whom said she wasn’t really a tea drinker but couldn’t believe how fantastic the mango tango tasted. There was Heather McLaughlin, Benicia’s City Attorney, who comes for lunch almost every weekday.
And then there was the staff: Maryellen Hayes, who opened the Tea Room in 1995 with her daughter Casey Garcia; Beth Cruz, Maryellen’s other daughter, who joined the team ten years ago; Lisa, who has served there for 17 years, and Madonna and Claire, weaving through the packed room seamlessly as classical piano streamed softly through the speakers.
My at-home tea repertoire consists mostly of peppermint or lemon ginger, so I decided to branch out during my visit and ordered the best seller: Blue Lady. It’s a flavored black tea with coconut cream, strawberry, kiwi, and blue flowers, and arrived in a blue and white pot. My amateur palette couldn’t discern the strawberry or kiwi, but the coconut came through, rich and smooth. There are more than 40 loose-leaf options on the menu, and you can enjoy the ritual with a combination of finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, or, like I did, with lunch.
The Tea Room is known for its Stuffed Potato and Tomato Bisque, but I opted for the Italian Tuna Salad Sandwich with a cup of the day’s special: French Onion Soup. The soup came first, served with cubes of french bread drenched beneath deeply flavorful onion broth and topped with grated cheese. When the sandwich arrived, a generous layer of Albacore salad, lettuce, tomato and capers between thick slices of herbed focaccia, I was happily topping up my tea and admiring the bronze and white wallpapered ceiling. (The sandwich, too, was delicious.)
As it turns out, the ornate patterned wallpaper — from local company Bradbury & Bradbury — was part of the inspiration to open a Tea Room. “We thought about what would work in this space,” says Casey, who, along with Maryellen, researched the tea tradition extensively prior to opening. “Tea is about bring people together. It enables you to slow down, take a break in your day, and enjoy the company of friends and family.”
While the business started out as primarily an afternoon tea spot, the demand for lunch items was apparent, and the menu soon expanded. Chef Brandie Wendt creates a range of salads (including Cashew Chicken and Shrimp Avocado) and Sandwiches (such as Chicken Artichoke Salad and White Cheddar and Housemade Pickle), while Casey and Maryellen bake desserts. I have sampled both the Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding and a Lemon Tartlet, and both are must-tries for sweet tooths.
Whether you’re a tea drinker or not, visit Camellia Tea Room. Bring your mom or daughter or sister or friend. Bring the aunt who misses you. Bring someone who could use a little extra love. “We treat our customers like family,” says Beth, “and that’s why a lot of people come back.”
Camellia Tea Room
828 First St., Benicia