Thursday, April 22, 2010

regarding tea upon chatsworth

Update: the world can be a fair and pleasant place; the recent library snafu has been resolved.

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For years, I've had an online friendship with Susan, an administrative member of a Yahoo fashion doll group I own and moderate. She and I have been wanting to meet for years, but somehow never got around to it, even after she moved from Irvine down to much closer Carlsbad.

Not long ago, we finally got around to setting something up. On the doll group, I'd recently been playing around with Tea and Whimsy as a fun theme for members to use in their doll projects; this gave Susan the idea of our meeting for tea. I must admit, having tea in a tearoom would never have occurred to me. A clever idea.

The whole idea of modern Americans wanting to experience something as foreign (and relatively expensive) as a proper afternoon tea instead of an ordinary restaurant lunch experience just goes to show you the lengths people will go to in their search for... for what, exactly? For now, I'll call it simply theater. Partaking in a formal tea isn't role-playing the way a Murder Mystery Dinner Party is. But it isn't completely dissimilar.

It amazed me, once I started looking online at sites Susan recommended, just how many tearooms there were in California alone. It was fun to read through the list and various descriptions, and think about which one Susan and I should visit.

To say I approach these sorts of new venues with an open mind is only partly true. I approach them expecting almost anything, and willing to be a good sport. But I don't approach them with the absence of preconceived notions. Going to an English-style tearoom is all about preconceived notions: the refined air, the tasteful china, the soft music, the lack of teenagers with hats on backwards. It's Masterpiece Theater, not Seinfeld.

Before I do a rundown on our tea room experience, I'd like to say how great it was to meet my friend at last. Doing something just a bit out of the ordinary was the right choice.

The day before we met, I did my preproduction work and drove to Tea upon Chatsworth to make sure it was actually what they said it was. It was easy to find in the upscale Point Loma neighborhood, sitting right on a corner (Chatsworth is its namesake street name, conveniently, but it also gives the place a British air-- notwithstanding any unintended reference to the town of Chatsworth, up in the Valley). The lace curtains (and a sign stating that they gave etiquette classes) let me know I was on the right track.

Reservations were taken seriously at T upon C, I gathered, so we arrived the next day in plenty of time. One odd feature was how dark the place appeared from the outside, which fooled us for a few moments into thinking they hadn't yet opened.

The place consisted of one dining room dotted with tables covered in white vintage linens, and the artwork and decor was what I think of as feminine, without being too cloying or overdone. Besides looking closed from the outside, another curiosity was how little information they gave us once the tea service began, as if they assumed we either already knew or didn't care about the details of how things worked. I had told them earlier we'd be having their so-called Afternoon Tea (as opposed to their High Tea, which added soup and dessert to the tiered assortment of tiny finger sandwiches, scones, and crudites). This, apparently, was all we needed to know.

Before long, the tea and tidbits arrived, presented on a tiered silver stand with the expected degree of flowers and elegance. The young waitress hadn't explained anything about how it worked with regard to the varieties of tea on the fascinating tea-list we'd been given. Would the server be going down the list of various exotic varieties as if it were a tasting? Did we have a choice? If so, how many? Service was pleasant but minimal, and for quite some time we never really had a chance to ask. Tea arrived in a pot, steaming and fragrant, and we drank it.

The little amuse bouche, it should be said, were utterly delicious. More importantly, bite for bite, it was all completely in line with my fantasy construct of what tea-foods should be like: the various spreads and cheeses, the berries in tiny paper cups, the chopped fillings and herbs, the absence of bread-crusts. Twice the amount would have been heaven on earth, but I suppose that would have been crass.

We carried on this way for a while, nibbling and chatting and sipping comfortably. Finally we collared the young woman and inquired about the puzzling tea choice procedure. Her answer was vague and curious, something about how when they were busy they keep things moving by selecting teas for you. And then, just as mysteriously as she'd arrived, she was gone.

So, just who were our fellow tea patrons? The place wasn't terribly large, and appeared to be full. By prior arrangement, since mine was the last reservation available for that time-slot, we were actually sharing a table with two other people, although it was large enough that it didn't feel that way.

If an English tea was something of a roleplay for us two middle class American women, I wondered what it seemed like for these two girls who shared our table. Speaking Japanese, likely on vacation, they couldn't have been more than twenty years old. They had arrived late, and then spent the entire time giggling, posing, and taking pictures of each other. They were cheerful girls, and to their credit, conducted all of this business fairly quietly.

The rest of the room seemed filled primarily with nicely dressed ladies who seemed to bring the right spirit to the endeavor, including the party to my left speaking some Eastern European or Slavic language in low tones. These women appeared the most at home, as if going to a tea service was motivated by nostalgia.

This brings me to the large table at the center of the room, a party of women and young girls. Many tearooms apparently provide a tea service for children, with special treats. It seems like a lovely idea, to get dressed up and have a special, fancy time with mom and the favorite teddy bear...

...except that for these women, going to a tearoom meant talking amongst themselves while allowing the children to run around the table again and again, chatter and chirp and flail around incessantly, and then (I'm still talking about the little girls, here) periodically lose themselves in their respective iPods. I wasn't so much offended as I was fascinated that these women would think enough of the idea of going to a tearoom to make the reservations, dress up the girls in pouffy pastels, and drop serious dollars for each moppet, only to let the experience deteriorate into a combination family picnic and electronic device session.

Let me hasten to add, going to this tea service was still a pleasant and entertaining experience. And it was also food for thought. I found myself mulling over how we go about things, whether we feel part of something-- with all its implied obligations-- or like observers on a kind of Disneyland ride. Not everyone brings to a tearoom the idea of doing their part. In many households around the world, the tea-time ritual is simply a fact of life; here, it's more like an escape, a concept, an affectation, a piece of theater. Some simply show up to the theater, while others step in and consider the venue's expectations. There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, but it's worth noting.

Now, I'm about to seem like a whining nitpicker, but bear with me. The staff of the tearoom, while pleasant and polite enough when they actually came by to help, could have benefited from some refresher etiquette lessons, as well. I won't cite all the tiny details, because none of the shortcomings were remarkable or serious.

I only mention it because... well, we are talking about a tearoom, after all. And while this may not be England (or even Boston), and I may not be a Baroness, and this may not be the 19th Century, and none of us believes we actually are tearoom people in real life, well, we are walking in and paying over 25 dollars each for a vaguely-defined yet somehow specific kind of experience. To the extent the endeavor tumbles sideways from that is... of interest.

Eventually, the large party with the distracted young girls all clambered out of their chairs and left, leaving us to ponder the painful sight of much of their exquisite food left uneaten at their table. Wordlessly deciding it probably wouldn't be appropriate to appropriate those exceptional treats for ourselves, Susan and I ate our own last morsels, and finished the final drops of whatever tea they'd brought us.

Everything in our tea service had looked and tasted wonderful. Already I was imagining myself at home, chopping watercress and pimiento. Amidst these plans and fantasies, eventually I managed to get our bill.

Would I go to tea again? Oddly enough, yes. So many tearooms, so little time, right?

Respectfully submitted,


P.S. Why does a seven year-old girl need an iPod at High Tea with her mother, anyway?

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darlingdivadurelle said...

Brenda this was a delightful bit of fluff to read. I enjoyed it so much..............hmmmmmmmmmmmmm makes me think are there TEA rooms in Houston. And............. who should I take with me??
Thanks for the fun.

cloff said...

As an American living in Canada, but from an English family--and I lived in England for a while with my family--I read your blog article with a lot of interest. It is fascinating to read a typical American's perspective on "Tea"! I guess it would be like someone going to any "ethnic" restaurant... I enjoyed it very much. Of course, I've had a lot of Teas, of various sorts. There isn't any real "procedure" except the usual good manners, although my family would have a constant argument as to whether you add the milk before or after you pour the tea. Apparently, the "official" procedure is to add the milk after, so you can guage how much you are putting in. And then there is the crass procedure of just putting milk in the pot... :-( Definitely uncultured, to be sure.

As to kids with iPods running around, it seems that's what we have to put up with these days when you go out to eat. It doesn't seem to matter where you go, it's the same, whether a burger joint or a fancy restaurant. We wouldn't have *dreamed* of doing that when we were kids. My parents would have given me "what for". I think it has to do with people don't even sit down together and eat anymore. So they have no concept of table manners. Too bad. There is something to be said for teaching kids a little "culture" and consideration for others.


brenda cox giguere said...

Probably the same people who would go with you to a bead store...

Great to hear from you, Durelle! It's been ages.

brenda cox giguere said...

Christine, it was great to read your message; thank you so much.

I loved your description of the ongoing family tea discussions.

And you're right about that kind of child behavior being prevalent these days. There's so much I could say in response, but then I'd be writing another blog post instead of a reply!

But I will say that my sister and I were taught to sit and eat our meals and converse pleasantly at the table. Being 'grown up' in a restaurant with our parents was a fun and special treat, not a trauma.

Thank you again, Christine.