News & Record Feature on Afternoon Tea at the O.Henry

By Angie Decola

“Come along inside… We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place.”
– Kenneth Grahame, “The Wind in the Willows”

A friend of mine gave my daughter a pretty little tea set for her second birthday, and Camille now loves hosting tea parties for her bear, bunny, and baby-doll friends. So, for a special holiday season treat, I thought I’d have her join me for a rather more adult tea party, just the two of us (and one of the bears — Pumpkin Bear).

One blustery late afternoon, just after Camille woke from her nap, we set off on our outing, planning to take in the O.Henry Hotel’s holiday décor along with the tea, and finishing with a drive-by tour of all the festively lit houses we could find.

The Green Valley Grill at the O.Henry is one of my favorite local spots for weekend brunch, especially in the warmer months when I can dine in the lush and intimate courtyard. Outside at the Grill always seems more casual, more easygoing and comfortable, than the restaurant itself, which to my mind can tend toward feeling stuffy. It’s not that the hosts aren’t welcoming or the service friendly and warm; it’s maybe the loftiness of the interior, the grand height of the ceilings, that makes dining inside seem more of a formal affair.

The same sense of formality pervades the hotel’s social lobby, which is warm with richly paneled wood walls and ceilings (lofty as the Grill’s) and appointed with elegantly upholstered sofas and wingback chairs, arranged for intimate conversations over tea.

My first thought upon walking through the graceful revolving door was, “I hope this was a good idea.” My daughter, after all, is only 2, and so can be unpredictable to say the least.

A single imbiber and a group of four were finishing up as we arrived, and another table of two sat drinking tea from dainty cups, talking quietly, and eating small sandwiches and scones. We found a cozy spot, a table with two comfortable chairs next to a wide wooden column. Our hostess brought a menu, with a selection of teas as well as a choice of simple to more elaborate accompaniments.

The simplest, called “Cream Tea,” includes freshly baked scones, clotted cream, and preserves with a pot of tea. The “Afternoon Tea” adds to that a circle of white bread (crustless) topped with cucumber and cream cheese, a shortbread cookie, a brownie, and a spicy cheese wafer. And the “O.Henry Tea” promises the above plus a toasted slice of baguette topped with chicken salad, a triangle of wheat bread topped with pimiento cheese, and assorted fruits.

We decided on the “O.Henry,” with a pot of Earl Grey for me, and hot chocolate for Camille (hot chocolate not included in the cost of the tea and goodies).

We relaxed into our comfortable chairs, soaking up the ambience, the gentle classical music, the holiday spirit in the air. A lovely pot of hot tea poured into a dainty china cup with turbinado sugar cubes, an elegant little plate bearing a sampling of treats, and Camille’s warm chocolate milk sated us further. Camille especially loved the cinnamon sugar-dusted apple scone and the chicken salad. She even tried a couple of sips of my tea, carefully holding the fragile cup in her little hands.

I had a picture in my mind of what this tea would bring, complete with tiered stands brimming with scones, finger sandwiches and other treats. Perhaps it was the plural wording on the menu – “freshly baked scones … assorted sweets and fruit, spicy cheese wafers”- that led me to this vision. Perhaps it’s a mythical picture of what afternoon tea is all about — abundance, luxury. Perhaps it was only wishful thinking. In truth, the tiny plate held more than enough for an afternoon snack, but the made-from-scratch treats were tasty enough to leave me wanting just a little bit more.

During the course of our tea, we made several trips to admire the impressive, glowingly lit Christmas tree, located just outside the lobby in a small courtyard, where we could smell the tantalizing aromas coming from the kitchen. Camille’s hand in mine, Bear’s hand in hers, we circled the tree.

On the drive home, Camille held Pumpkin Bear up to the window and pointed out all the lit up houses and trees, the colorful balls of lights dangling exotically over the street. “I see more, Bear! I see more! Oh my!”

Afternoon tea takes place at the O.Henry daily, throughout the year, but is particularly popular in the colder months and especially around the holidays. As the holidays approach, reservations are recommended. (Incidentally, a special holiday tea takes place the first two Sundays in December and is quite a bit more involved and expensive than the everyday tea. Reservations are necessary.)

Asking this afternoon ritual to make the world a better place may be asking too much, but the pleasure of a leisurely afternoon tea at the O.Henry Hotel certainly turned one winter afternoon of mine into a lovely, relaxing and better one.

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