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Southern Tea Rooms are Making a Comeback

With its sense of gentility and refinement, it is not surprising that the South is home to some of the most quaint and historic tearooms in the country. Visiting groups can enjoy a traditional high tea experience complete with tiny tea sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream and delicate pastries. Many also include historic tours and other experiences.

Make time for a traditional afternoon tea at one of these tearooms on your next adventure in the South.

Laura’s Tea Room

Ridgeway, South Carolina

Laura’s Tea Room opened in an abandoned general store on Main Street Ridgeway, South Carolina, in 2008. When the tearoom moved in, only one other Main Street business was in operation. Fast forward 11 years, and the area is thriving.

Carol Allen, owner of the tearoom, says she always loved Ridgeway. She would always bring visitors to see the beautiful architecture of the nearly empty main street.

“It had such a feeling about it,” she said. “It still had such a small-town feel, a Southern town, you just wanted to come and walk the streets. It is like stepping back in time. I can’t explain the feeling of this town.”

Allen had had her eye on the old mercantile building for years. She had approached the owner of the building numerous times, and he finally agreed to lease it to her. She purchased it last year.

She opened a gift shop, a cafe and a tearoom. Offering afternoon tea and high tea, Laura’s serves its delicacies on antique china, with real silver and linen napkins. Because it is the South, Allen serves sweet tea along with a pot of hot tea at all her tea services. She has 120 different teas from which to choose and, of course, homemade scones with Devonshire cream and homemade lemon curd. All patrons at high tea get a bowl of soup and a three-tiered tray packed with miniature sandwiches, savories and pastries.

Flour Box Tea Room and Café

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Milla and Mike Ranieri lived in England for a while and were enchanted by the many tearooms they sampled there. When they came back to North Carolina, they decided to open a tearoom in Old Salem, a historic village in Winston-Salem. As they were preparing to take over a vacant bakery space, a restaurant space opened up down the block, and they decided to make the jump. That was more than three years ago, and the Flour Box has grown a dedicated tea-drinking clientele from all over North Carolina.

The Flour Box offers three tea services: cream tea, which is a pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam; light tea, which includes the cream tea and a tray of tiny desserts; and full tea, which includes the cream tea, a tray of pastries and a tray of savory options like miniature tea sandwiches and tiny meat pies.

“She has really put her heart and soul into the tearoom,” Mike Ranieri said of his wife, Milla. “She bakes the best scones in North Carolina.”

This month, the tearoom is moving to the historic Shaffner House, which was built in 1907 and is two blocks from the Flour Box’s Old Salem location.

“The house has museum quality,” Mike said. “When you walk into the house, you speak a little softer and your eyes get a little wider, and it is just very beautiful.”

It is also bigger than the Old Salem location, allowing it to accommodate even more people who have become entranced with Milla’s cooking.

Eckhart House

Wheeling, West Virginia

In a grand Victorian townhome that was built in 1892, the Eckhart House exudes elegance and charm. Guests of this tearoom are seated in the original dining room, with overflow seated in the adjacent men’s parlor. Gretchen and Joe Figaretti, owners of the historic home, offer tea luncheon at noon and afternoon tea at 3. Tea luncheon includes assorted tea sandwiches, fresh fruit, scones with cream and jam, confections and a choice of 20 gourmet teas.

The house was built by George Eckhart, an up-and-coming banker who wanted to show off his wealth with a home on what was then called Millionaire’s Row. He wasn’t allowed to purchase property on the river side of the street, so he bought a duplex across the street, knocked it down and built a “rather spectacular house, not quite the size of the grand houses across the street but over-the-top stupendous with all the latest technologies and amenities they didn’t have in their houses over there,” said Joe Figaretti.

Eckhart hired a newspaper reporter to write an article about the wonders of his home. It had electricity, a telephone and gas heat. The Queen Anne home has some of the finest woodwork in the country and is “quite a spectacular house to have tea in because its history is pervasive,” he said.

The Figarettis also offer historic walking tours of Wheeling and do a presentation of the home’s history to tearoom patrons.

Belle Grove Plantation Bed-and-Breakfast

King George, Virginia

In 2013, Michelle and Brett Darnell opened a bed-and-breakfast at Belle Grove, a plantation home. The birthplace of U.S. President James Madison, the house was built in 1797 of limestone quarried on the property. The site is run by a nonprofit that continues to restore buildings on the plantation.

The house was restored in 2003 but sat vacant until Darnell took it over. She spent six months outfitting the house with furniture and accessories from the 1790s to the mid-1800s.

“That’s what people want to see when they come to a historical location like this,” said Michelle. The big difference between Belle Grove and other historic homes is that people can sit on her furniture.

“We want our home to feel like you are living in it, not standing and observing it,” she said.

The B&B is not only a wonderful place to stay but also a historic site, a tearoom and an event venue.

Visitors who come for tea are presented with a three-tiered tray of miniature goodies that includes two flavors of scones, three different tea sandwiches and a selection of petite desserts. The menu is constantly changing. Groups can also take tours of the home.

“Our teas are specially blended for us,” said Michelle. “It took me about two months with our in-house chef to work with another lady who does the blending for us. We have 10 different flavors that are very popular. They are exclusive to us and are not sold anywhere else.”

The tearoom is known for its themed teas, including Elvis, Civil War, Titanic and Mad Hatter’s teas.

Empress of Little Rock

Little Rock, Arkansas

Grand high tea at the Empress of Little Rock is quite the production, with food served on crystal, silver and china, and servers dressed in long skirts and Victorian aprons. Patrons are taken on a tour of the former Hornibrook Mansion, which was completed in 1888, and are then taken into the tearoom, where they sample Irish cream scones with clotted cream and lemon curd, as well as tea sandwiches and homemade pastries, like johnnycakes and oatmeal tea bread with apricots and brandy. Between the dessert and the sandwich course, guests are presented with lemon-scented finger bowls and towels to dry their hands.

The Gothic Queen Anne-style home is decorated as it would have been in the 1880s. It has 14-foot ceilings and multiple levels of friezes and moldings, all painted different colors. The Empress has been open as a bed-and-breakfast and a tearoom for 24 years. Visitors recognize it as the home in the opening credits of the television show “Designing Women.”

“We make our own tea,” said Sharon Welch-Blair, who owns the Empress with her husband, Robert Blair. It is a raspberry zinger with orange, cinnamon and cloves.

“We try to do things a little different,” she said. “People don’t want the same old thing all the time. We make everything ourselves. None of this comes out of the store.”