Back in the 1800s, tea rooms were a liberating social arena where women could dine without men. Casual, yet sophisticated and quaint, the tea room popularized eating in courtyards. Today, tea rooms tend to pop up in area churches, where the women of the congregation make classic Southern versions of soups, salads, and sandwiches and welcome the community in to dine, raising money on behalf of charities.
Every summer, during Spoleto, Grace Episcopal Church hosts a popular tea room in Hanahan Hall.
"It's a tried and true formula," says chairwoman Susan Cromwell. "People expect to be able to order certain dishes."
The Grace Episcopal tea room has been around for 20 years; this is Cromwell's first as chair. The entire operation is run by volunteers, who spend a month prepping the food, cooking 500 pounds of chicken, and making soups, which are then frozen, for the 11 days of the tea room.
Cromwell says her favorite dish is the crab soup ($4), which is cooked fresh daily, made with butter and cream, worcestershire sauce, Old Bay, and finished with sherry. It tastes like a bisque
"It's incredibly rich and incredibly good," Cromwell says.
Other soups the tea room serves are traditional okra ($4) and tomato ($4), which is seasoned with basil and sour cream.
There are other tea rooms in Charleston, including the permanent Time Well Spent in Summerville and an annual one at St. Philip's Church. Almost all tea houses offer similar staple menu items like salads, sandwiches and desserts made from recipes you're likely to find out in the Junior League's classic cookbook Charleston Receipts.
All the food at Grace Tea room is made from scratch. The lemonade ($2) is fresh squeezed. The Dijon butter poppyseed spread, featured on the big black oak ham biscuit ($4), is made fresh.
Kids can order the peanut butter and blackberry jam sandwich on white bread ($3), while adults nosh on dished shrimp remoulade ($8). Cromwell says the shrimps are peeled and boiled each morning, then tossed in a mustard-mayonnaise dressing. The chicken salad ($7) is made with celery, toasted almonds, and pineapple.
The desserts ($4) are also homemade by the volunteers at Grace. A big slice of cake will come served with freshly-whipped cream, plated with an edible wild flower.
The great prices for quality dishes, prepared in Grace's busy little kitchen, make the tea room a no-brainer stop for lunch. A piano player serenades diners. Original art for sale hangs on the walls of Hanahan Hall. Grace's courtyard is also set up for outdoor seating, making the tea room experience even more picturesque.
When you eat at Grace Tea Room, you're also supporting charities in the tri-county. Every year, 100 percent of proceeds from lunch sales are donated to organizations like Darkness to Light, the Lowcountry Food Bank, and Bishop Gadsden's Residents Assistance Fund. Last year, Grace raised $35,000 for 20 different organizations.
This year, the tea room added delivery to their service. Tourists in town for Spoleto are also encouraged to eat at Grace.
The tea room is open from May 30 to June 10, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and will be closed on Sunday for church. It's a hidden treasure in Charleston, ladies (and men) who lunch, won't want to miss.