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The Secret Garden Exposed

Marcelory | Dec 10, 200303:10 AM

Craving shelter from sudden rain and political canvassing, I ducked into The Secret Garden teahouse today, four-year-old birthday girl (and her aunt) in tow. The tea house is on the other side of the Canvas Cafe parking lot, and I've been vowing to try it out every time I park at the Canvas. (Lovejoy can be kind of a schlep, way out on Church.)

The decor is frilly pretend-Victorian, extremely brightly lit. It does not invite lingering over a pot of tea. The Secret Garden offers the requisite hats and lacy things for sale, as well as lemon curd and mixes. Christmas carols blared gaily, but could not make up for a lack of warm bodies in the place. We went at 12:30 on a Tuesday, and did not encounter another customer during the hour or so we stayed, although someone arrived as we were leaving.

We ordered packages called the "Bedford's Delight" (the most comprehensive service) which was supposed to come with tea, desserts, scones, and "an assortment of tea sandwiches" ($18.95), the "Oscar's Surprise", which advertised scones and tea ($12.95); and the "Princess tea" for children 12 and under, which was to include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a scone, a mini quiche, and sweets ($13.95).

The waitress appeared put off by my asking for the princess tea's sandwiches without peanut butter. I insisted -- the child in question doesn't eat peanut butter -- and she finally relented. I wondered if an actual child had ever come into the restaurant before. Could it possibly be that complicated to leave off the peanut butter?

We ordered "Cherries in the Snow" tea for one grown-up, something called I think "Lollipop" tea for the little one, and "Russian Breakfast" for myself. The teas were very good -- the menu described the "Russian Breakfast" as "smoky." I'll admit the smell -- almost a smoked-meat smell -- was startling, but it was really a delicious experience. In fact, it was definitely the high point of our meal.

We adults had foolishly expected to share the sandwiches -- until all three orders arrived on one small three-tiered tray. Portions were surprisingly small. The waitress had described the sandwiches in advance as "egg salad," "turkey and cranberry," "smoked salmon," and "cucumber and cream cheese." What my companion got were what appeared to be two-fourths of a turkey sandwich, two-fourths of a cucumber sandwich, one fourth of an open-faced lox sandwich, and a tiny, baked frozen spanikopita triangle.

The child received a small, teddy bear shaped piece of toast spread with jelly, a mini scone and an entire jelly sandwich cut into four pieces. Scones weren't very okay; the blueberry one felt and tasted like blueberry muffin mix. The order came with one container of devonshire cream about the size of a sake cup (for three people) and we needed to request more (loudly).

All sandwiches were criminally light on filling and heavy on bread. I could not taste the turkey at all in the turkey sandwich on wheat, or discern much cucumber in the other sandwich. The bread was moist, spongy, and tasteless. The child's mini quiche -- she offered it to me, saying, "It's good -- taste it!" -- I can absolutely identify as a frozen Nancy's quiche lorraine. I should have known better than to expect a homemade "mini quiche".

The desserts, which were included with the "Bedford's Delight" and "Princess Tea," were two miniature cheesecakes (I think that's what they were; they were about an inch across, and one was perhaps pumpkin-flavored), one petit four, and two brownie bars sprinkled with Oreos and whipped topping. None were tasty, and all appeared to have begun life in a kitchen far distant from Secret Garden.

Amazingly, despite the fact that we were the only people in the restaurant, it was fairly difficult to get the waitress' attention. She never came to check on us once tea was served, not even to offer the bill. Neither cream nor teapot was refilled. Since she was absorbed in some activity with her back to us, we had to shout across the room to get her attention.

When I offered my credit card, I was first told that the credit card machine couldn't accept tips -- I'd have to tip in cash. Then, I was informed that the credit card machine didn't work at all -- but I could write a personal check if I had checks. (I wondered what I was supposed to do if I hadn't happened to have my underused checkbook. Trek out into the rain for an ATM, leaving my child as collateral?)

Overall, tea was most disappointing, to say the least, especially for a birthday and first tea experience for the little one. I am the first person to rail against the American clamor for larger portions, but for $18.95 I think this restaurant can do better than what adds up to a single whole sandwich, a frozen pastry, a brownie bar, a tiny cheesecake, and a pot of tea, given that the atmosphere does not make up the difference and the food is not tasty.

I realize that not every tea house offers what passes for "authentic" English tea, but the menus and decor certainly gave the impression that that's what the owner is aiming for. I gave my mother a bridal shower at a little tea room in Martinez that was not necessarily authentic, but that beat this place all hollow (Camellia Tea Room). I was prepared to shell out $55 for tea for three, but at least at Lovejoy's we wouldn't have left hungry.


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