A tale of two tea rooms, from street to sweet

by Brian Clarey

Tea, or some form of it, is perhaps the world’s most ancient drink besides your basic H2O. And yet tea has become a highly evolved libation over the years, fragmented into relaxing strains of chamomilia, antioxidant camps of green and white, caffeinated morning bursts of breakfast tea and, in the South especially, the bastardized form served over ice with a big ol’ wedge of lemon.

And it’s only natural that relatively hot on the heels of the nation’s renewed love affair with the $4 cup of coffee that tea, once your grandma’s favorite afternoon sipper, is seeing new life.

Near the corner of Elm and McGee streets in downtown Greensboro, a curious landscape of the old and the new, shadows overlap from the corner building that once housed Ritchy’s and the new stack of condominiums next to the retro traffic circle on Greene Street.

A new tea joint opened about here six weeks ago, just across the street from Chuck Cotton’s shoeshine hutch. Mike Heywood, who once worked in the marketing division of the NBA, found a tiny storefront in this new urban strip mall and set about creating his business venture. The result, Calhoun Specialties Brew Bar, builds on the concept of the coffee bar – he’s got all manner of java and an espresso machine – by adding a large menu of teas and signature drinks and a ton of imported beers.

He’s got high-end flavored cigarettes, too, and plans to add cigars once he’s sure the market will bear fruit. And he’s championing a certain make of cheesecake – Junior’s, straight outta Brooklyn – that he serves all day long.

“This is the Mile-High Cheesecake,” he says, pulling an enormous pile of the stuff from the fridge, layers of creamy filling with planks of carrot cake in between. “One slice weighs one pound.”

The storefront, not much bigger than a one-car garage, has two-tone yellow walls with brightly colored art hanging from them and a couple television screens to the rear. There are no teapots; most of the drinks he serves come in those disposable to-go cups with the collar of cardboard on them to keep your fingers from burning.

The crowd hits in the morning, Hetwood says, then starts up again in the afternoon and can roll through the night.

Then there’s the Secret Tea Room in the shopping district on State Street.

This place is a bit more’… I don’t know’… tea-like, with white linen on the tables, electric candle sconces, rosebush chandeliers, an impressionist painting on the wall, an upright piano in the corner and a giant doily separating the dining room from the kitchen.

The full menu includes a selection of soups, salads and sandwiches, and also options for afternoon tea that include pastries, scones, finger sandwiches, jam and clotted cream.

The Knight’s Tea, for example, is a selection of finger sammies – egg salad, chicken salad and pimiento cheese – and a pot of something hot served in a proper teapot and with china.

It makes you want to extend your pinky, to dab at the corners of your mouth with a napkin, to clutch your string of pearls and stifle a giggle.

The sandwiches, by the way, are for the most part delightful. Though the egg salad may have been a bit lacking – I am of the opinion that egg salad is in dire need of capers unless it is served on a salt bagel and washed down with chocolate milk – the chicken salad, delicately herbed, was wonderful and the pimiento cheese, made in-house right down to the roasting of the pimientos themselves, was the best I’ve had.

But Earl Grey is Earl Grey, Oolong is Oolong and pekoe, more or less, is pekoe. Sometimes it is not what you drink, but where you drink it.

And in Greensboro, tea is a many splendored thing.

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