It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best place to take afternoon tea is at Kensington Palace, London in the company of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. The second-best place is also in London, in the Palm Court of the Ritz, which has “the most flattering light in Europe” (according to the novelist Helen Simpson). But the third best place is in Greenport, New York, at the freshly-minted Special Teas. While not as exclusive as the first or as rosily-lit as the second, the place has a quirky charm all its own. Owner Debbie Schade and her twenty-three-year-old daughter Victoria (who is known as Tory) get the eccentricity quotient just right, from the mismatched bone china tea cups to the edible violet that adorns a dish of excellent roasted carrot and turmeric hummus. Occupying the two front rooms and back garden of an early American Queen Anne-style building, the white linen-and-frills setting is perfect, too. On a recent Saturday, a pair of ladies in straw hats were eating cucumber sandwiches from tiered trays and they looked right at home.
Three years in the making, the tea room came about because Schade, who also runs the hair salon in the back, needed a place to show off her extensive collection of vintage tea ware. She loved the idea of afternoon tea, but when she embarked on a tasting tour, she was underwhelmed by the stodgy cakes, indifferently brewed tea, and scones that were less than freshly baked that she was served at tea rooms in New York. “I was shocked at how not-good they all were,” she says. She felt sure that she could do better. And so, with Tory’s help, she set out to bring a small piece of the U.K. to Greenport.
What the pair have done is very good indeed. More than thirty-five loose leaf teas are on offer from Harney & Sons and Le Palais des Thés. Their dainty currant scones are fresh-made every day by a talented local baker and served with apricot jam and rose petal cream. Shortbread is lightly flecked with lavender from the lavender farm in East Marion. There’s the obligatory lemon drizzle cake. There’s an uncommon rum raisin chocolate cake that also happens to be gluten-free. Also on the menu are inventive savory items such as finger sandwiches filled with egg salad and flavored with lovage from Schade’s garden; and ginger, pecorino, and rosemary shortbreads.
Naturally, their vision of tea is a marriage of North Fork style and Anglo tradition. That means special evenings with a local henna artist and glasses of fresh mint tea as it is taken in Morocco; rose-flavored tea for bridal parties; and an Indian-themed afternoon with masala chai and lots of little curried things. As the summer progresses and the weather gets warmer, they go bit a wild with iced tea. Recent concoctions have involved peach, watermelon, mango, and kiwi juice (though not all in the same glass). Somehow, anything on ice tastes better under the wisteria arbor in the garden. “Isn’t it divine? It’s like Provence back there!” Schade exclaims. As the English say: Quite.