Legend has it that in the mid-eighteenth century the Duchess of Bedford, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, served an afternoon tea as a way of holding her hungry guests over until the evening meal arrived.
That move inspired a trend that leads to the opening of tea houses around the world. After visiting many tea houses over the years, I can say that there are three ingredients that make up the perfect tea house: impeccable service, tasty finger foods and teas plus a decor that’s a little vintage and lot of calm.
Here is a list of some of my favourites:
Abigail’s, St. George –As soon as my daughter and I stepped into Abigail’s Tea House, the charming ambience surrounded us like a comforting blanket. It was in the large birdcage chandeliers that hung from the tin ceiling, gorgeous pink and green peacock wallpaper and French tufted bench by the door.
It’s not easy to pull off the perfect tea house but husband and wife Lorene and Ivan White nailed it. When the couple moved to St. George from Toronto in 2012, they bought the 1911 building located at the corner of the main street and began renovations. After many months, they transformed it into the classic English tea house that exists today.
The pink and green colour scheme is seen throughout, in the striped cushions that cover the benches, the grass green walls and light green tables and give it a calming feel.
They also got the menu right and, of all the tea houses we visited, their High Tea was definitely the most abundant. High Tea ($35 per person) started with a small fruit salad, with sliced bananas, grapes, strawberries and blackberries, followed by a small plate of crackers served with delicious aged cheddar pimento cheese. Then came a delicious garden salad topped with a carrot that was sliced to look like a tulip.
The three-tiered tray was overflowing with fluffy scones, fruit and berries, Devonshire cream and jam, plus sandwiches. We barely had room for dessert which included delicious date squares, butter tarts and sugar cookies.
No tea house is complete without a wide selection of teas and Abigail’s has more than 40 loose leaf teas, including their own blend of Raspberry Cream Earl Grey. Service was impeccable and the icing on the cake that made the visit so perfect. Our visit to Abigail’s was a charming experience and we will definitely be back.
Langdon Hall, Cambridge – If you ranked tea houses like cars then Langdon Hall could be the Cadillac for its elegant decor and beautiful country setting. The red-brick mansion is set back on a beautifully landscaped yard that seemed to go on for miles. The original building at Langdon Hall dates back to 1898 and, while there have been many renovations since then, the old historic charm still emanates from the walls.
I was there as part of a birthday group and we were seated in one of the spacious rooms that allow for complete privacy. Their Afternoon Tea ($50 per person) consisted of buttermilk scones, honey butter, house-made preserves and Devon cream as well as desserts that included carrot cake and spiced zucchini whoopee pie.
An added bonus to the setting is that you can walk off the desserts on the beautiful trails afterwards. While the decor was second to none, I wasn’t as bedazzled with their menu as I’d hoped as some of the sandwiches were a little dry and I found the desserts a little too sweet. Still, Langdon Hall is a very magical place and perfect for those special occasions.
Taylor’s Tea Room, Dundas – Taylor’s may be smaller in size than Langdon but it has all the charm and ambience of its big sister tea houses. Located on the main street of Dundas for more than 20 years, the tea room has a cozy atmosphere that seats around 25 people and lends itself to long intimate chats with a good friend. In the winter months, the fireplace adds even more ambience.
Afternoon Tea ($30 per person) includes an assortment of tea sandwiches (egg salad, cucumber and salmon) as well as a delicious scone with jam and cream cheese plus a dessert plate of macaroons, butter tarts and chocolate. There’s more than enough to split it for two, which is what my friend and I did. I added the roasted butternut squash soup which was the best I’ve ever had.
Taylor’s has become so popular that it’s suggested you arrive before noon to get a seat.
Tea at the White House, Waterdown – It’s the little things that make a big statement at tea houses and one of them is the teacup. One thing I noticed right away at Tea at the White House was how perfectly the teacup handle fit into one’s finger. As it turned out, it’s one of the reasons co-owners and partners Connor Skingley and Andrew May chose them.
Andrew said they tested several before choosing the lovely white cups, which speaks to the attention to detail brought to this gorgeous tea house. Tea at the White House originally opened in 1999 in the white house (hence the name) in downtown Waterdown.
The popular spot closed quite suddenly (it is now the Waterdown Tea House) and it was a nice surprise when, two and a half years ago, it reopened at 35 Main Street North. The new tea house has an open, airy feel with light grey walls, dark floor and large windows.
Many of their 220 varieties of loose leaf tea are on display behind the counter. The Afternoon Tea ($30 per person) consists of English sweet scones with English cream and homemade jam. The finger sandwiches, like egg salad with chives, were delicious and dessert included sugar crunch shortbread, chocolate mousse and a small triple chocolate brownie.
If you have young ones under 12, they offer a prince/princess tea for $19 per person.
Waterdown Tea House, Waterdown – The Waterdown Tea House has the advantage of being in a gorgeous historic home that has great bones. The wonderful ambience that comes with older homes makes it perfect for a cosy high tea experience. It also has a lovely patio which is opened during the warmer months.
The High Tea ($30 per person) includes treats, imported Devonshire cream and preserves plus a small pot of loose leaf tea. The crustless sandwiches made from egg salad, cucumber and cream cheese, smoked salmon on cream cheese and salmon pâté. The service is always perfect with staff who treat you like royalty.
Tea Amos, Hamilton – If you can’t make it to a tea house, you can always have the tea house come to you. That’s the idea behind Heather and Marian Peters’ traveling tea house which they’ve been running since June of 2019. The mother-daughter team came up with the idea to renovate a vintage trailer and host birthdays, anniversaries, showers, weddings and corporate events at people’s homes and other locations.
“We come from a big Irish family, so coming together with family and friends over tea has always been a part of our lives. We are so happy that we can now share that experience with others, with our mobile tea services!”
The two will come to your home or business with their trailer and serve hot loose leaf teas, iced loose leaf teas, locally roasted coffee and dainty treats like raspberry cake rolls, shortbread, and cookies. Dainty sandwiches are also available for smaller groups.
A friend who had the tea house trailer at her home for her birthday loved it. As Heather said, “The idea behind it is to bring the afternoon tea experience to people, whether it’s someone’s front door or a summer market.”
Pricing depends on the number of people and location.
The author was a guest of Abigail’s and Tea at the White House, however, they did not review or edit this article before publication.
COVID UPDATE (as at June 3, 2020)
Tea at the White House has been offering curbside pickup with local home delivery on Friday and Saturday and parcel delivery for most items shipped across Canada. They even shipped an order to the Yukon. While their doors remain closed to the public, they have been offering Afternoon Tea Takeaway, which includes sandwiches, sweets and scones) from Friday to Sunday Curbside from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. They plan to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so and have been following recommendations made by public health agencies.
Langdon Hall has been closed to the public but plan to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.
Taylor’s Tea Room has been offering curbside drop off or pick up with orders made between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Abigail’s Tea House has been offering takeaway High Tea and plan to reopen when it is safe.
Waterdown Tea House has been offering weekend curbside pickup and plans to reopen their inside restaurant and their patio soon, according to public health rules.