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Kid-Testing San Francisco's Tea Party Scene

One father’s foray into the English tea room boom, with hopped-up children in tow.

SLIDESHOW

Clinking teacups at Sip Tea Room.

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At Crown and Crumpet, each kid meal comes on a three-tier serving tray. 

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Sip co-owner Shannon de Leon.

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Crown and Crumpet might be the pinkest tearoom in town.

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Even kids get to use the fine china at Sip.

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A display of macarons at Crown and Crumpet.

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One of the perils of accompanying a group of five- and six-year-olds to a full-service tea party: You turn around for half a minute, and suddenly the girls in your charge have finished an entire pot of tea—the definitely caffeinated kind that was intended for their grown-up chaperone. So it was that we entered into the sugar-buzzed, accidentally overstimulated portion of the festivities, punctuated by a child’s delighted shrieks: “The tea has caffeine! The tea has caffeine!”

But don’t let my failings dissuade you from partaking in one of San Francisco’s finest family traditions: bringing the kids out for English-style afternoon tea. The modern parenting canon seems to be built around the premise that children need to be able to run around constantly. When you bring kids out to tea, the entire affair is, well, remarkably civilized. They might get dressed up in their fanciest outfits. They might learn the difference between the Cornwall-style scone-eating method (jam first, then clotted cream) and the Devon (the reverse). They’ll almost certainly have to sit still for a long stretch of time.

In fact, Shannon de Leon, co-owner of newcomer Sip Tea Room, argues that going out for tea is one of the best ways to teach kids restraint: “Will they eat the last tea sandwich,” she asks, “or pass it to their neighbor?” All told, the kids in my party could hardly have behaved better.

In most cities, you’re lucky if you can find a single tearoom that offers an afternoon tea prix fixe for kids. San Francisco now has no fewer than four. So I went to all of them, kids in tow. My own daughter, Zoë, had never gone out for afternoon tea before. Now she wants to go every week.

Pretty in Pink
Crown and Crumpet (1746 Post St.) is arguably the pinkest and most pastel-tinted of San Francisco’s tearooms, chock-full of whimsical details like a “faerie door”—through which children can slip tiny, folded-up correspondence—and Queen Elizabeth II grinning at you through the glass tabletop. But at least during our visits, it also had the most diverse cross section of customers, thanks in part to its location in the heart of Japantown. The regular clientele includes a large contingent of cosplayers and Lolita girls whose voluminous Victorian-style ruffled skirts and steampunk petticoats fit right in. (At the time, the kids just stared, wide-eyed; afterward, Zoë confided that she loved the fancy-looking dresses and the one girl’s bright-orange hair.) Mostly, the crowd seems to skew younger. Not only little girls out to tea with their moms—or dads (hi!)—but also twentysomething couples and mixed-gender groups of millennial art-school types.

“We did not want to do a Grandma’s Ye Olde-y tea salon,” explains Amy Dean, who runs the shop along with her husband, Christopher, a real live Brit.

Located on the first floor of the New People building, in a tiny café area barely cordoned off by a rope, Crown and Crumpet is an ideal kid space—bright, colorful, fun. Each order of the Nursery Tea ($18) comes on an individual three-tier serving tray, which lends a suitable degree of fanciness to the occasion. A seven-year-old in our group at first deemed a crustless egg-salad finger sandwich to be “too eggy” (“I would like it if it didn’t have that many eggs”), only to later declare it one of her favorites. There were no such qualifications about the warm, berry-splotched scones, which they dispatched in short order, or the $5 “Crown Craft” add-on—during our visit, it was a pair of wooden holiday ornaments to decorate between bites. From one harried parent to another: This was five dollars well spent.
Dad's Score: 3.5 Stars
Kid's Score: 4 Stars


Everyday Tea Party 
Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, Shannon de Leon would like to point out that Sip Tea Room (721 Lincoln Way) isn’t mainly a tearoom for children. When she and Paula Dinnell opened their English-style tearoom in the Inner Sunset this past August, they did want it to be a place where parents could bring their kids. Looking around the landscape of teahouses in the Bay Area, they felt that afternoon tea had become too rarefied compared with what Dinnell had experienced growing up in Liverpool. In England, she says, “You don’t have to dress up. You don’t have to wear a hat.”

Which isn’t to say that going out for tea at Sip is a pedestrian affair. Most of us don’t whip out our prettiest bone china often enough at home to be that jaded. But the room is, as the owners intended, an everyday kind of place. That goes for the Children’s Afternoon Tea option, too, which at $14 is a few bucks less than most of the competition. Dollar for dollar it might be the best value, as the meal comes with a choice of sandwich (the ones with a Nutella-like chocolate-hazelnut spread came out tops for our crowd), a scone, strawberry preserves, clotted cream, fresh fruit, a cookie, and a small pot of non-caffeinated tea or milk—or, if you leave the children to their own devices, as I did, a large mug of frothy hot chocolate. Yes, it’s true: Afternoon tea with kids can easily devolve into afternoon chocolate overload. Not that anyone complained.
Dad's Score: 3 Stars 
Kid's Score: 2.5 Stars

 

Sweet Tooth Royalty
Any discussion of the ultra-formal, $45-a-kid Prince and Princess Tea that’s offered on Saturday afternoons at the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court restaurant (2 New Montgomery St.) should begin and end with the gargantuan, foot-long, rainbow-swirl-colored lollipop—er, “scepter”—that each child is presented with moments after being seated, along with a bejeweled tiara/crown. With that one masterstroke, your kid’s day is made—and any hope of responsible parenting is dashed to pieces. (“When can I eat the lollipop, Dad?” “Now?” “How about now?”)

The Garden Court’s soaring glass-dome atrium is probably the most majestic setting you can bring your kid to for tea. It’s also the most expensive, and there isn’t really any justifying the $45 price tag. What that buys you, mainly, is fancy presentation. My daughter very much approved of a PB&J that had the jelly in the middle and the peanut butter, plus a scattering of rainbow sprinkles, on top.

Anyway, it’s not as though the six-year-old, tiara-wearing princess in my party minded the expense. And talk about getting your money’s worth: A month later, the remains of that damn lollipop were still sitting in my fridge.
Dad's Score: 2.5 Stars
Kid's Score: 3.5 Stars


A San Francisco Classic
No rundown of kid-friendly tearooms would be complete without a round of applause for Lovejoy’s Tea Room (1351 Church St.), a frequent entrant in various lists of destination-worthy kid activities in San Francisco since the early ’90s. Where other tearooms may take a more modern approach, Lovejoy’s goes full-on British grandmother’s parlor room, what with the church ladies’ hats and the multitude of antiquey tchotchkes and everyone, kids included, dressed to the frilly nines like they’re modeling for a Victorian-era clothing catalog.

Where Lovejoy’s shines is in the little touches. Parents will appreciate the fresh fruit that comes with every Wee Tea ($18.95)—and not nonsense fruit but, say, a Mission fig that my daughter, a true Bay Area girl, said was “as good as the one from the farmers’ market.” Kids will appreciate the amount of choice—they can pick any sandwich on the menu, and a server comes around with a plate of petits fours for them to select from—and the fact that hot chocolate comes in its own little teapot, to be poured into a dainty teacup sitting on a saucer on a plate. It all feels very special.

No wonder my daughter kept sighing contentedly throughout the meal: “This is so much fun.”
Dad's Score: 3 Stars
Kid's Score: 3 Stars

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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