Just Your Cup of Tea

A How-To on Brunch
by Andrea Roth
From crepes and pastries to salads and quiches, a brunch provides a great opportunity to pamper friends but doesn’t have to require a lot of effort. Small touches like cloth napkins and personalized place settings with fresh flowers can easily create a feeling of indulgence.

Maria Taylor’s cardinal rule is that brunch should always be a light meal. The owner of Maria’s Tea Room on Prospect Road is also a big believer in using only the freshest ingredients.

“I don’t even buy pre-cut. I use whole, fresh ingredients from lettuce to eggs,” she said. “I don’t buy produce in large quantities… you make a better product (with fresh ingredients).” Twice a week, a Chicago bakery delivers fresh bread for sandwiches and croissants to the quaint tea room. One customer favorite is The Landmark sandwich, layered with ham, grilled apples, tomatoes, lettuce, bacon and cheese on rye bread. For the guys, a big hit is the tea room’s cold roast beef sandwich topped with a mayonnaise, radish and lemon sauce.

But one brunch recipe kept under lock and key hails partly from Maria’s childhood in Mexico. She fashioned her specialty quiche—a baked dish primarily of eggs and milk—after the torta, a traditional Spanish sandwich. Over the years, Maria crafted a lighter version of the Spanish torta and her feta cheese, bacon and spinach quiche is a best-seller. “Nowadays we are always skipping breakfast without getting a protein and a veggie…and you get all of it with (a quiche),” Maria said. “We also serve a side of the day, but it’s not French fries. We have broccoli walnut salad or apple almond salad and we cut everything (the same) morning.”

A daily, late afternoon break—typically taken around 3 or 4 pm—is common in England to enjoy some tea and a light snack. While Americans took to brunch—adding many breakfast items to the menu—the English tea time didn’t work out so well since such a late snack could spoil an appetite. “Everyone in England will break for tea…it’s usually lighter than what we’re going to serve here. We serve a high tea—it’s more of a full meal,” said Jerry Gillam, who co-owns Her Majesty’s English Tea Room in Dunlap with his wife Jackie. While cucumber sandwiches are always a staple at Her Majesty’s, anything goes. “There are no golden rules,” Jerry said of their brunch offerings.

Finger foods and salads are perfect for friends to munch on before a second course because they’re satisfying but not quite filling, and you can get creative with displays. At The Tearoom at the Depot in Mackinaw, owners Josh and Kathleen Virkler serve crackers with scoops of honey butter, blackberry butter or pumpkin butter as an appetizer. At many tearooms guests are treated to three-tiered trays boasting their selections. Her Majesty’s offers warm scones and pastries served with clotted cream and preserves. And if you want to bring a bit of English flair home, scone mixes are available in the adjoining gift shop. Their middle tier offers a more filling selection like sandwiches, and the top tier holds a yummy dessert.

If your goal is to stick with an English brunch theme, put the kettle on, keep the hot water boiling and offer a selection of teas from which to choose. Her Majesty’s serves and sells Yorkshire Gold—a black tea to be served with a meal. “It’s considered to be the finest black tea out of England. A lot of our English customers buy it on a regular basis,” Jerry said. “All of our tea is in bags so it’s not a complicated thing like loose tea. Most Americans are comfortable with tea bags.”

Tearooms in Your Area

Preserving the quaint, genuine atmosphere of most tearooms means that seating is limited so reservations are always a good plan. At Her Majesty’s Tea Room in Dunlap, guests must arrive at 11 am Wednesday through Saturday and can eat and chat for the entire afternoon if they’d like—no other customers will be seated. Reservations are required. The Tearoom at The Depot in Mackinaw is open from 11 am to 2 pm Tuesday through Saturday and Maria’s Tea Room in Peoria Heights is open from 11 am to 3 pm Monday through Saturday. The Mustard Seed in Morton also serves guests Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 2 pm and on Saturdays from 11 am to 1:30 pm.
There are four basic types of tea—black, white, green and oolong. Each tea has a different flavor which complements meals and desserts, so select your teas based on the menu. Offer coffee and a few juice selections and don’t feel awkward in asking guests to bring their favorite beverages to share. If your goal is brunch host or hostess superstardom, mimosas made with champagne and freshly-squeezed orange juice will hit a high note. If time and fame are not on your list, opt for not-from-concentrate orange juice and garnish with fresh fruit. Sweeten up guests even more with some easy bellinis. Instead of hunting down fresh white peaches to pit and strain, find 100 percent peach nectar—no syrupy stuff—and just add champagne or sparkling wine. The ripe fruits and juices of the season are even more of a smash when paired with champagne or sparkling water for a non-alcoholic version.

The ambiance for your brunch sets the mood so decide whether it’s going to be a casual or more formal affair. The early 20th century architecture and exposed brickwork paired with traditional country and Victorian décor at The Depot tearoom transports customers to a different era. “We have cloth napkins and white tablecloths and a lot of ladies say when they leave, ‘We enjoyed being pampered,’” owner Josh Virkler said. “We have candles for the tables and the centerpieces change with the seasons.” Guests at Her Majesty’s get the royal treatment complete with sparkling faux diamond tiaras and crowns offered upon arrival. “It’s cozy and very traditional. There are no modern hard edges,” Jerry said of the tearoom’s early 20th century Victorian ambiance. “And you cannot be overdressed.” Wearing long lace gloves and dramatic hats, guests at Her Majesty’s are thrilled by an opportunity for daytime elegance.

With spring in full swing, an outdoor setting can provide a beautiful backdrop. If apartment living limits your outdoor exposure, bring nature inside with potted plants and flowers. Whatever the setting, relaxation is a must-have. So make your home brunch as easy as possible with guests’ help or visit an area tearoom! a&s