THOMPSON, Conn. -- Tea rooms were once seen as the domain of white-gloved women, fussy places for sipping from delicate cups with pinkies raised and voices lowered. If men showed their faces, they generally arrived under duress, in the company of women. These were not places men met their buddies after work to knock back a few cups.
But many newer tea houses across New England are abandoning the estrogen-fueled ambience, eschewing flowery wallpaper and tiny chairs. Some advertise themselves as "male-friendly " and others might also serve lunch or dinner. In New York , high-powered businessmen are even starting to practice the art of the deal at some of the newer tea rooms.
Beverly Kennedy, the co-owner of Simple Elegance Tea Room in this northeastern Connecticut town, came to tea from a career in law and law enforcement. She worked as a Boston police officer , then became a lawyer on Cape Cod, specializing in criminal defense and divorce cases.
But she and her sister, Audrey Catanzano, had long wanted to open a tea room together. When her sister, a former caterer, moved to Connecticut, they began looking for a building. It took them five years to find this old schoolhouse, later turned into a machine shop, with a basement full of water and a caved-in roof , a few miles from the Rhode Island border and 20 miles from Worcester. Two years ago, after extensive renovations, the sisters opened for business.
Kennedy is fascinated by the history of American tea rooms, which became popular with the advent of the automobile, as couples drove into the country on weekends and often stopped for a refreshing cup. Tea rooms were often opened by women who wanted to start restaurants, but couldn't get liquor licenses. "American tea rooms are a women's history story," she said.
Simple Elegance serves cream tea, light tea, and full tea, with sandwiches, scones, and sweets. As Kennedy was talking about her tea room, two men arrived for lunch.
"Our chairs are big enough," she said. "There's nothing fussy and frilly. They don't feel intimidated."
Here is a sampling of other tea rooms across the region:
Fab Goldberg, a Persian who moved to England as a young child and to the United States at 20, got into the tea business after her daughter was born and she no longer wanted to travel extensively for her antiques and design business. She ran a tea shop in nearby Bristol for seven years before she moved to Warren last July.
As Goldberg designed her tea room, she tried to steer clear of the frilly and formal tea room model. "When you say tea room, guys kind of shrink," Goldberg said. Instead, she went artsy, with mismatched couches and comfy chairs. The afternoon tea includes a tiered plate of small sandwiches, scones , and desserts.
Although afternoon tea is officially served from 3:30 to 5 , our waitress let us order it when we stopped by a few hours earlier. Basically British also serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.
16 Cutler St. (in Cutler Mills) Warren, R.I.
Daily except Tuesday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Dinner Friday- Saturday 7-10 p.m.
Tea service $10.95-$13.95 .
"I like to try to keep everything as local as possible," says Jayne Stearns, who runs the Moscow Tea House from a former apartment in her 100-year-old farmhouse near Stowe, Vt. Stearns grows many of the ingredients for the menu offerings, which range from sweet to savory to vegetarian, in her garden.
Diners eat and sip at three indoor tables, beside the woodburning stove in the winter. In warmer months, Stearns has four more tables on the porch where customers can watch her six sheep grazing in the fields. Soon there will be lambs; two ewes are pregnant.
Since the tea house is small, Stearns suggests reservations.
147 Adams Mill Road Moscow, Vt.
Thursday- Saturday noon-5, Sunday 1-4 . Reservations suggested. Tea service $10-$17.
A friend and I happened to be there on a day that was also a children's tea and we were seated across from a woman and her sullen, pre adolescent daughter. I had wondered whether we would be greeted by wailing children or general pandemonium. But no -- other than the occasional diminutive sipper, the only hint of the theme was a giant stuffed giraffe watching over us from the corner.
UpStairs on the Square in Cambridge is a whimsical take on the more staid tea rooms found a few miles away, like the Four Seasons and the Taj Hotel Boston. But the food is better.
91 Winthrop St. Cambridge
Thursday- Saturday 3-5 p.m.
Tea service $18-$32.
In the warm weather, tea drinkers can sit on the porch overlooking the gardens. In winter, they can sip tea in front of the fireplace. Whalen also cooks private meals in the dining room for couples or small groups.
"There's not a lot of people who do teas here," she said. "Everyone's into the fast-food
252 Brook Road Sanbornton, N.H.
By reservation only. Tea service $15-$32.