Tea service is like the wise elder auntie of the small plates craze—elegant, with lots of different flavors, and visually stunning. High tea was always meant for sharing—those tiered stands full of a vast array of dainty bites just invite discussion and lingering.
But lingering and sharing have been in short supply since COVID-19 hit—and for a time, it appeared that Wenham Tea House, the oldest operating tea house in the United States, might fall victim to the pandemic. But rumors of its demise were premature. Local restaurateurs and Hamilton residents Brenden Crocker and his wife Milissa Oraibi had been eyeing the charming house in the center of town since well before the pandemic, seeing it as a terrific spot to extend their brand.
Crocker and Oraibi should be familiar names to anyone who follows the North Shore restaurant scene—the couple also operates Black Arrow in Manchester, and previously owned Wild Horse Tavern in Beverly and The Old Spot in Salem. They have kept the tea service pretty classic—the exquisite array of savory and sweet bites on any given day is likely to include mainstays like open-faced cucumber sandwiches, egg salad, and smoked salmon, maybe even tiny phyllo tarts filled with tuna—but Crocker is subtly modernizing the menu.
Take, for example, a beautiful round brownie, topped with a pretty dollop of pink cream. You would never guess the indulgent morsel was both gluten-free and vegan, the topping coconut cream whipped with pomegranate. Crocker spent a fair amount of time inventing that bite, which is downright delicious even to those not on a restrictive diet. The texture of the whipped topping and the moistness of the brownie are obsession-worthy—too bad it’s gone in just a bite or two.
A new focus on special diets is driven in part by the couple’s daughter, who has a severe gluten allergy and is also vegan. Crocker brainstormed with his daughter on that brownie bite, which was included on a recent classic tea service, but would also be a star of the gluten-free option. Crafting a fully vegan tea service is still in the works, but there is a vegetarian offering, which changes with what is fresh and in season.
That’s one of the fun things about afternoon tea service—you are dining at the chef’s whim. The tray could come with anything from chocolate chip cookies, which look classic but are packed with flavor, to tiny lemon tarts, or a little bite combining ham, brie and fig jam … maybe even an open-faced strawberry cream cheese sandwich. Lighter appetites can opt for just a plate of scones, and there are also some soup and salad sides to complete your meal.
While the ladies who established the tea room in 1912 might disapprove, these days guests can order their tea spiked, starting with a glass of sparkling wine followed by a liqueur chosen to pair with whatever tea you are enjoying.
Picking your tea is no small task. Nearly 20 varieties of Harney & Sons tea are available for sipping. But no matter what you choose, it will be served in a brightly colored bone china tea pot imported from Australian company T2—you might get one looped with tigers, or swirling with flowers.
While Crocker is careful to be respectful of the long history and abiding love that generations have for afternoon tea at Wenham Tea House, there is an area where he is really making his mark. With the change in ownership came dinner service, featuring a mix of new dishes and greatest hits from the chef’s previous kitchens—something sorely needed in an area with few evening options. Items like roasted haddock with a sherry-cream sauce, filet mignon, vegetarian cassoulet, and a thick burger topped with cheddar and brie fondue.
As the days get warmer, probably in late spring, the restaurant will reopen its popular patio for lunch, dinner, and, of course, tea. Sipping on tea in a garden with a beautiful tiered array of tiny bites is something both wise aunties and Instagram-happy teenagers can get behind.
Reservations recommended for tea. 4 Monument St., Wenham, 978-468-1398, wenhamteahouse.com