Sympathy Is on the Menu, but It's Extra

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Had a rough morning? Deadlines weighing on you? Pace of life getting a bit too breakneck? Need a little sympathy?

If you're anywhere near Nancy Williams' tearoom in Costa Mesa, it can be yours in minutes, and for only 50 cents. It's on the menu: "Sympathy . . . $.50."

"It's on there as sort of a joke," Williams said, "but we do get people who come in here to tell us their problems."

Mostly, however, Williams' customers at Tea & Sympathy, her cozy tearoom on the end of a mini-mall on 17th Street, come to have a proper English tea and the serenity and conversation that traditionally go along with it.

For in the English tradition, tea is not simply tea. It is Tea Time, the part of the day set aside for putting on the brakes and savoring the daily cuppa. And, depending on either appetite or formality, the liquid part of the event can be accompanied by anything from light tea cakes or biscuits to a full afternoon meal--the often misidentified "high tea."

Williams and her expatriate British staff can provide it all in the quiet, intimate atmosphere of a tearoom of the type that the English have been familiar with for nearly 2 centuries. The place is small, with comfortable place settings and the comforting smell of brewing tea throughout. It is filled with antiques, books, display china and tea knickknacks of all sorts--and literally everything in the place is for sale.

All the antiques, the books, the china, the tea service, even the furniture you're sitting on has a price tag, Williams notes.

"We've literally sold the furniture right out from under people," she said, although she added that they waited until the customers in question had finished their tea and left before turning their table and chairs over to the eager buyers.

Not surprisingly, Tea & Sympathy is a magnet for the local British population, who think of the tearoom as "a touch of home," Williams said. The room also is visited by those less familiar with British culture, she said--"people who are on their way to Britain who want to get an idea of what it'll be like."

Two types of tea--actually three--are offered at Tea & Sympathy. Listed on the menu are "Afternoon Tea"--the traditional social event made popular in the early 19th Century, which features English tea, tea sandwiches and scones with jam and whipped cream--and Victorian Tea, similar to Afternoon Tea, but with slightly fancier food items.

A third type of tea is available, designed for the truly hungry, although it isn't specifically on the menu. Williams pointed out that "high tea," often confused with afternoon tea, is meant as a full meal and originally was popular among the industrial workers in the north of England. Adding food to tea at Tea & Sympathy is no problem. There is a list of several typically English entrees, such as Welsh rarebit, meat pies and toad in the hole (sausages cooked in Yorkshire pudding), as well as a list of daily specials, such as shepherd's pie or bangers and mash (sausage and potatoes).

A champagne Sunday brunch is available, as are imported English beers, wine and separate orders of crumpets, scones, muffins, soup, salad and desserts.

"People come here for the peace and quiet," Williams said. "We get a lot of businesswomen, but more and more men are coming too. They'll bring along their newspapers and just order tea and read quietly."


Where: 369 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa (corner of Tustin Avenue).

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Afternoon tea: Served throughout operating hours.

Prices: Afternoon tea, $7.50. Victorian tea, $9. Entrees and daily specials from $5.50 to $7.95.

Information: (714) 645-4860.

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