I had hardly sunk into the cushy armchair in an alcove in the Olympic Bar at the newly remodeled Fairmont Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle before my server, Jorge, appeared and asked if I would care for any water or Champagne while I waited for my guest. I said yes to both and settled in. All around me were the sounds of laughter and easy chatter. Women celebrating birthdays with tiers of delicate treats. Mothers and young daughters sipping steaming cups of tea.
It’s a scene that has been happening in Seattle for over a century when the first tearoom opened in the Lincoln Hotel in 1904 (the grand building, once considered Seattle’s most luxurious hotel, burned down in 1920). Tearooms, defined loosely by Chuck Flood, author of “Lost Restaurants of Seattle,” as a “refined, subdued atmosphere where beverages and light meals are served” started to take off in the U.S. in the late 1800s.
Tearooms have long been a gathering space for Seattle-area women. While many of the glittering rooms have gone dark (none of the tearooms in Flood’s book are in operation today), they remain significant in the lives of those seeking to celebrate as well as those helping to create the special moments for others.
A history of tearooms in Seattle
In Seattle, a Japanese tearoom joined the ranks in 1907, along with the first tearoom at the Bon Marché, the historic department store that finally closed in 2005. The Frederick & Nelson department store’s legendary tearoom opened in 1908, and by the 1920s, Flood writes, Seattle was experiencing an “explosion” of tearooms.
Not only were they opening in elegant rooms in department stores and hotels, but women — like Emily L. Taggart and Helen Swope, two locals who owned multiple tearooms over the years — were opening their own stand-alone tearooms. These boldly decorated spaces, each trying to outdo the other with distinct menus, were some of the first businesses a college-educated woman could own and operate on her own. Additionally, they were some of the first places women (and teenage girls) could go without a male escort. Tearooms were havens for socialites looking to be seen, shopgirls looking for lunch, and mothers and daughters looking for a special afternoon together.
In 1923, the Metropolitan Tea Room, housed in the White-Henry-Stuart Building (which was demolished in 1974 to make way for what would become the Rainier Tower) claimed to serve “a daily average of 400 girls and women from all parts of the city,” Flood writes in the chapter he dedicates to tearooms in his 2017 book.
Having afternoon tea wasn’t just about the tea. An afternoon spent in the glittering space of Frederick & Nelson’s tearoom, complete with sunny yellow boucle curtains and delicate dishes adorned with a custom rhododendron china pattern (available in the china section for any fashionable bride-to-be’s registry) was the cherry on top of any big shopping trip. A vintage menu reminds diners that every Wednesday the “newest trends in women’s apparel are modeled informally during luncheon.” The bowls at the salad station were made of rare myrtlewood and children had their own special menus to choose from.
Afternoon tea was also about celebration. A menu from the Fairmont Olympic’s Georgian Room is inscribed “Here’s to our first anniversery (sic) and to a future prospect in our nursury (sic), to my lovely, darling wife who means all in my life — Skid,” dated November 10, 1945.
However — it wasn’t all fashion and gossip in Seattle’s tearooms. In the spring of 1919 Ruth Garrison poisoned Grace Elizabeth Storrs, wife of Garrison’s lover Douglas Storrs, in the tearoom of the Bon Marché. An article from The Seattle Daily Times dated May 6, 1919, described Garrison to be “as unruffled as the most disinterested spectator” when being arraigned for the crime.
Things feel a lot less murderous in Seattle’s tearooms now, but from a stately manor on a chamomile farm in Sedro-Woolley to those cushy, velvet-lined cane back couches at the newly remodeled Fairmont Olympic, having afternoon tea is still a fabulous way to spend an afternoon.
An intimate homage
27420 Minkler Road; Sedro-Woolley; 360-218-4585; teaandtour.com
In 2018, Terry Gifford opened her home for the first time for tea. Gifford and her ex-husband had spent years turning a cow pasture into their dream home, but when they got divorced, Gifford knew she eventually would have to support herself and their six kids on her own. She spent six summers landscaping the property in the hopes of turning the estate into a wedding venue, only to be told by the county she wasn’t zoned to be a business. So, she pivoted, bought a tractor, tilled up her field and planted chamomile, creating a farm where people can come visit and stay for tea.
“The change in scope of my business brought me to a much better place. I like the smaller, intimate, connecting times, making a sweet memory over tea,” Gifford says.
Now people can come help plant and weed the chamomile fields. She opens her home every Friday and Saturday in April during tulip season for tea service, alongside annual tea events for holidays, corporate retreats and private events.
Gifford greets each guest when they arrive at her home, inviting them to pick out a teacup. I chose a delicate cup with violets; my friend chose a squat art deco cup with a rose. Once seated, each table holds a box of tiny glass jars of tea for sniffing to help you make a choice for your pot. Gifford works with local high schoolers to fill out her staff, giving them experience in waiting tables. The tea service ($40) includes a mixed green salad, served in a Champagne coupe and a traditional tea tier filled with fresh scones and clotted cream, dainty crustless sandwiches, glass tumblers with lemon curd and jam, cookies and tiny cupcakes. Gifford stops by each table to take individual photos and say hello. She tells my friend she has chosen her daughter’s favorite teacup, one that if we look closely, you can see a fingerprint in one of the leaves, a sign the cup is hand painted.
Gifford spent a few years searching for beautiful teacups and teapots. Her first purchase was from a Tacoma woman who initially was selling a single tea pot. After hearing Gifford’s plan for her teahouse, the woman asked Gifford to follow her home to take a look at a bone china tea set. It was all she had left of her mother, but she insisted Gifford buy it and take it home.
Two of those first teacups have been “retired” from service. Gifford keeps them as a reminder of where she started.
“It’s not so much the teacups, but it’s the connection. A story of a woman who let them come to me for caretaking and to give them new life and love,” Gifford says.
Now teacups and pots find their way to her — and sometimes back out into the world. Anyone can buy their teacup for a $100 donation. This past Christmas, 22 cups were sold, raising $2,200 for Skagit Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services.
After sitting for tea, guests are invited to tour Gifford’s home (many of the rooms available for overnight stays through Airbnb) and grounds, strolling through impressive gardens rife with photo opportunities.
A modern twist on tea
Lola’s Traveling Tea Party
AnnaLiza Valdez’s mom Lola had been collecting vintage teaware for a few years before she turned to Valdez and told her, “you have everything to make a business. You should do it.”
Valdez is the owner of Caked Goods, a specialty cake business she started in 2008 — but there was something to the idea of adding tea parties to the mix. She and her sisters and friends had a tradition of going to teahouses together for a few years. They had thrown tea parties for each other and for friends, and they loved it. But it was 2020, the beginning of the pandemic. People weren’t going out, weren’t gathering.
“We thought, what if we just create something — everyone is doing to-go, what if we just create a box that we can deliver?” Valdez says.
So she and her sisters Marivic Quintanilla and Catherine Valdez and their friends Michelle Trenter and Lilly Mau put their skills together and created beautiful tea boxes, filled with everything one would need to have a tea service for two, adding in flowers and food items that honored tea traditions while bringing in their Filipino culture and flavor profiles. They posted it on Instagram in time for Valentine’s Day 2021 and waited to see what would happen.
“Let’s see if we even sell five. And then all the sudden we sold out,” Michelle Trenter says.
Now you can order Lola’s Traveling Tea Party for private events or order a box during holidays (the next box they’ll be offering is for Mother’s Day). There are a few options for tea parties at your home or venue of your choice — you can either order tea boxes per person ($36-$60) or menu items by the dozen. You can also rent anything needed to have a tea party and set it up yourself or book a full-service party where the women of Lola’s set up and clean up the tea party.
I had three friends over for tea, ordering four Tea for One boxes. Delivered right to my house, opening each box was like opening a gift. Berries, flowers and gorgeous pastries were all nestled in vibrant tissue paper. There was a plastic three-tiered tray to assemble, plus a paper cup and saucer, tiny metallic flatware, and individual glass jars of clotted cream and jam. It was easy to assemble and looked so impressive when it was all set up, each place setting complete with a small bouquet, detailed menu, and individual tea tray, brimming with coconut calamansi scones, chicken salad tea sandwiches, longanisa pillows, and a delicate petit four complete with sugar flower.
Valdez and Trenter say they often get photos from clients showing off their tea parties, which encourages them to keep putting together these custom boxes.
“This is what we want to do. We’re just sharing our love through food and through the experience. It’s amazing,” Valdez says.
Preserving a legacy
Fairmont Olympic Hotel
411 University St., Seattle; 206-621-1700; fairmont.com/seattle
Back at the Fairmont, Jorge has been serving weekend tea for nearly 20 years, long enough that he remembers when a person could look out the windows and see straight to the Space Needle. And even though the surroundings have changed (thanks to a $25 million renovation project), the tea service is as lovely as ever.
Gone are the buttercream walls and ornate chandeliers (they’ve moved to the Spanish Lobby) that defined the hotel’s Georgian Room. The Olympic Bar, situated in the bustling lobby, is the setting now for tea. The Georgian turned into The George, a buzzy brasserie that just wasn’t right for afternoon tea. Hosting tea in the lobby took the affair from a “formal sit-down dining” situation to one with a more laid-back vibe, says Bill Munn, general manager of the food and beverage outlets at the hotel.
Despite the furnishings having what Munn calls a “throwback 1920s vibe,” the plush, velvet couches manage to feel modern and full of energy. Those delightful glasses of Champagne (at $25 bucks a pop) went down so smoothly, as did the gorgeous tray of goodies, complete with crab profiteroles, egg salad on dark rye bread, scones, snappy biscotti and pâté de fruits. The tea — a creamy earl gray — was the icing on the cake.
Make a reservation for afternoon tea ($45/kids 12 and under, $75/adults), held every Saturday and Sunday. Ask for Jorge, who will dispense wise words about self-care with a kind wink.
While these aren’t the only options for tea in Seattle (and sadly, we’re nowhere near the explosion of tearooms a century ago), they are each incredibly special in their own way. From the lively elegance of the Fairmont Olympic to the restorative splendor of Willowbrook Manor and the in-home luxury of Lola’s Traveling Tea Party, there’s something for everyone to enjoy over a cup of tea.