Tea time and time travel at the Huntington

Eileen Oda with the Shakespeare Garden behind her, and in the distance the Huntington Art Gallery. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Steeped, and ready to pour

Tea service returns to the Huntington

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The historic Rose Garden Tea Room folded up its petals for the duration of the pandemic, but the closure also allowed for extensive renovations. Located in San Marino, on the grounds of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, the public facility resumes service on May 24. The setting is both serene and scenic, and there are two key words we’ll be keeping in mind, presentation and ambience.

Eileen Oda in the Shakespeare Pavilion. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

The original tea room was built in 1911, but any tea drinking at that time was accompanied by the sound of bowling balls and billiard balls because architect Myron Hunt had designed it as a recreation room for Henry E. Huntington. In 1928, after Huntington’s death, and the death of his wife Arabella a couple of years earlier, the estate was opened to the public and that’s when the tea room, without its playthings, began offering luncheons for both visitors and staff. Over the years there were modifications, and it all evolved into the idea of a place for afternoon tea in a quaint environment reminiscent of the Gilded Age and as if the party sitting at the table across from yours included Bloomsbury artists and writers, maybe with Edith Wharton and Henry James discussing their latest novels and John Singer Sargent busily sketching on a napkin or the tablecloth.

The recent renovation, restorations and additions, were undertaken by the Architectural Resources Group at a cost of $11.2 million, paid for through philanthropic gifts. The inside and outside dining areas feel brand new while at the same time evoking the luster of decades past, a sense of nostalgia for an era that probably wasn’t quite as bucolic as we’d like to believe.

The lobby of the Rose Garden Tea Room, which used to be a bowling alley. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Upgrades were made to the kitchen, which presumably no longer relies on 1920s ovens and stoves (I didn’t peek), but among the noticeable changes is the shifting of the former entrance away from the original Rose Garden Tea Room and over to the east, where the Rose Arbor Walkway leads to the check-in booth and lobby. Three separate dining areas are advertised, but I would say that there are actually four (and will prove it in just a moment). What’s nice is that there’s a different feel or atmosphere in each one.

I’m not sure if you’ll be allowed to request a specific area to sit when you make a reservation, and reservations may be hard to come by in the early weeks of the reopening, but if preferences are allowed you’ll want to take into consideration the time of day, the temperature, and the season. In other words, the ambience that best suits your mood or that of the occasion, e.g., are you celebrating a birthday, a wedding, or commemorating an untimely demise?

Eileen Oda in the original Rose Garden Tea Room. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

My companion for this recent visit was the vivacious Eileen Oda, whom I consider a connoisseur of tea parties and fine dining. She’d been telling me for weeks about the impending reopening of the Huntington’s tea room, which I took as a sign that she should join me for a sneak preview. After listening to comments by the Huntington’s president, Karen R. Lawrence, architect Stephen Farneth, and executive chef Jeff Thurston, we sampled finger food and pastries (jewelry for the palate), two kinds of tea, and of course each of the dining areas.

Surprisingly, all of the invited guests clustered in the Rose Garden Tea Room, maybe because that’s where the edibles were arrayed. It’s a bright, comfortable room, and it does face the rose garden, but it’s also a bit confined, so Eileen and I carefully balanced our plates and took them outdoors to the Shakespeare Pavilion on the east side of the building. This is actually a large, roofed, fan-shaped patio with a view of the Shakespeare Garden, the wafted aroma of a million roses, and a nearby fountain that provides a soothing murmur. Furthermore, the vista includes the Huntington Art Gallery, and I might add that taking in the 18th century Romneys, Reynolds, and Gainsboroughs before having tea might better enhance one’s mental disposition.

The Herb Room, somber and serious. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

On the west side of the building (and you know that the sun travels from east to west, don’t you?) is the Herb Room, the doors of which open onto the Herb Garden. This room is subdued and somber and can, in fact, be reserved for business meetings and other private functions. It’s also more formal and perhaps a bit foreboding if few others are present. But if you walk through it there’s a narrow terrace just outside (officially the Banta Terrace) with maybe half a dozen tables, and Eileen and I sat there for a while as well. It’s sunnier here, and warmer, although perhaps best avoided in 90 degree weather since there’s little shading.

Eileen Oda on the Banta Terrace, just outside the Herb Room. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Now let’s look at the menu, which also means looking at your wallet or purse.

One can order the Traditional Tea for $62 or the Huntington Tea for $75. This, of course, is in addition to the entry fees, which can top out at $29 per adult on the weekend.

Items from the Tea Menu, left to right: cucumber sandwiches, tarragon chicken salad sandwiches, and strawberry and saba sandwiches. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Both choices offer a selection of tea (traditional, green, herbal and seasonal, with four varieties under each heading), seasonal house-made scones, and the tea menu which includes the “savory” (for example the cucumber sandwich with dill cream and peppercress) and the “sweet” (such as the banoffee tart made with dulce de leche, banana jam, and caramel crunch). All good, even very good. Personally, my taste buds voted in favor of the strawberry and saba tea sandwich, its flavor kicked up a notch with black pepper and whipped cream cheese.

Theresa Lin in the Rose Garden Tea Room. Film director Ang Lee called her “The Julia Child of Taiwan.” Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

The upscale Huntington Tea includes the above plus a glass of wine or champagne, a deluxe lobster salad, and the Huntington bonbon, which I believe is a potent square of chocolate topped by a decorative “H”. Furthermore, soup, salad, a cheese board and even caviar can be ordered separately, and, if there’s no stopping you now, a selection of champagne and wine can be purchased by the glass or bottle.

In Old China, tea was called — and maybe it still is; just walk over to the Chinese Garden to find out — the “froth of liquid jade.” Eileen and I did try the Huntington signature blend and the Huntington rose blend, and if they’d been available we’d have enjoyed sampling the 14 other teas as well. This provides an excuse to quote from “The Three-Cornered World” by Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki: “Some complain that if they drink tea they cannot sleep, but to them I would say that it is better to go without sleep than without tea.”

Each one a work of art. Teapots on display in the lobby. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Unlike the artful teapots on display behind glass in the lobby, the Huntington’s teacups and saucers are white and undecorated, but the settings are nonetheless elegant. Presentation and ambience, as I noted earlier, are two of the key ingredients here, and using them as benchmarks then one can say that dining in the Rose Garden Tea Room is a special treat and a delightful occasion to be treasured.

The Rose Garden Tea Room opens to the public on May 24 and reservations can be made beginning May 10 through OpenTable. Seating capacity is 164. Hours, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesday. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. For questions regarding public reservations and services email tearoom@huntington.org.
For general information, go to huntington.org. ER


comments so far. Comments posted to EasyReaderNews.com may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.