Guests can sit inside or out. Pro tip: sit outside
There are rare times when Charleston really does feel like a page torn from a Dorothea Benton Frank novel and tea room season is just such an occasion. Yesterday, St. Philip's Church
kicked off its week-long Tea Room and it's as be-pearled and polished as you might imagine.
Ham biscuits come with chips, grapes, and two orange wedges
Stepping into St. Philip's courtyard, a Lily Pulitzer-clad congregant greets guests asking if they'd like to sit inside or out. There's music inside, but pull the trigger on alfresco. Sitting under an umbrella'd table on a breezy day is the definition of spring in the Holy City.
Once in the courtyard, you'll likely be seated with a table of strangers, but don't worry. If your lunch is anything like mine, you'll quickly be wondering if you just stepped onto the set of a Steel Magnolia
's reboot and in this case, that's actually a good thing.
Dining at my table were two quintessential ladies who lunch. One was tickled when the waiter — all of whom are St. Philip's parishioners — pointed out that her dress was Carolina Blue. "And here I didn't even realize I was wearing my winning team's colors," she said with no hint of sarcasm. Next to her was a pearled woman in a tasteful cardigan gently biting into Lady Baltimore Cake with all the precision of a girl who had just completed Cotillion. And to my right was a Mr., well, we'll call him Mr. G. Wearing a Panama hat, suspenders, and a colorful Guy Harvey belt, Mr. G greeted me with, "It's a pleasure to have your company today," as if we'd arranged this rendezvous months ago. I kind of wish we had.
In the course of my hour-long lunch, Mr. G regaled me with tales of his exotic life from building an estate in Maryland to giving it all up for a sailboat and the sea. "I have a picture of my second wife naked on the back of my boat in the Caribbean," he said wistfully. I'm telling ya folks, St. Philip's courtyard gate is like the door to Narnia only instead of mythical beasts it's filled with genteel Charlestonians from another era.
Suffice it to say, Mr. G was darling, the food was the stuff of Southern lore, and the atmosphere exactly what the hundreds of Ohio tourists who flock to this town each year wish they could find on Market Street.
And yet even with those tourists just a stone's throw away, I doubt hardly any of the people seated at the lunch were "from off." Even with the giant sign attached to St. Philip's iron fence, it feels like a local secret. And an affordable secret at that. I paid $14 for my three course meal.
St. Philip's menu is surprisingly large for a lunch service prepared by church members though there's nothing amateur about it. My ham biscuit was light and fluffy and topped with three slices of ham. Simple potato chips accompanied it along with an okra stew you could opt to add. Opt, I say. Opt. But the real treat of the decadent lunch is the dessert tray. Note, you need to let your waiter know at the top of the meal if you'd like to indulge in dessert because otherwise they don't offer it to you. I made this mistake and had to track down a waiter mid meal — bless my heart. Fortunately, the Tea Room benefits St. Philip's foreign and home missions, St. Philip's choirs, and junior and senior high youth ministries, so they were happy to oblige.
Of course, therein lies the challenge: you must choose between the coconut, Lady Baltimore, or rum cakes, or Huguenot Torte. I went rum, because, of course, and it was perfect.
Soaked in the good stuff with a dollop of whipped cream, the sponge was as fluffy as a feather pillow. The accompanying strawberry juicy. The sun shining just right. The farewell tip of Mr. G's hat just so. All that was missing was a meet cute with a charming widower and, bam, I got your next book right here, Dottie.
St. Philip's Tea Room runs through Fri. April 7 and is open 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.in the Parish Hall, at the corner of Church and Cumberland streets.
Lady Baltimore, rum, Huguenot Torte, and coconut cake are all available for dessert