Afternoon tea at Smic’s Sip & Quip in downtown Sacramento might be accompanied with tea-infused cocktails along with the traditional cuppa. (Photos by Katy Karns)

Is Tea the New Happy Hour?

These Capital Region tea rooms bring a California twist to an English tradition

Back Article May 21, 2024 By Sarah Bun

This story is part of our May 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Elaine Mueller got the idea to open a tea room 30 years ago, when she spent her girlhood summers in England and fell in love with everything English, especially the elegant tradition of afternoon tea. If she ever owned a tea room, she wanted it to be authentically English from the decor to the food. That dream was realized in October 2023, when Mueller opened Sotherton Tea Room in Lincoln: the second tea room in Placer County and part of a growing tea scene around the Capital Region. 

Though afternoon tea — the roughly 4 p.m. meal of sweets, scones, finger sandwiches and steaming pots of the eponymous beverage — is associated primarily with the United Kingdom, data suggests that it’s becoming increasingly popular on the other side of the pond. The annual trend report Pinterest Predicts said “afternoon tea is the new happy hour” and found that many people would choose tea over alcoholic drinks after work with friends. Vogue reported that the popularity of the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” launched in 2020, can take some credit for tea’s rise in popularity. 

Many of the Capital Region’s tea rooms have been around longer than “Bridgerton,” though, including Lodi’s Hidden Tea Room (2016), Davis’ Tea List (2009), and Linde Lane Tea Room in Dixon (2010, but sadly shuttered by the pandemic). After all, afternoon tea evokes something people have always sought — “a feeling of rarely experienced elegance and class,” Mueller says.

Dine like a duchess

“Afternoon tea is a relaxing, highly social experience, where people can enjoy each other’s company face-to-face,” Mueller adds, “in a world where interaction is more frequently done virtually.” 

The story goes that afternoon tea originated in England around 1840 in the home of Anna, the Duchess of Bedford. At the time, most people took two main meals a day — breakfast and dinner. Dinner was traditionally served in the middle of the day, but in upper-class circles it became stylish to eat later and later in the evening, leaving a long hungry stretch in the afternoon. The duchess had her servants serve her and her friends small bites such as tea, cake and sandwiches to hold them over until dinner was served between 8 or 9 p.m. Thus, the afternoon tea ritual was formed. 

Sotherton Tea Room in Lincoln offers a variety of afternoon tea sets served in three-tiered trays. Finger sandwiches, scones and delicate pastries are standard accompaniments.

The term high tea was coined slightly later and in a lower economic class — laborers and farmers who took a break in the work day to refuel with tea, bread, cheese, meat and other energizing snacks. Mueller says high tea is traditionally served at a high dinner table and afternoon tea served in a sitting room at a coffee or a cocktail table. Nowadays, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and you’ll see both in the Capital Region. 

Mueller, however, is a stickler for tradition. “Quiche is French; it really has no place on an English afternoon tea tray,” she says. “I decided that if people wanted quiche, I would create a mini brunch to accommodate them while staying true to the traditional English afternoon tea experience.” Soon, Sotherton will offer a happy hour with traditional British pub fare like bangers and mash, cottage pies and Cornish pasties. The staff makes everything in house except the clotted cream, which is imported from Devonshire.

The menu changes monthly and can accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free requests. Her tea room recently added a patio and acquired a wine license. She also hosts afternoon “tea and a movie” events on Wednesdays, airing favorites like “Mamma Mia!” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

Mueller wants her guests to dine like nobility. “When I designed my tea room, I chose to pay homage to the origins of afternoon tea,” Mueller says. “I want people to feel like they are guests being invited into a stately home for tea with the duchess, rather than customers in a restaurant.”

Tea to go

Dena Macklin, owner of The Tea Nook, opened in historic downtown Lincoln right when the world shut down in 2020. Before that, she worked as a pastry chef at An Afternoon to Remember Fine Tea & Gifts in Newcastle in 2007. Macklin then opened a Victorian-style tea Room at the Power’s Mansion Inn in Auburn from 2010 to 2015 before settling at her current location. Though she has 21 years of restaurant industry experience, Macklin’s passion lies in tea.

Dena Macklin (right), owner of The Tea Nook, operates her Lincoln team room with just one employee, “Tea Hostess” Alina.

She operates the tea room with one helper. They do everything themselves, from baking, cooking, prepping, serving and hosting to booking reservations, to keep the business functioning and the cost low. “To simplify our baking and prepping time, I designed the brunch high tea meal,” Macklin says. “It’s the one option that we offer to our guests.” She says they accommodate dietary needs like vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and keto, as well as nut allergies, and also offer a children’s tea.  

The Tea Nook menu changes often, incorporating seasonal ingredients and themed in accordance with major holidays. The tea list includes traditional options and handcrafted blends. Throughout the year, she does pop-up tea events in the greater Sacramento region; she also offers delivery, catering and private parties. During the pandemic, she says she survived by offering at-home tea sets to go. These are still available with 24-hour notice.

“Tea time takes people back to a time when life was slower and it was normal to pause in your day to rest, sip, visit, and feel renewed,” Macklin says. She is grateful for the “resurgence of people wanting to enjoy this experience.”

A modern affair

Paula Thompson moved to Sacramento in 2017 from San Francisco and opened Smic’s Sip & Quip in downtown Sacramento in 2019. Named after her late father-in-law who worked in the Capitol and was referred to as the Smartest Man in California, Smic’s is more than just a bar. This woman-owned and woman-led kitchen (by Chef Nina Luong) also serves an afternoon tea brunch. But Thompson says you must follow their Instagram page (@smicsbarsacramento) to know when they’re holding a tea court — it’s not every day.  

Thompson also has restaurant industry and hospitality experience. She got her start at the Ritz Carlton as a pool attendant at 15. She moved to Sacramento due to family, but also loves the Capital Region vibes. “When I moved to Sacramento, I instantly fell in love with the downtown community because it is dynamic and political,” Thompson says, “but still keeps a small town charm.” Here, she says, she can live out her tea-party fantasies and “spill the tea” on the latest goings-on.

Tea is “elegant, dreamy and allows guests to have a new experience that is not otherwise offered around town,” Thompson says. “Gossip flows easily around the Smic’s table with a perfectly laid out tea party.”

Thompson says Smic’s is constantly expanding the food, tea and cocktail options at the tea brunches. “We have started to infuse vodka with Earl Grey,” she says. Bottomless mimosas are also an offering, and the kitchen can cater to dietary requests.

Afternoon tea is often reserved for a special day, like a birthday or holiday, but Thompson says at Smic’s, “We like to create our own reasons to celebrate.”

While there’s always a time and place to hit the bar for drinks, Thompson says as life gets busy, a tea brunch is an opportunity to treat yourself in an extra special way and to celebrate life and each other. “There’s no pressure to do anything but have fun with your friends at Smic’s high tea,” Thompson says.  

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