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Crown & Crumpet

A Spot of Tea with Frivolity, Not Formality

The tradition of high tea is often perceived as prim, expensive, and even a bit humorless. But aficionados know that having tea is really just a great way to linger with friends over a tasty parade of snacks.

In general, tearooms can be divided into two categories: fancy hotel salons (such as the Ritz Carlton) or independent establishments (such as Lovejoy’s), which are often family-run affairs. In San Francisco, Tal y Tara and Secret Garden are both owned by sibling teams, and Crown & Crumpet follows in the same familial tradition.

Stepping through the door though, it's clear that husband-and-wife proprietors Amy and Christopher Dean offer a sassy and droll take on the British institution. They have created an environment more reminiscent of Technicolor Oz than twee Victorian England.

Bubble gum pink hues and vivid Cath Kidson fabrics dominate, rather than dusty doilies and dried flowers (“which we loathe” intoned Chris). The kitschy décor, cheeky menu descriptions, and pleasantly wide selection of “jolly libations” -- including three kinds of bubbly -- set a mood of frivolity rather than formality. Predictably, they go all out for holidays, with special tea services offered for Valentine's Day, Easter, etc. (call for prices and seatings).

The front of the house is given over to a retail shop filled with amusing tchotchkes, from the tea-centric, such as Ceylon-cinnamon dental floss, to the downright eccentric (think giant, huggable, plush mushrooms). Brightly-bedecked tables fill most of the room, and the back area features a cozy couch and coffee (ahem, tea) table ensemble facing a faux fireplace lit with merrily dancing digital flames.

The ambiance may be exuberant, but the menu is traditional. For lunch, sandwiches ($12), quiche ($11) and Brit faves such as Welsh rarebit ($12) are on offer (all served with salad). Breakfast items, which come with a pot of tea or coffee, include cinnamon toast ($8) and boiled egg and toast soldiers ($9). (Hurrah for the soft-boiled egg, so sadly missed on those mornings when nothing brings comfort like crispy toast strips dipped in creamy yolk.) Light dinnertime treats include sausage rolls with hot English mustard ($8) and tramezzini sandwiches ($6), little tea sandwiches which are ubiquitous in Italy.

Of course, the star of the menu is the grand afternoon tea, which follows the deliciously customary formula of crustless sandwiches; toasted crumpets; warm currant-studded scones served with Devonshire clotted cream, jam, butter and house-made lemon curd; and an assortment of sweets ($32 per person).

Pastry chef Caroline Romanski, most recently with Patisserie Philippe (as well as star establishments such as Oliveto and La Farine), expertly does all the baking herself (with the exception of the organic crumpets). The $42 "Tea for Two" service may be the best value in town, which is saying something given the shop's touristy Ghirardelli Square locale.

Attentive service is de rigueur at tearooms, so making substitutions is a breeze, whether it's to comply with vegetarian tendencies, or to satisfy a yen for shortbread crusted with rough, diamond-like sugar crystals. The menu offers tempting extras, such as Victoria sponge ($8) or a glass of 10-year old Madeira ($12), making the experience totally customizable.

Amidst all the tempting nibbles, it's understandable if one forgets about the tea itself. But that's hard to do at Crown & Crumpet; their impressive list of 38 is sourced from about half a dozen purveyors and leans towards scented and blended varieties, such as peach oolong and fig de blanc, a white tea with tones of Mediterranean fig. The most popular, with good reason, is the Paris blend, a heavenly black tea infused with tidbits of bergamot and vanilla.

Most teas arrive in a pot featuring a clever tea pod which can plucked up by the chain and suspended in the lid to prevent over-brewing, a common tragedy that, alas, strikes at even the most expensive hotel salons. Other teas, such as the pu-erh, come instead with a single-cup infuser alongside a pitcher of steaming water for proper steeping. These proper brewing accoutrements provide a simple way to do justice to the leaves (and to the institution of tea itself) without being fussy, which seems to be just the style at Crown & Crumpet.

Fisherman's Wharf

Reservations Essential? Yes.