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The Secret Garden & Tal-y-Tara Tea

Two Family-Owned, Intimate Tea Rooms

Cosmopolitan or not, the Bay Area loves its independent, unique, family-owned businesses. Worlds away from the fancy hotels that serve tea downtown, we found two tea rooms with a personal touch, run by Bay Area siblings.

Sisters Janice and Annie Leung were exposed to both Asian and British tea traditions in Hong Kong, where they were born, and loved visiting tea houses when they traveled. Janice has a passion for food and music. Annie was a party planner and florist. So they pooled their talents to open The Secret Garden two and a half years ago.

The Secret Garden is just what you picture in a small tea room...sitting in a parlor, enjoying warm hospitality. The ambiance is relaxed, not stuffy or formal. The setting is intimate, but does not feel cramped. (Request a table away from the retail counters, though, to avoid jostling by shoppers.) On busy days, The Secret Garden opens a second tea room in a Victorian house behind the main tea room. Both are adorned in Victorian décor, with a touch of country cottage.

The menu includes some variations on the traditional three-course high tea of sandwiches, scones, and pastries. ($10.95-$18.95) For example, some of the selections include tasty, warm "savories." Finger sandwiches, such as cheddar and chutney or curried egg, have a touch of spice. The scones are biscuit-like in texture and served with rich double Devon cream. A tea blender, who creates teas exclusively for The Secret Garden, hand blends the selection of 21 teas. Portions are not as generous as some other tea rooms, but they are also not as expensive.

Tea rooms are popular party destinations, and The Secret Garden stands out from its peers because the house in back is an ideal setting for a party of 20-30 guests. It provides the privacy to toast (or roast) a guest of honor and space for guests to huddle around as gifts are opened. The back house also has a dress-up room for little girls, who would be enchanted by the selection of fairy wings and ballet skirts.

Tal-y-Tara, owned by sister and brother Sarah and Philip Meaken, is nestled in the back of a polo shop. The Meaken family opened their businesses in 1980, and moved to the current location in 1995.

Tal-y-Tara is welcoming and lively. The polo-themed room is furnished in antiques, dominated by a handsome fireplace mantle that stretches to the ceiling. When we arrived for an early afternoon reservation, we joined the conversation between friendly Sarah and the only other table of customers, as Sarah prepared our tea in the open kitchen. By the time we left, all four indoor tables were full.

So, what has us already planning our return visit to Tal-y-Tara? We can say it's the comparatively reasonable prices. Or the choice between sitting in the polo shop or the equally charming garden. But deep in our hearts, we know the truth. It's the motorloaf. ($12.50)

Sarah and Philip's mother discovered the motorloaf recipe in a British magazine printed way back toward the turn of the last century. (Mom also came up with the shop's name -- "Tal-y" means "by the" in Irish and Tara refers to the ancient throne of Ireland where kings met for important Congresses.) The motorloaf is vintage "food to go", dreamed up when recreational "motoring" first came into vogue.
For its motorloaf, Tal-y-Tara removes the center of a sweet and nutty loaf of brown bread baked in its own bakery. The ensuing sandwiches, enveloped in wax paper, are tucked back into the bread's center. The result is a beautifully presented and tasty treat.

Other British specialties on offer, but hard to find elsewhere, are crumpets ($4) and English trifle ($6). (Trifle is prepared in advance, so place your order when you make your reservations!) A dizzying array of tea ($2.50-$5) is on the menu, but not all are in stock. Tea is served in insulated pots, so it is hot for the duration. On the other hand, our tea was served after our food arrived -- a tea room no-no.

If you are going to tea as a once-in-a lifetime experience, envisioning an air of elegance, Tal-y-Tara is not the tea room for you. But tea aficionados may leave praising Tal-y-Tara's uniqueness as effusively as we did. Tal-y-Tara is also a great place for those of you who are attracted to the British tradition of lingering over a leisurely meal with friends and good conversation, but not the formality of nibbling dainty tidbits under a canopy of chandeliers.

Writer Michelle Chan-Fishel contributed to this article.

Secret Garden Teahouse
Hours: 12-6 Tuesday-Friday; 11:30-5:30 weekends; closed Mondays and 1st Tuesday of each month
Afternoon tea
Inner Sunset
Reservations Essential? No (but recommended)

Tal-y-Tara Tea and Polo Shoppe
Hours: 10-6 Monday-Saturday
Afternoon tea
Inner Richmond
Reservations Essential? No (but recommended; Tal-y-Tara has only four indoor tables)