Tea for Three

Ballwin's Ladies of Lucerne understands our passion for tea

Last year I became obsessed with tea. Black tea, green tea, white tea, British blends, herbals, Chinese tea -- each category can fill a spreadsheet with eye-glazing information on grading, leaf style, taste, color, even the tea's appellation as with fine wines. I experimented with everything from stinky, fermented Pu-Erh tea from China to $20 tins of delicate Japanese green tea to the smoky Lapsang Souchong to deep British blends made for milk and sugar. Don't even get me started on all the tea things you can get wrapped up in to fuel your obsession. I went through about five teapots and ten infusers before settling on the ideal combination. Even had my eye on a nice little tea cozy before realizing this was getting ridiculous.

It need not be that complicated. Just throw some good tea into a preheated pot, add boiling water and steep for three to five minutes. Ladies of Lucerne Tea Room proprietor Adrianne Ritter knows this well. Wisely, she uses only loose leaf tea (tea bags are vastly inferior, as they're filled with mostly tea dust) from Harney and Sons, a premier supplier of high-grade teas. In contrast to the casualness we've come to expect from our coffeehouses, somewhere along the line going out for tea became a semi-formal affair, something special for a special occasion. Ritter understands this as well, as evidenced one afternoon when I arrived with my two young nieces, Patsy (age five) and Megan (age eight).

The room in the beautifully restored Barn at Lucerne was packed with smartly dressed women. I was the only male, smartly dressed in a (clean) pair of jeans. We ordered the Cream Tea, which, at $8.50 per person, provides a pot of tea apiece, plus scones with Devonshire cream and house-made lemon curd. While the girls marveled at the Victorian Christmas tree, I marveled at just how much tea-themed stuff there was to browse through, not to mention all the Christmas ornaments, antiques, crystal and furniture. Turns out the tearoom and gift shop share the same space; Ritter and Lee Hemenway of Miss Ivy's Cottage combined efforts to expand the selection of home accessories.

Patsy, who'd worn her pleated red dress for the occasion, loved the raspberry herbal tea. Megan, who'd gone with a simple black outfit, doesn't like tea but enjoyed her scone with a teapotful of milk. I opted for Queen Catherine's blend, a hearty mix of three Chinese black teas. The scones -- three each of mango-coconut and raspberry-nut -- were fresh, not at all dry, and served on a plate decorated with gorgeous fresh flower buds.

Ladies of Lucerne offers a full lunch menu from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. On Saturday from noon till 3 p.m. (reservations required), you can go whole-hog with a three-course Afternoon Tea ($25), which includes a cup of soup, house salad, a pot of tea and a three-tiered tray laden with finger sandwiches, scones and miniature pastries. For $5 more, the Royal Tea ratchets up the elegance factor with a glass of Champagne and some chocolate-covered strawberries. (A lighter version, sans the towering tray, bubbly and strawberries, is available for $15.50.)

All tea arrives at the table piping hot and perfectly infused in a beautiful pot, which is placed upon a caddy equipped with a candle that gently keeps the tea warm. Despite the fancy accoutrements, the servers are friendly and unpretentious.

While mean Uncle Michael didn't let the girls buy any gifts, he did leave with a small tin of wedding tea: a delicate blend of Mutan white tea, lemon-vanilla essence and pink rosebuds. The tea cozy was left behind for another time.