Noe Valley Voice April 2003

It's a Tea Party at Lovejoy's

By Olivia Boler

Throughout San Francisco, many restaurants suffering the effects of the economic downturn have closed their doors, changed management, or lowered prices. Yet Lovejoy's Antiques and Tea Room, a Noe Valley mainstay at the corner of Church and Clipper streets, has continued to attract a steady stream of customers from all over the Bay Area.

So, what keeps the tearoom full?

For one thing, more people are drinking tea. Muna Nash, who with Gillian Briley took over the business in early 2000, says Lovejoy's is benefiting from a "tea craze" that has spread across the country in the past couple of years. Americans are discovering they like the way tea tastes, as well as the calming rituals that surround this centuries-old pastime.

Another reason is that Lovejoy's style of tea service is unique. It's true that you can go to Chinatown and partake in an Asian tea ceremony. Or you can sit down to formal (and expensive) high tea in the grand hotels on Nob Hill. But nothing is quite like Lovejoy's, with its lemon curd and crumpets, doily-covered settees, and warm, sympathetic hostesses.

As a patron from the Marina puts it, "It's feminine and cute and reasonably priced. And the people here are nice, too."

Mismatched Cups and Saucers

Briley and Nash, friends since they were sorority sisters at San Diego State University, have made Lovejoy's accessible to all kinds of people by creating a charming, comfortable space.

"Everything is mismatched," says Nash, pointing to the teacups and saucers, "and it's just kind of easy and fun to be in here." The large dining room is filled with antique tables and chairs of all shapes and sizes and lined with cupboards displaying flowered mugs, teapots, linen napkins, tea cozies--just like the ones in your imaginary great-aunt's house.

The partners have also imported a touch of the British Isles to Noe Valley. "Ours is a very different tea from the ones in downtown [San Francisco]," says Nash. "It's like the teas in Ireland or the British countryside. Tea is a huge part of the culture there. Everything is done around tea: If you're sad, you sit down and have a cup of tea. If you're happy, you sit down and have a cup of tea." And sometimes you have a scone, too.

Nash and Briley, both 40, are hands-on owners who work in the tearoom six days a week (it's closed on Mondays). Each has brought her own strengths to the enterprise. Nash focuses on enhancing the existing menu and fine-tuning some of the recipes. She buys organic produce when she can, and orders the light raisin scones from a local Irish baker. The tearoom's selection of nine black teas comes from Taylor's of Harrogate, a well-known British purveyor. Nash also stocks an assortment of flavored and green teas and tisanes (herbal teas).

Briley is the organizer of the two, and has set up a guest-book and voice-mail reservation system that keeps the tables full and the customers happy. "Because of the system, people feel they can count on us," says Nash, pointing to the guest book Briley designed.

"A Great Girl Place"

During the week, Lovejoy's is a fairly quiet place where Noe Valley regulars linger over books or conversation, often for an entire afternoon. But on weekends, the tearoom is transformed into a lively mecca for baby and bridal showers. (Take note: Reservations should be made well in advance, and customers can keep their tables for up to two hours.)

Lisa, a young woman who lives in Cow Hollow, recently chose Lovejoy's as the venue for her friend's baby shower.

"It's unique," she says. "All my friends go here for showers. I've heard of three showers going on here in just the last few days. I made these reservations weeks ago."

Lovejoy's is ideal for birthday parties, get-togethers with friends, and as a place to take Mom. In fact, Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year, say Nash and Briley. They also estimate that, day-in and day-out, 90 percent of their customers are women.

Christie, who is from Kentfield in Marin County, arranged a bridal shower for a party of 12 women friends after attending a shower at Lovejoy's. "It's a great girl place," she says simply.

Theresa Hanna, who lives across the Bay Bridge in Piedmont, first heard about Lovejoy's from a Noe Valley friend and has visited numerous times with her daughters, husband, and friends who live in San Francisco.

"I like it because you can construct your own tea," says Hanna, who recently celebrated her birthday at Lovejoy's. "The sandwiches are varied and unusual. I also like the funky, casual atmosphere because it creates a feeling of being in your own home and having the best tea you could ever make but not having to do any work. It's also fun to see all the sweet gatherings of women celebrating and honoring each other. I sometimes wonder how men feel, though," she adds.

An Affordable Luxury

They feel like they're on Oprah. "We get some gay male couples who come in on their own, but straight men are often dragged in with a girlfriend or wife," Nash says with a laugh. "They worry they aren't going to get enough to eat."

But with hearty fare such as chicken potpie and sausage rolls rounding out the Cream Tea and High Tea--two finger sandwiches, a scone with Devon cream, green salad, fruit, English coleslaw, shortbread cookie, and a pot of tea--no one need worry about going hungry.

Finally, perhaps the biggest reason Lovejoy's remains successful is that it is an affordable luxury. For about $15, one can meet friends over tea, sandwiches, and sweets in a peaceful, calm setting. And in these tumultuous times, a little peace is priceless.

Lovejoy's Antiques and Tea Room is located at 1351 Church Street, at the corner of Clipper Street. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Fridays until 7 p.m.). The number for reservations is 648-5895.