Watts Tea Room: preserving a genteel era

I am in downtown Milwaukee, “taking tea,” and doing a miserable job of it. An attractive, two-piece, antique tea strainer reveals my ignorance about how to keep the teapot’s tea leaves out of the teacup.

A woeful confession that I am a dope doesn’t faze my server, who demurely had ignored my stubborn struggle until I asked for assistance. “Happens all the time,” she says, breezily. “Let me get you another cup.” Which she does, and the afternoon tea resumes without incident.

Delicate finger sandwiches a peppery cucumber, a spread of chopped olives, tuna and chicken salads arrive with a pot of Evening in Missoula, an herbal blend that includes chamomile, wild cherry bark, red clover, star anise. Fruity blends, blacks and a green are other tea choices.

Next comes a delicate selection of sweets: a cranberry scone, chocolate truffle torte and slice of Sunshine Cake. The cake is the signature dessert that has been made here, from the same recipe, for more than 100 years. It tastes wonderfully light, with a slightly citrus French custard filling and boiled, whipped frosting.

There is something nostalgic about the cake, the relaxed pace, the graciousness of staff and the harpist’s gentle background music. Watts Tea Room, on the second floor of a downtown Milwaukee shop that since 1870 has specialized in fine tabletop products, harkens to a time when quiet conversation and leisurely dining was commonplace and valued.

Especially when shopping. Long gone are most department store restaurants, where friends could break up the day and compare purchases over lunch or a cup of something hot, especially on a wintry day.

Also exceeding rare, and sometimes less revered, is the restaurant that preserves its past instead of reinventing itself through trends. The Sunshine Cake is one example. Another is the English muffins, made from scratch with buttermilk daily, and shipped overnight to adoring fans as far away as New York City. The muffins are on the breakfast menu.

“The whole concept of shopping, then breaking away to take a breath, has changed,” laments Chrisanne Robertson, vice president and fine crystal buyer at George Watts & Son Inc. She also is a watercolorist with degrees in art history/printmaking.

Chrisanne in 1974 was brought to Watts Tea Room for the first time, after her family moved to Milwaukee from Los Angeles. She was in her early teens and already had developed a taste for sophistication and elegance.

Within 10 years, she was working for George Watts, an employer whom she describes as “extremely approachable” but having “a larger than life personality.”

The proprietor, who died in 2005, was accustomed to speaking his mind, even when it was unpopular. He hired and promoted African Americans as his salesmen in the 1940s, lashed out against McCarthyism in the 1950s, collected 44 percent of the vote when running against Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist in 2000.

The ginkgo leaf, a symbol of long life, remains a part of the business logo because of George’s insistence on planting ginkgo trees downtown. The tearoom’s Gallery of Civic Heroism is a testament to the more contemporary social issues that Watts favored.

But her boss also learned to bend, Chrisanne says. That includes adding wines to the tearoom menu, even though he was a Christian Scientist and did not drink alcohol. The shop, which specializes in “some of the fine museum pieces of the future,” also carries Fair Trade merchandise and supports the work of emerging local artists.

It is an effort to unite the world, respect traditions and maintain respect for the world’s finest china, crystal and other tableware, much of it handmade. Wedgewood, Waterford, Lenox, SteubenGlass, Royal Worcester, Swarovski and Moser are a few of the product lines.

“We like the ambiance,” says Darlene Jirikowic of Milwaukee, while finishing lunch with her mother, Grace Jirikowic of Bayfield, and 3-year-old son, Riley. Darlene has been coming to the tearoom since her oldest child, now 17, was a toddler.

“I have always been treated very well here, no matter how young my children have been,” she says.

For Chrisanne, it’s all a matter of identifying and celebrating the planet’s uniqueness. “When I travel,” she says, “I seek that which is different. It’s exceedingly rare to see something other than the homogenized” businesses and “canned strip mall experience” that can be found just about anywhere.

For more about George Watts & Son Inc., 761 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee: www.georgewatts.com, 800-747-9288.

The tearoom presents “Breakfast with Santa” at 9 a.m. Dec. 8 and 15. Cost is $14.95 per person. On the menu: Blueberry Christmas Pudding (French toast filled with blueberries and vanilla custard), Apple Sauce, potato casserole, bacon and juice/coffee/tea.

Reservations are required; call 414-290-5720.

A three-week set of etiquette classes for children, ages 7-12, will be 9:30-11 a.m. Jan. 12, 19 and 26. Cost is $84. Topics will include the art of conversation, how to write memorable thank-you notes and restaurant dining etiquette.

Reservations are required; call 414-352-1707.

Chrisanne Robertson will sign her series of whimsical fused glass plates, which showcase Midwest cityscapes, on Dec. 15 at Savior Faire Cards & Gifts, Greenway Station, 1701 Deming Way, Middleton.