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Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘All-things English’: New tea room owner shares love for vintage china, family lineage

WILMINGTON — High tea is not just for the British. 

In Wilmington, a small shop near Sunset Park is bringing the experience to locals in its modern tea room that opened in May.

Founder Karen Allen is an antique teapot and china collector who has been patronizing tea rooms during her travels for years. Since opening The Timeless Table — a reservation-only establishment — she has hosted just more than a dozen parties for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and baby showers.

“It’s a little bit different than other tea rooms, in that we really try to personalize the experience and make it elegant,” she said. “For instance, we only host one reservation at a time, so it’s really like your own party.”

The kitchen takes up 400 square feet while the front room where parties are hosted is roughly 300 square feet. Allen is adding on an outdoor patio to increase the footprint  but not without sacrificing its charm.

“I will probably always want to keep it pretty small,” she said. “It’s never going to be a high-volume business.”

The one-woman operation has Allen in the kitchen making finger sandwiches — roast beef and cheddar with horseradish cream on rye, chive-cream cheese and cucumber on white, egg salad on wheat, and of course a croissant filled with Coronation chicken, a curry recipe devised after Queen Elizabeth II.

Allen admittedly has always had a penchant for “all-things English,” something she attributes to her family lineage.

“My grandmother, who I never met, actually came from Scotland,” she said, “so, of course, tea for her was a big deal. And that carried on to my mom; her remedy for everything was to have a cup of tea.”

She serves Harney and Sons tea in almost a dozen flavors — Darjeeling, Earl Gray, Moroccan mint, chamomile and others. Normally, Allen chooses two to go with each menu for the party; however, if customers wish to select their own, she’s flexible. 

Sweets to dunk into the delicate cups include scones — traditional raisin and candied-ginger orange — served with clotted cream, raspberry jam and lemon curd.

Desserts often rotate and contain lemon cream cheese tarts, petit fours, banana bread and a chocolate flour pot. 

“It’s a white chocolate shell with a chocolate mousse and brownie crumble, with a little butter cream flour on the top,” she explained, all decorated with edible flowers. 

Everything is homemade and Allen sends guests home with one-of-a-kind inscribed cookies from the event. She also does special orders for decorated cookies. Though she enjoys cooking, the joy of interacting with others is the most fun. 

“I love talking to the people coming in and finding out what their story is and making each event special,” she said.

Allen carefully curates the place settings, complete with vintage linen tablecloths and napkins, and the three-tiered displays of finger foods. Roughly 100 sets of china and more than 50 teapots ensure she never uses the same hodgepodge twice.

Her love for tea in general began with one teapot in particular — an English brand, Sadler. It was her mother’s wedding gift, painted ivory with fruit and gilded gold leaf. 

“It just looks super fancy,” she said. “And I have three older sisters, so the teapot had really gone through the wars and wasn’t serviceable anymore.”

She wanted to replace it as a reminder of her youth, so she began searching on eBay. What she found was auctions were taking place aplenty for china in general. Some items she purchased were 100 years old and in mint condition. 

Her oldest was made in the 1800s, though most items are English bone china, made of clay, stone and bone ash.  

“I hate to say it, but I usually get most of this stuff because somebody has died and the kids don’t want the china so they’re putting it up for auction,” Allen said.

Eight years since the hobby began, her collection continues to grow, with careful care (she never cleans it in a dishwasher, only by hand), and now she wants to share its joy with others.

“We’re still moving all of my personal collection at my house to the tea room,” she said.

Her family relocated to Wilmington from Texas a few years ago so her husband could take a job with PPD and she began toying with the idea of launching a business. She said the historic vibe of the Port City was a simpatico market for a tea room.

“With all of the vintage houses and the tourists coming into town, it seemed like a good fit,” she said. 

It’s Allen’s first business venture; she had a career as a software programmer for JP Morgan before quitting to rear her two daughters, now in their 20s. She said the tea room is fun to embark on, as it combines all her loves — vintage china, party planning, baking and commingling.

The Timeless Table reservations must be made with a 48-hour notice — for as few as two and up to 10 for $50 per person. Allen also does off-site tea room experiences for larger parties.

The tea room is located at 1930 Carolina Beach Road, near Tennessee Avenue, in a strip mall the Allens purchased and have been renovating. The store is bright and welcoming, with a color palette of whites, grays and blacks that allow the colorful china and linens to stand out on the tables. The teapots also act as decor and peek through cubbies between the cabinetry.

The Timeless Table is joined in the plaza by an embroidery shop and two other vacant spaces. Allen’s goal is to fill the properties with businesses that accommodate the needs of Sunset Park neighbors nearby. 

“We had a guy who moved from New York City who told us he would really love a wine shop he could ride his bike to,” she said. “A florist shop would be fantastic — or a clothing boutique.”


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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