TEATIME IN CHARLESTON

BY M.S. LAWRENCE

When the owner-chefs of Twenty Six Divine Tearoom expanded the lunch menu at their cozy, off-the-beaten-path restaurant on Charleston’s upper King Street to offer afternoon tea, they didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. The couple and business partners soon realized they’d found a niche in the area’s busy and highly competitive food and beverage scene.

“We’d always encouraged customers to linger over a long lunch, to enjoy a relaxing experience, and we catered to that with an unrushed environment, including amuse-bouche and wine,” says Jenn Parezo, who owns and manages Twenty Six Divine along with her husband, Enan. The slow and appreciative pace of afternoon tea was in keeping with the couple’s style and outlook on food service. With culinary degrees from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale and Johnson & Wales University, respectively, the Parezos embraced the chance to offer the civilized midday meal in a city that seems to call for it.

“Many people come to Charleston expecting a chance to have tea,” says Jenn Parezo. “It’s a tradition that’s worth holding on to.”

Though tearooms in Charleston date to the 1800s, today it’s hard to find a fullservice afternoon tea in the area. For a fleeting period each spring (that seems to come and go as quickly as an azalea bloom) local churches keep the tradition alive with onsite tearooms that feature classic Southern luncheon items, such as okra soup, ham biscuits, shrimp salad and, most famously, old-school Charleston desserts, like Lady Baltimore cake and Huguenot torte. Staffed by church volunteers, these weeklong tearooms raise money for church charities, programs and outreach.

If you miss one of these shortlived “pop-up” tearooms, head to Twenty Six Divine. At several small tables in a Charleston Single House on upper King, the Parezos serve what they call a modern Southern tea: Charleston Tea Plantation loose and herbal teas, tea sandwiches, petite desserts, pastries, scones, jams and curds. Sandwiches and small bites often include Enan Parezo’s lemon basil chicken salad, his famous pimento cheese, and Jenn Parezo’s smoked salmon cucumber cups. Handmade desserts often include salted caramel truffles and chocolate orange biscotti.

The mini delights are served on fanciful tiered trays alongside assorted and whimsical teapots, teacups and saucers. A selection of hats on a nearby sideboard invites customers to create a special mood.

“We’ve modernized our tea service just enough to pique the interest of the younger generation, the first-timers who are being introduced to its civility,” says Jenn Parezo. “But we’ve kept it sophisticated enough that experienced tea-takers will find their high standards are met.” Modern updates include the options of kombucha, hard cider, wine and champagne.

Jenn Parezo makes all the scones and desserts, as well as the jams, compotes and curds from scratch. “I really love detail work,” she says. She also loves talking with customers and being in the mix, making sure they feel catered to and special. The cozy space seats just 18, and reservations are required 24 hours in advance. “We want people to be comfortable. We encourage them to slow down and relax,” she says. “We love wine, food and art, and we’re lucky that this space allows us to enjoy it all.”

Twenty Six Divine is open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Afternoon tea, $28 per person, is by reservation. Private events can be arranged, depending on availability. Every third Wednesday evening, Twenty Six Divine hosts and celebrates a local artist, author, designer, healer or creator with wine and tea tasting, light hors d’oeuvres and petite desserts.

“A customer told me recently, ‘I feel like I’m Alice in Wonderland here,’” Jenn Parezo says. “That is really the perfect compliment and exactly the kind of magical setting we’re trying to create!”

M.S. Lawrence, a writer and journalist, lives in Charleston.