Polly Claire’s Tearoom Offers a Spot of Tea
A reality TV film crew scurries in and out of Polly Claire’s tearoom in Chattanooga, setting up for an interview in one of the seven dining rooms.
“They needed a quintessential Southern place for the scene,” says owner Rashelle Stafford, taking a short break before she makes fresh lemon curd for today’s afternoon tea. “This is their second time to film here.”
As soon as the lunch hour strikes, the cameramen disappear and everything magically falls into place. Patrons sniff vials of loose-leaf teas before ordering fat pitchers of popular blends like Buckingham Palace and Belgian Chocolate Rooibos to sip from charmingly mismatched Royal Albert china rimmed in 18-karat gold. Plates of warm scones, chicken pot pie, and dill salmon parade through the downstairs dining rooms overlooking an outdoor fountain and park.
Since its grand opening in the Historic Dent House in September 2016, Polly Claire’s has garnered a loyal following, mostly by word of mouth, of tea lovers from across the state and beyond.
If You Go...
Polly Claire’s at the Historic Dent House
Location: 6178 Adamson Circle in Chattanooga
Phone: (423) 521-4832
Hours: Open for lunch and tea Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner service Friday and Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m.; closed on Sundays.
Stafford, 47, is a former teacher who lived in London for 18 months while her husband studied at the Royal College of Surgery there. For years after moving back home, she hosted afternoon teas at her home on a 72-acre beef, pork and dairy farm near Chattanooga. “We would invite elderly people over, and I would let the kids make little finger sandwiches and cupcakes and pastries,” Stafford says. “I put the boys in little black suits, and let them serve the ladies and make tea.”
Then one day in February 2016, she and her teenage daughters Polly and Claire, who’ve been avid china collectors since they were little, were having lunch when she proposed an idea. “Girls, we already have so many tea parties at our home,” she reminded them. “We could have our own tearoom, use Gran Joyce’s scone recipes, and have so much fun.”
After that, Stafford says, “We were off to the races.”
Steeped in History
The next step was finding just the right place. Of the five locations Stafford looked at, the antebellum Historic Dent House, with its centuries-old oaks and magnolias, was by far her favorite. But it was priced out of her range. So she wrote a letter of intent with a counter-offer to the owner, the neighboring Chattanooga Church, which approved of her business plan and reduced the price.
The 5,200-square-foot, two-story mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, dates back to 1854, when a railroad contractor built it and the 1,200-square-foot carriage house out back. Over the years, the structure housed a military field hospital, a meat-and-three diner, a bed-and-breakfast inn, church offices and the Bonny Oaks Children’s Home, which for nearly 100 years starting at the end of the Civil War, harbored orphans and children whose single parents couldn’t afford to raise them.
During the renovation, Stafford replaced the carpet with marble but left the pine floors, interior doors, and other original furnishings intact and pulled the boards off the transoms to let in extra light. On the first-floor dining room walls, she hung abstract groupings of china and, in the foyer, a collection of ladies’ brimmed hats, from frilly to regal.
“We’ve had quite a few people who have been in the home many times as children say it’s really never been this beautiful,” Stafford says. “People come in and tell us their memories and their stories.”
British-inspired, but with “an American flair,” Polly Claire’s is open for lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, when the tearoom serves upscale dishes such as chicken cordon bleu and Beef Wellington with wild mushroom beurre blanc. Much of the produce and meat come from local farms, including Stafford’s. “We put a twist on our Southern food so that we make it our own,” she says. “Our shrimp and grits [dish] is not spicy. It’s smoky. Our tomato pie – whoever orders it will not deviate from that on their next visit.
“I feel like I’m a home cook that went rogue,” she adds, laughing.
Most of the food served at “high” teas, Stafford points out, is loaded with refined white flour and sugar. To balance sweet treats like the family-recipe vanilla bean scones and cheesecake-filled strawberries, she offers crab soufflé, deviled eggs with candied bacon, and other protein nibbles.
Polly and Claire, now 17 and 18, work onsite one day a week and give short talks on china, the history of the Dent family, and other topics. The entire staff is tested on china patterns, the background of the house, and the 27 varieties of black, green and red teas served here. A gift shop in the old carriage house sells china, tiered serving dishes, and other accessories, and the rooms of the main house are available for event rentals.
“When I lived in England, everyone offered the cup of tea, which didn’t really mean that you needed any kind of nourishment at all. It meant: Will you sit down for a moment, take a breath, and let’s talk?” Stafford says. “When people come here, it’s as if everything [else] goes away.”