Sofia Valles makes more than just a good cup of tea. She makes a home away from home. Her tearoom is nestled in a 1950s Old Florida house with terrazzo floors and an enormous cactus out front that blocks the view of busy Henderson Boulevard. Valles and her family and friends painted the rooms saffron yellow with white trim, hung paintings and outfitted the dining areas with good antique furniture. Toile cloth covers the tables, and china plates decorate the walls.
It's the kind of place you could bring your mom or aunt, dad or brother-in-law.
"I didn't want anything too froufrou," Valles says. "I wanted an old-world European look, a place where men could feel comfortable, too."
Sofia's Tea Room and Gift Shoppe at 2302 S Hubert Ave. is easy to miss because it's overshadowed by a purple building that houses a wig shop, but Valles' customers have managed to find her for years.
In front of the picture window, two old friends sipped tea and talked one day recently while Valles pulled huge cookie sheets of pastry from the oven. A few years ago, Peggy Dilles threw a wedding shower for her friend Angela Xinidis. Xinidis moved to Sarasota, but when she's in Tampa she still meets Dilles, of Lutz, for tea at Sofia's.
"This is the best place. We always have to come for tea," said Dilles, who was sipping raspberry cream tea and eating delicate sandwiches and pastries. "People think it's just a tearoom, but the food is really delicious."
Valles, 61, grew up in Ybor City. Her family didn't cook, but Sofia did, turning out cakes and pastries by the dozen, giving away the ones that didn't look beautiful. Over the years, she did a lot of things, including raise a family. She worked at the old Kress department store downtown and as a secretary for a painting company. For a while, she worked as a server for a large catering company, an on-the-job learning experience that taught her more sophisticated cooking techniques.
"I really learned a lot doing that, including the business side of things," she recalls.
About a decade ago, Valles began throwing tea parties for her friends. She fed them her delicious pastries and plied them with good tea. It was a semiregular event and a good way to socialize with the people she cared about, she thought. The funny thing was that Sofia was a lifelong cafe con leche drinker — a taste acquired from her years living in Ybor.
In fact, she still loves a cup in the morning and again at night.
She started to love tea just as much after a trip to a tearoom 16 years ago. She soon hit every tearoom in the Tampa Bay area with her daughter, dreaming of opening her own someday.
Five years ago, while she was recovering from treatment for breast cancer, her friends encouraged her to open the tearoom. One night while out to dinner with another couple, she and her husband, Frank, stumbled across the little house on Hubert Avenue.
"We thought it looked perfect and called the owner right away," she recalls.
Friends and family members renovated the interior and decorated it with style. A large topiary teapot graces the entrance. A Welch dresser from the Other Side antiques holds the stacks of china Valles had been collecting for years.
"I really wanted it to be elegant," Valles explains. "When I married Frank, I would drag him to tearooms and he didn't want to go inside because he said, 'It's all ladies in there.' "
As a result of her focused, decidedly nongirlie taste, she attracts a range of customers — including men who come for an afternoon break or who bring their daughters. She sells a variety of lovely black and green teas, "and all the desserts are homemade."
So are the tea sandwiches. Customers love her curried egg salad and smoked turkey with arugula.
Last spring, she closed the tea shop for two weeks when she found out that her breast cancer had returned. During the weeks she recovered from surgery, friends and family staffed the tearoom. One friend even traveled from Fort Myers to help out. Her sister-in-law waited tables. Frank washed the dishes.
For this, Sofia is grateful. For this, she pours more tea for the girls who chat by the cactus tree as the afternoon fades.
The cactus starts blooming large exotic flowers as the day begins to fade. The plant is a permanent fixture, as important as the large wing chair that sits in the corner and beckons guests to linger.
"I just want people who come to the tearoom to feel like they've come home," she says. "It's important for friends to sit down once in a while and have a cup of tea together."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected]