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HIGH on TEA

Military men in fatigues enter, their combat boots pounding the hardwood floors. A former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback pulls up on his Harley, his wife hugging his waist. A father strolls in, guiding his 3-year-old daughter by the hand.

They are all going to afternoon tea.

Teahouses, popular among women for baby and bridal showers, birthdays and book clubs, are not just for ladies in fancy hats anymore.

Husbands, boyfriends, children and even athletes have been known to accompany women to teahouses in South Tampa for a respite from the chaotic world. Some even come alone.

They sit at linen-covered tables strewn with rose petals, sip exotic teas from fine china painted in floral patterns and nibble on cucumber sandwiches shaped like daisies.

The concept has proved so popular locally that one teahouse is scaling back its seating to maintain an intimate feel, another has added Sunday hours and a third has put etiquette classes for girls on hold because they don't have time to arrange them.

The Royal Tea Room, Rosemary Cottage Tea Room and the House of Two Sisters duplicate the English tradition of teatime once reserved for women in white gloves and lace-trimmed dresses.

Their core customer base remains women, but they don't drop a teacup when men walk through the doors.

"(Men) are finding out they can be on a one-on-one basis with their wives," said Beth Andersen, who runs Rosemary Cottage on S MacDill Avenue with her daughter, Angi Heath. "It's quiet time to sit and visit and get away from the world."

B.J. Harris, a Lutz financial adviser, occasionally meets his wife for tea in the middle of a busy work day.

"It's a froufrou place," Harris said. "But I like it because it makes the wife real happy."

Harris' wife, Darby, isn't the only woman he has treated to tea. He has held informational seminars for female clients at the House of Two Sisters on S Howard Avenue. He offers his financial expertise while they enjoy tea in a cozy setting.

The three South Tampa tearooms each have adjoining antique shops filled with vintage and eclectic gifts, from red hatpins to hard-to-find pottery.

Their food selections vary, and their styles reflect their owners. All offer the same enticements _ a place to celebrate, reconnect with friends and loved ones, shed your worries and lose track of time.

"We love it, and we have a ball," said Samantha Szulerecki, a self-proclaimed tearoom connoisseur from Parrish who recently visited the Royal Tea Room on S MacDill Avenue.

Szulerecki and nine of her friends nibbled on chicken salad croissants, slathered strawberry preserves and clotted cream over black currant scones, and laughed over lemon bars and a rich chocolate bundt cake.

The tea of the day was Yuletide, a slightly fruity mixture of cranberries, almonds and cinnamon.

The setting was the perfect outing for the group, dressed in purple and donning red hats adorned with feathers, lace and ribbon.

Szulerecki estimates she has visited nearly 100 tearooms in the southern United States in the past decade. She makes a point of going to at least one during every vacation.

"This is one of the best," Szulerecki said after her first trip to the Royal Tea Room. "And I'm not just saying that."

The tearoom experience is like a day at the spa for the soul. Guests must make reservations so owners can prepare the food fresh. They also accommodate vegetarian requests.

South Tampa tearooms offer their own versions of the traditional cucumber sandwich and chicken salad croissants, and present scones, finger sandwiches and desserts on a three-tiered platter. As is customary at teahouses, you start eating from the bottom platter and work your way up.

At the Royal Tea Room and Gift Shoppe, one of Tampa's first tearooms, owner Denise Winter serves afternoon tea in the back room, where white tulle dips from the ceilings and amber crystals glazed in caramel sweeten your tea.

Winter, who prepares 95 percent of the food herself, wraps her desserts in delicate paper cups imported from Switzerland.

She cuts her cucumber sandwiches into the shape of daisies.

For kids, she creates peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese in the shapes of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. She replaces the tea with apple juice.

Winter offers 40 tea blends. Saturdays are often booked for private parties, although she tries to reserve one teatime for other customers. Former Buccaneers quarterback Steve DeBerg once accompanied his wife on a motorcycle.

If seating is available, you can drop in for Cream Tea, an endless pot of tea and a scone. In the past Winter has offered an etiquette class for young girls in which she teaches the history of afternoon tea and how to prepare, pour and drink it.

The gift shop, which covers several small rooms in the building, sells antiques and trendy items for ladies, such as flower slippers similar to the ones worn by Charlotte York in Sex and the City for $44.

Rosemary Cottage, the largest of local teahouses, offers several rooms with different themes. The Shakespeare Room is decorated in a masculine burgundy and includes a couch where customers can lounge and read the paper.

Rose petals are strewn over each table. The owners offer more than 80 types of tea, which is served all day for walk-in customers. The 3-year-old teahouse employs its own pastry chef, and all of the food is prepared on-site.

The teahouse seats about 50 people. At capacity, however, the owners felt it lost some of its charm so they decided to eliminate some seats and use the space for the gift shop.

The shop offers an assortment of soaps, antiques, candles and even children's clothing. It carries one of "Oprah's Favorite Things" _ a reversible satin and chenille robe for $199.

The House of Two Sisters operates out of a small bungalow. Sisters Debra Vallejo and Diane Reynolds (a third lives out of state) opened the tearoom in March 2002.

Each room of the house has been converted into group and private tearooms decorated in Victorian or French-country style.

The sisters serve about 20 types of tea and recently began serving finger sandwiches made with bread baked at the Great Harvest Bread Company.

They pride themselves on the intimate ambience and privacy. To cut down on interruptions, they encourage customers to pour their own tea and ring a bell when they need the pot refilled.

The owners reserve Sundays for special events. They personalize the tables by writing the guest's name on a ceramic nameplate.

"Our customers seem to really enjoy the intimate and cozy feel," Vallejo said.

Tea connoisseurs throughout the United States post their teahouse experiences on various message boards, such as www.catteacorner.com/tearooms.htm and www.teamap.com.

On the sites, fans exchange recipes, rank teahouses and sell tea. After a few visits to teahouses, many people admit they get hooked.

"Once they go to a tearoom, and if they've had an enjoyable experience, they start going to them all," Winter said. "They'll find a favorite and go over and over again."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at 226-3403 or nguyensptimes.com.

Julia Thornbrough, center, serves tea to a group of women gathered for a baby shower at the Royal Tea Room on S MacDill Avenue. Owner Denise Winter serves 40 tea blends and an afternoon tea. She prepares 95 percent of the food herself, cutting cucumber sandwiches into the shape of daisies.

Allison Beard of Palma Ceia sips tea during a bridal luncheon thrown by Kristin Arnold Ruyle, also of Palma Ceia, at Rosemary Cottage.

Elaine Moore, left, and Judy O'Gorman, both of Homosassa, sit underneath a canopy at the Romeo and Juliet table at Rosemary Cottage Tea Room. More than 80 types of tea are served, and the teahouse employs its own pastry chef.

Teahouses at a glance

HOUSE OF TWO SISTERS

204 S Howard Ave.

258-8220

Afternoon teatimes: 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with reservations. Sundays available for private events with reservations.

Cost: $11.95 per person, including tea and light fare; $5.95 for Just For Me Tea (unlimited tea with two scones for walk-in customers after 3 p.m.)

Gift shop hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

ROSEMARY COTTAGE TEA ROOM AND BOUTIQUE

4006 S MacDill Ave.

805-6601

Afternoon teatimes: 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with reservations.

Cost: $14.95 per person, including tea and light fare; $2.50 unlimited tea for walk-in customers any time.

Gift shop hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

ROYAL TEA ROOM AND GIFT SHOPPE

2719 S MacDill Ave.

837-3000

Afternoon teatimes: 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with reservations.

Cost: $13.95 per person, including tea and light fare; $4.95 for Cream Tea (unlimited tea and one scone for walk-in customers any time).

Gift shop hours: 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

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