I can remember when Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was commonly referred to as Bloemendaal and consisted merely of a wonderful old white house, some daylilies and a wide-open meadow. My, have things changed. The garden has grown exponentially to include all manner of streams, waterfalls and ponds, not to mention fabulous displays of flora in bloom practically year round.
The Lora and Claiborne Robins Tea House perches discreetly among the trees and grasses. Located down a winding crushed stone path, the Tea House is gray wood and glass with a sunny deck and views of gardens in every direction. Even under stormy skies, the place had a certain visual appeal on a recent day as raindrops plopped down on a nearby pond.
Lunch at the Tea House might just be the perfect antidote to busy summer days spent grabbing a bite from the King O' Burgers drive-through. But be forewarned, this is not a venture for the faint of wallet. First, in order to get to the Tea House, you must pay the $5 admission fee to the garden, whether or not you plan to tour the garden. Then, you must order lunch from a menu assembled by the Bull & Bear Club, downtown's fancy high-rise dining room. The least expensive lunch can be had for $7.50.
Settling into comfortable chairs covered with purple vinyl to accent the iris theme of the Tea House's interior, a friend and I perused the menu. Included are the Tea House strawberry salad ($9.75), a smoked turkey-breast sandwich ($8.75) and some entrees including a grilled chicken breast Provencal ($13.75) and roasted tangerine Chilean sea bass ($14.95).
While we waited, we glanced around at the clientele mostly older adults and the décor, an understated gray and purple scheme with irises on the carpet and Japanese paper lanterns hanging here and there. Our waitress arrived after about five minutes and took our orders but forgot to ask if we wanted anything to drink. She did, however, deliver some delicious, warm bread with basil and honey-whipped butter. Later, my friend requested a drink and chose a refreshing peach tea, the flavored tea of the day.
I ordered the special of the day ($13.95): spiced shrimp on a bed of mixed greens with a scoop of couscous and dressed with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Fifteen medium-sized chilled shrimp were subtly spiced with a toned-down Old Bay type of flavoring, and the salad was plentiful and very fresh. Sliced cherry tomatoes and julienned veggies accompanied the couscous which could have used a bit more pizzazz from herbs but added a bit of texture nevertheless.
My friend chose to start with a cup of the soup du jour, a corn and black bean chowder ($4) that was full of tomatoes and onions as well. It was piping hot and nicely seasoned, but she wished for a few more kernels of corn to go with the pureed black beans. For her main event, she ordered the grilled portabella sandwich ($9.25) with goat cheese and pesto served on a sun-dried tomato baguette. She opted to substitute mozzarella for goat cheese and reported that the sandwich was generally satisfactory even if the 'shroom was a bit overdone.
Our waitress brought a dessert tray for us to view, and although the "chocolate confession" pie looked mighty sinful, we decided to share strawberry shortcake ($3.75) and did not regret it. Freshly whipped cream with a sprig of mint topped the layers of shortcake with perfectly ripened berries.
While our lunches were good, I'm not sure I could rationalize popping over to the Tea House for a meal very often. Paying to get into a restaurant is not a great promotional policy. Couldn't the info booth folks issue you a special sticker proclaiming "Lunch Only"? I should mention, though, that visitors can eat in the garden's Visitor's Center cafeteria (also catered by Bull & Bear) without paying garden admission. Alas, if your grandmother is in town or you've got a special guest in tow, a trip to the Tea House could cap off a lovely day of wandering among the gardens admiring the astounding variety of beauty.
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