Road Trip Across the Pond

Road Trip Across the Pond

Featured in Art + Design Magazine written by Laurie Fisher

Thirteen colonies, fed up with Parliament, fought for and finally won their independence from Great Britain in 1776. True, this is the most defining moment in American history, but, looking back on it, isn’t it also a little disappointing? Since then, none of the fun things about British culture, like fascinators and rugby and whimsical slang (damp squib is a good one), have been able to take root in our general customs. Yet those looking for a British fix need only to visit the surprisingly international little town of Covington, Louisiana, which is only as far away as a jolly jaunt across the pond (Lake Pontchartrain, that is).

Founded by the son of a Scotsman and settled mostly by the British, Covington is the storybook “small Southern town” incarnate, with its curtains of Spanish moss and its friendly folk on front porches of charming old homes. Much like natural spas made Bath, England a historical health resort, Covington has also hosted gatherings of health-seekers. New Orleanians threatened by the yellow fever outbreaks of the late 1800s came in droves, seeking “the cure” from the ozonated waters of Abita Springs. As well as the natural beauty, there are many notable landmarks, too. Among them are H.J. Smith & Sons General Store, Southern Hotel, and, of course, the quite brilliant English Tea Room & Eatery.

Tim Lantrip, keen to Covington’s British presence, established The English Tea Room & Eatery in 2002, with a selection of 10 teas in a small room. His hunch that a tea room would “fit” in Covington is an understatement—The English Tea Room & Eatery has evolved into a destination for local and international visitors alike, boasting the largest selection of teas in the country. As well as being a perceptive business owner, Lantrip has also become the keeper of Covington’s British realm, so to speak, with his passion for history and all things Anglophile.

Over a robust cup of Scottish Breakfast, his face lit up with enthusiasm, Lantrip says his love for British culture is rooted in a childhood spent having tea with his British grandmother and great-grandmother. A British American history buff, especially when it comes to Louisiana, Lantrip serves up a wealth of fascinating trivia with every cup of tea. For example, St. Tammany Parish was not included in the original Louisiana Purchase, but was considered part of the British colony of West Florida. During the Revolutionary War, Covington was a haven for British loyalists. And there’s a probability Rutland Street, on which the tea room’s quaint cottage sits, may be named for an English Lord Rutland (though no one knows for sure).

Lantrip loves his visitors as much as he loves history, describing them as the “best thing” about the English Tea Room & Eatery. Guests come in from Japan, Bulgaria, and Uganda, and are greeted as warmly as those from Baton Rouge and Pensacola, all of whom are drawn in by the best kind of advertising—word of mouth.

Why is visiting this tea room, or any tea room really, so special?

Perhaps it is because of what we’ve lost in our go-cup, Starbucks world, something that drive-thru and take-out have stolen from American culture. Perhaps, we are missing restorative daytime rituals, like regular unions of food, conversation, and a comfortable atmosphere, meant to rally the body and spirit for the duration of the day.

The environment of the tea room is conducive to such an afternoon intermission, with its cottage porch, oak-shaded garden, and sunlight streaming through old windows onto its hardwood floors. The interior décor has an eccentric charm, with plenty of British vestige to start conversations and keep them interesting. Lantrip’s extensive Toby Jug collection lines the ceilings, while the cast of Downton Abbey (in life-size cutout forms) watches over guests’ teatime etiquette. Although the teacups are floral and the tablecloths are lacy, the tea room is not confined to feminine tastes. The masculine “Winston Churchill Room” is a cozy space with a roomy leather sofa, dark walls, and a decorative visual presence of the famed prime minister. And more than the small and sweet bits and bobs on the menu, there are blokey options, like bangers and mash and steak and kidney pie, made the Olde English way. Marmite sandwiches are also available for the true British diehards or for the American-born patrons who want to earn the respect for eating a sandwich of gelatinous yeast paste.

Similar to Covington’s identity as a town, America’s national personality is the unified whole of parts from a world’s worth of character. Lantrip preserves a slice of our parentage at his English Tea Room & Eatery, where no passport is needed for a proper holiday.