Way out in the Avenues is a tasty little secret called Tal-Y-Tara, the only equestrian shop within an hour of San Francisco. Past the sweet smell of leather riding boots and scads of horse-related wares are half a dozen antique tables and chairs, plus an outdoor patio garden, that comprise one of America's most charming teahouses.
Tal-Y-Tara's own secret is called the Motorloaf ($12.50), a century-old recipe that the proprietor's great-great aunt clipped from a women's magazine. In her day, trips in newfangled motorcars, or "motoring," was the rage, so this dark, slightly sweet bread-and-sandwich combo was designed wide and flat to sit firmly on the vehicle's interior floor. The Motorloaf includes a set of mini-sandwiches (cucumber and watercress, ham and cheese, egg salad with capers, etc.) cut from and nestled within the loaf's frame, which you can pull apart and smear with butter or jam. It's a beautiful piece of edible architecture, and a perfect accompaniment for tea. You can also order Motorloaf with seasonal fruit and cheese ($6), or simply with butter or cream cheese ($4). Tal-Y-Tara is the only restaurant in the world known to serve this dish, and they're guarding the recipe closely.
The scones come paired with butter ($5) or authentic, clotted, Devonshire cream ($5.50), and seasonal jams like raspberry and the more subtle gooseberry. To sate a more urgent sweet tooth, try the English trifle ($6): layers of sherry-soaked pound cake, homemade jam, fresh berries and a custard that binds it together in a swirl. The only "imported" items are the authentic crumpets ($4), delivered regularly by a second-generation British baker from San Rafael. There are over 85 teas available, from the regal Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Anne, or Prince of Wales varieties, to more mysterious tastes like Nilgiri, Golden Needle, and Sherlock Holmes. The tea for two ($5), a huge pot swaddled in a nappy plaid cozy, is the high-caffeine bargain.
But Tal-Y-Tara's atmosphere is what wins you over. Under graceful hanging lights retrieved from an ancient chapel, amid the cozy built-in parlor adorned with equine knick-knacks and photos, you'll imbibe not just tea, but also charm from another era. The décor includes a late eighteenth-century carved oak mantle taken from a French castle, with a built-in clock that works when wound! Tal-Y-Tara's romantic intimacy is almost a literary step back in time, making it a "spot-on" choice for late breakfast or early evening dates, a warm retreat from stormy weather, and idyllic for either friendly conversations or more girly gatherings like wedding showers.
Tara was the ancient meeting place of Irish kings, who convened to discuss the pesky business of feudal property management, so Tal-Y-Tara means "with the kings." Even with the lovely blue floral china surrounding you, there's none of the stuffy formality associated with "high tea" here. This is a small, family-run business (Irish mother, British father and San Franciscan son) that lends support to the Meakins' primary charitable interest: introducing disabled children to the joys of horseback riding. That's a warm feeling that will fill you far beyond the teapot. Tally-ho! - By Joe Jarrell