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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mary Alice Higbie was advised to not follow her dream of opening a tearoom in her hometown.
It was a suggestion that fell to the wayside.
“I knew there were people here who would enjoy this,” Higbie says.
Twenty years later, Higbie is not only living her dream, but has cultivated a feeling of family at The St. James Tearoom.
It’s a feeling of satisfaction felt not only by her, but by many of her customers.
Take for instance, the Ed Norton Gang, who come together at The St. James Tearoom once a month.
They will tell you they are there for matchmaking and investigations.
But really it’s for camaraderie and friendship – all enjoyed over a pot of tea.
Often, the Ed Norton Gang – Rita and Jim Peaslee and Sally and Bob Lowder – are tucked into 18 Duke Street at The St. James Tearoom, sipping Indian Assam, and well, spilling the proverbial tea.
The Ed Norton Gang – whose nickname is a nod to the classic TV show the “The Honeymooners” – consider the staff at St. James as more like family.
“We’ve been through a lot of wait staff,” says Rita Peaslee. “They go through high school, college, marriage.”
Bob Lowder echoes that feeling.
“The young ladies on staff are like family,” Bob Lowder says. “We watch them grow up and get married.”
Higbie, co-owner of The St. James Tearoom, notes that is a common sentiment among guests.
“We have so many like that (the Ed Norton Gang). They feel like a real part of the family. Over 20 years, that’s a long-term relationship.” says Higbie.
Twenty years of tea
The St. James Tearoom opened on Dec. 4, 1999, at a location near Old Town.
Growing up in New Mexico, Higbie’s love for tea started early, her childhood was filled with time spent indoors because she was ill. This was when her imagination began to foster the idea of a world filled with tea.
“I didn’t go outside and play,” Higbie says. “I played tea party in my bed. I had tea with Queen Elizabeth and the Queen of Sheba.
She opened The St. James Tearoom with the purpose statement of “grace, civility, beauty, gentility, and excellence,” giving another opportunity of British afternoon tea to the Duke City.
“All of my furniture, all of my china, went to the tearoom,” Higbie says. “When we first opened, there were six or seven seating areas.”
At night, she would take everything home to wash in preparation for the next day.
“For me personally, just the joy of being able to do what I wanted to do. My little thing to give to the world,” says Higbie, describing what she considers one of the highs she’s experienced at St. James. “…We started growing. I get to work with the neatest people, creative and dedicated.”
Ten years ago, co-owners Mary Alice Higbie, and her son, Daniel, decided they needed their own place, and build it to their needs. St. James now exists at 320 Osuna Road NE, Bldg. D.
It features nine seating areas in nooks and eight seating areas in the library, as well as a market that sells teas and tea time accessories.
“(St. James) provides what people really need. In a screen world, it’s hard to find ways to connect face-to-face,” Higbie says. “The thing I did right from the beginning was making sure it was a two-hour reservation time. It gives people time to connect with the people they bring.”
St. James offers a rotating fixed menu tailored to a monthly theme. This year kicked off with “Welcome to the Roaring 20’s,” a “Downton Abbey”-inspired menu that was a nod to St. James’ 20th anniversary and the beginning of the 2020s. The March menu is “Dublin’s Fare: Cheers to Arthur Guinness!”
“People love our themes,” says Higbie. “… People love to dress up. There’s that child-like fun.”
As for her personal favorite of the themed menus?
“One of my favorites, Christmas, of course,” Higbie smiles. “Every month I say, ‘This is my favorite!’ ”
Lace curtains and laurels
Victoria Candelaria remembers when St. James first opened its doors. She was working on alterations at a shop next to the fledgling business, with her granddaughter at hand.
“She (her granddaughter) pressed her face in the window. She loved the lace curtains,” said Candelaria. “Mary Alice let us in.”
Candelaria and her granddaughter, who was nine then, still come for tea regularly after that fateful encounter. Candelaria says the tearoom is a special place for herself and her granddaughters over the past 20 years.
“They still want to come with me at 31 (years old),” she said. While her own children have expressed interest in coming to tea, Candelaria explains to them. “Sorry, this is just for granddaughters.”
Higbie embraces the close personal relationships that are built at the tearoom.
“One of the joyful things about the tearoom is people can be their own unique, quirky selves. Everyone is unique,” she said.
In 2008, St. James was featured in the book “The Great Tea Rooms of America,” by Bruce Richardson and was listed as one of “Five great American tearooms” by CNN.com. It was also the 2014 winner of Best Tea Room Website from the World Tea Awards.
“I just want people to enjoy tea. I don’t want my guests to worry which spoon,” says Higbie.
Bells chime throughout the tearoom signaling that tea time is coming to a close.
“Uh-oh!” the Ed Norton Gang and Candelaria say almost in unison.
Sally Lowder talks about the usual end of tea time.
“Our muscles are so tired from laughing,” Sally Lowder says. “Hours of smiles and laughing.”
“They’re rascals,” says Higbie with a smile. “You guys are in the handbook.”
“Most of the ones (the servers), when they figure us out, they give it right back,” Bob Lowder tells Higbie. “They do a fantastic group of hiring. Not a bad apple in the bunch.”
Eventually the group stands and gives Higbie hugs and words of love. The staff of St. James gets the tearoom ready for the next session.
As for the Ed Norton Gang, well, once a month you know where to find them.
St. James Tearoom offers a two-hour tea time with a monthly fixed menu, with options for vegetarian, gluten-free, or children ages 4 to 10, by reservation only.
Seating times are 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m. Sunday; closed MondayFor reservations stjamestearoom.com or 242-3752