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Most people get excited about Spoleto, Charleston's annual and very international arts festival, for the promise of Mozart and ballet. While that is all very well and good, I get excited about Spoleto because its advent also marks the start of one of Charleston's most delicious dining events— Grace Episcopal Church Tea Room. The two, it just so happens, coincide during a two-week run that begins and ends with Spoleto. Consummately Southern, the church's main hall and gardens glitter with all chintz, hydrangea, bow ties, and smiles a' plenty from the church ladies. An elderly man sporting seersucker plays uplifting piano tunes in a corner of the large room. It's just too much fun, and all proceeds are distributed to local charities selected by the church, which recently underwent extensive renovations, leaving her more stunningly beautiful than ever.
The abbreviated menu is Huguenot-inspired and many of the recipes come directly from the family recipe boxes of old Charleston families and members of the congregation. Vat upon vat of the steaming, rich, crab-laden She crab soup (one of the best sellers) is produced daily by the all-volunteer kitchen. The soup ($6) is served with a small paper liner (to prevent staining the table, indeed) and a cruet of sherry. There is also a fabulous, chunky okra soup and generously herbed tomato soup on this year's menu. The shrimp remoulade ($8) is very generously portioned and mild, with pink, sweet shrimp barely bound with a mustard-mayonnaise dressing and served with a mound of grated, fresh carrots and cucumbers. This, along with the almond, curry chicken salad, is offered with the choice of crackers or a croissant. There are also several sandwiches available, including a diminutive ham biscuit ($4) filled with salty, aged ham on a fresh buttermilk biscuit slathered with a Dijon butter poppyseed spread.
Sherry-Laced She Crab Soup and Shrimp Remoulade Salad
But let's get down to what Grace is best known for—the huge, beautiful dessert trays that are ushered throughout the dining room by delicate ladies before eager eyes. It reaches most people's table (as it did ours), just as you're finishing lunch. A lady and gentleman describe each dessert and you make your choice. It sounds easy enough, but it's a grueling decision! Everything is dressed with freshly whipped cream and mint and one is as beautiful as the next ($4 each). The Huguenot Torte, a crunchy, sweet meringue concoction, is an especially warranted indulgence that I personally look forward to every year, but really, all desserts are exceptional.
Lunch comes with your choice of iced tea (seasoned well with fresh mint and lemon), coffee, hot tea, milk and water. Now, if only they were open all year-round! You have until next Saturday to check it out if you're in Charleston. I highly recommend that you do.
Grace Episcopal Church Tea Room
98 Wentworth Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Take-Out: (843) 723-8587
(Photos courtesy Grace Episcopal Church)
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