Style of restaurant popular in the early 20th century, chiefly found in (duh) New England, but originally found in New York's Greenwich Village. The first such was the Mad Hatter, established in a basement on W. 4th. St. where "eloh tibbar eht nwoD" stenciled over the stairwell served as the only sign of business.
Inside, Edith Unger, a sculptress and Jimmie Criswell (later to be married to Hendrik Willem van Loon), served homey hot soups and sandwiches as well as tea, coffee, and similar drinks at all hours and well into the night. (Since, in Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Tea Party lasted forever, so did the Mad Hatter's revels...) Soon, other, similar establishments were thriving all over the West Village, marked by female proprietors, clever names (the Green Witch, the Fat Black Pussy Cat, the Pirates' Den were just a sample), colorful decor, and quirks and gimmicks galore.
These places provided a haven for the burgeoning female population of the Village, who, having come from small towns elsewhere were often hungry and in search of a place to congregate, yet wary of venturing alone into bars or restaurants. Soon the idea spread in the 1920's to various college towns around the Northeast, often appearing as part of a fashionable faux -Edwin Lutyens commercial block, with an old-fashioned painted sign showing a pair of conversing people (often in picturesque dress) the well-nigh universal symbol of the trade.
As indicated before, gimmicks were de rigeur. Decor often centered around a theme, such as Mother Goose or fairy tale, Old England, The Mysterious East (which covered everything from Morocco to Japan), Gypsy, Rococo, Futurist, Seaside or simply "Colonial", with dishware, costumed waitresses, and menus decorated to match. (Victorian themes were, oddly, shunned.) Food was again, homey with touches of the the exotic: almost every tearoom worth its salt had a fairly bland entree or sandwich as a specialty, and at least one novelty dish, usually an appetizer, salad, or dessert, made interesting by an unusual combination of flavors, creative presentation, or simply a goodly dose of food coloring. Another popular menu item was to include paper and the loan of a dip pen and ink for impromptu poeticizing (writing in public was considered cool back then) or more prosaically, last-minute revisions of term papers and the like; some also had public-access typewriters as well, in the manner of today's internet cafes. Further developments of the theme often included mechanical dolls and entertainments such as tableside fortunetelling and the like, providing a complete afternoon of escapism, similar to the movie palaces of the day. At night, some of these places metamorphed into cabarets as well, and served liquor (in tea cups, natch!) on the sly.
One would think such a frivolous idea would have been a victim of the Depression. Not so. For, while the urban tea rooms gradually became more conventional restaurants and night clubs, tea rooms (shops, houses, gardens...) became a favored way for rural families to make a few extra bucks from tourists out for a drive in the country.
Rural tea rooms could be as simple as a few tables set up in a parlor, shack or garden, but generally were set up in a disused barn, mill, or other picturesque building. These featured "farm-style" cooking (emphasizing fresh ingredients, with lots of eggs and dairy), regional specialties and "ladies' lunch" food from late morning through dinner hour to groups of women out for a day trip or couples celebrating anniversaries, with the male of the species grumbling that the portions were too small and the food too dainty, and where IS there a good belt of Scotch, anyway?
As time went on, these, too became more elaborate. Antiques (either from the attic or a dealer) were a favored sideline, as were crafts and souvenirs, either at the cash register or a separate gift shop. A petting zoo of farm or imported exotic animals was a natural, as were rose gardens and other improvements to the property. A really elaborate New England tea room might be a destination in itself, taking over a whole farmhouse and outbuildings in a Petit Hameau-like mini theme park with several elegant dining rooms, a bar and grill area for the menfolk, a wishing well, child-friendly outdoor activities, and even overnight accomodations upstairs. Of course, quite a few of these places stayed simple, known only for their interestingly-shaped menus and killer chicken pot pie.
Tea rooms finally became passe after the Second World War. American women were becoming (pace Betty Friedan) more sophisticated than to be entertained by nursery rhymes and fakery, while the nuclear family was more likely to travel together, not in sex-segregated groups...accordingly many morphed, again, into conventional restaurants and bars -- one such in my neighborhood has, in my memory gone through half a dozen changes, from Ladies' Lunch to Mexican-- and at least one (Howard Johnson) became (briefly) a national chain. Which brings my story to a close, except here and there...a few remain and may yet revive...