Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
After ten years of teaching middle school students, Natasha Robson-Lovato never expected to open a tea house. But wanting to bring the flavor and culture of her native South Africa to Seattle, this self-taught baker continues to be an educator of sorts in introducing Cederberg Tea House customers to Koeksisters, Melkterts, Hertzogs, and other treats.
How did it happen? Robson-Lovato wanted afternoon tea in lieu of dinner for her wedding ceremony, but quickly realized there weren't caterers doing proper afternoon tea in Seattle. Undaunted, she and her mother, Cecile Robson, prepared it. They purchased all the plateware, and realizing it was a big investment, started to do catering of their own. Tired of constantly wrapping, "schlepping" (the word works in Afrikaans), and unwrapping all the fragile pieces, Robson-Lovato and her mother decided to scout locations for a tea house, and settled for a spot at the top of Queen Anne Hill.
Asked why there are so few South African restaurants, Robson-Lovato says they are humble people who do a lot of homemade cooking and feel "we don't have anything cool." Cool or not, what Robson-Lovato sells is truly unique. The tea house is named after the region where rooibos tea was first harvested, and Cederberg is perhaps the only place in the United States that pulls rooibos tea through an espresso machine to make a variety of drinks. (In fact, rooibos is often called "red espresso.") The tea, which is caffeine-free and full of antioxidants, serves as a nice balance to the South African sweets—and note that South African people are known for having quite the sweet tooth. The sweets are marked by a love of coconut (Indian trade influence), apricot jam (apricots are abundant in South Africa), and sugar.
Noting that South Africans enjoy formal tea service, Robson-Lovato had thoughts about setting up a "proper" tea house, but recognized a different dynamic in America. So she came up with a hybrid. Everyone orders at the counter. Customers can get beverages to go. But those who stay get to sit down and have their tea delivered on a tray. With each drink comes a cookie. "It's a treat for staying," Robson-Lovato explained, adding "I wanted to create an environment where people spoke to each other." Sit, chat, and relax is the goal, reinforced by the quote from Bernard-Paul Heroux which appears at Cederberg's Facebook page: "There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea."
Check out the slideshow above for a look at some of the sweets and drinks at Cederberg Tea House.