Back in colonial times, English food has had a major impact on New York City’s gastronomy with its pudding, fried roasts, tea sandwiches, and mountains of mashed potatoes. But when waves upon waves of immigrants and slaves arrived here in the 19th century, other cuisines spanning the globe from Italy to West Africa to China began to keep track. The proportion of restaurants serving English fare has dropped, so now we can say that there is still a shepherd’s pie on the menus of gastropubs or eateries, but few elsewhere.
Sure, the remnants of English food remained throughout the 20th century, especially in the tea houses that department stores visit in Midtown and in enclaves in Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, where people who recently came from Britain still live. Even today, Greenwich Village remains a neighborhood where one can get a bag of bangers, Cornish pasties, scones or a full English breakfast.
Some of that credit should be given to Nicky Perry, a London native who arrived here in 1981. By December 1990, she had established Tea & Sympathy, a small tea house and cafe on Greenwich Avenue near Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Eventually, she would add an adjoining storefront selling English tea and other groceries, and another buying fish and chips served with mushy peas – both still going strong.
Tea and sympathy are what can be called “small”. Low, with just a few tables and a half-open kitchen, from which you can see pots dangling from the ceiling, the place is decorated with framed pictures of Queen Elizabeth II, a trompe l’oeil wall with books and collection of teapots and toby jugs , as a Kinks song provided with doily. The name of the restaurant captures the ambiance of the neighborhood since it was founded, and is inspired by a 1953 Broadway play by Robert Anderson about a student believed to be gay who is being persecuted at a boarding school.
Yes, Tea & Sympathy offers a full English breakfast cheerfully filled on a single plate called Full Monty ($ 19.95). It consists of a roasted tomato, scrambled eggs, banger (pork sausage), English bacon (like Canadian bacon) and healthy wholemeal toast, served with a glass of orange juice and proper tea service in a decorative pot with a sieve (pick English breakfast or Earl Gray). But to round off the plate, you also need to order the $ 2 surcharge baked beans or black pudding (blood sausage).
If you walk during the day, Perry will likely work on the dining room and the more expansive outdoor shed. She stops joking with a regular customer from abroad who eats there every time she visits, and makes Perry shake the gray curls that hit her face with joy.
While English food has evolved through visionary chefs such as Fergus Henderson, Ruth Rogers and April Bloomfield, the food at Tea & Sympathy has been more or less stuck in previous centuries. This is not to be regretted as mashed potatoes, sweet and sour pickled beets, English peas and shepherd’s pie have become increasingly rare in NYC restaurants. All of these foods are entertaining in a way that eats healthier when the route from table to table often came via a freezer or can.
That said, the shepherd’s pie ($ 18.95) and its cousin hut are wonderful, a lamb-free crust of lamb (or in the latter case beef) topped with fluffy mashed potatoes, which in turn are topped with cheese that glows itself like a rubber swimming cap for the potatoes. The cheese helps to stick together each bite, and the lamb tastes like lamb, not wild, but strongly flavored.
Another classic you should not miss are bangers and mash ($ 15.95). It simply consists of a couple of sausages – the same in the English breakfast – fried to crispiness and served with mashed potatoes in a sea of onion sauce far above what may be needed to moisten every bite. I hope you like it because you will see this sauce again and again. The French may refer to it as a “master sauce”. The same sauce comes with the Sussex chicken, a whole corny chicken with a filling that can get it confused with a little Thanksgiving turkey. The meat is moist and the dish comes with so many small peas it would take all night to count them.
I went twice and on the first occasion a friend and I then ordered beets ($ 4) to prevent us from feeling like our meal had not included enough vegetables. If you love vegetables, as many of us do these days, you can stick to the sandwiches that are part of the restaurant’s menu, usually eaten for lunch or late afternoon tea. These include a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich ($ 8.50) that is best described as refreshing but not filling. Other vegetarian sandwiches abound, such as egg salad and watercress, and the honestly weird can of Heinz spaghetti on toast.
One of the best things we tried was sticky toffee pudding ($ 8.50), one of the English cakey puddings. It had a great sweet and salty taste via a butterscotch sauce and an elusive texture. Only later did we discover via an online recipe what caused this texture and over-the-top sweetness: dates are a reminder that English colonial adventures were not limited to North America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, but also included Arabia. Still, Tea & Sympathy is a great place for a starchy and meaty meal in a style of eating redolent long ago.