More than any other meal, afternoon tea is a state of mind. It harks back to a more relaxed time, and it's a great antidote for too many lunches at your desk and too many dinners at fast food places. In a way, the actual food is secondary if the atmophere is great and the tea strong, hot and flavorful.
Keep that in mind when I describe our Scottish tea at Bertha's Dining Room in Fells Point.
For years, Bertha's has served tea, by reservation only. Not some American idea of what tea should be, but "Mrs. McKinnon's Scottish Tea" (Mrs. McKinnon being the owner's mother, who is a native of Scotland). The recipes for the savories and sweets are all hers, and for many years she prepared and served them herself.
As I said, tea is by reservation only -- made at least a day in advance -- and only between the hours of 3 and 4:30 p.m. (You can have a reservation for as late as 4:30). The cost is $7.40 a person.
What does that get you? First, and most important, it gets you atmosphere. Bertha's has an authentic pub feel to it; the room where tea is served is a little down-at-the-heels but charming. The afternoon we were there my daughter and I were the only two people in the room; the waitress left us completely alone except when we needed something. We spent a relaxed hour or so there, sipping tea, munching and talking. That's what it's all about.
The food itself doesn't quite live up to the experience, although it could if Bertha's kitchen would take a little more care with it.
What the waitress called "the meat plate" came first, with a Scottish egg, sausage roll and tartlet apiece on it. The Scottish egg, a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a spicy sausage, was overcooked to the point of dryness. We both left ours. The sausage roll, made with a milder sausage, was better; but it too was overcooked. Good, flaky pastry, though. The tartlet had more of that good pastry, but the filling of cheese, tomato and onion was just OK.
After awhile the young waitress came back, swinging a little napkin-covered basket and carrying a plate of pastries. The basket turned out to be full of scones -- tender biscuits made with a little marmalade mixed into the dough. They were delicious. With them came strawberry jam, freshly whipped cream (in lieu of clotted cream, I suppose) and butter. But none of the promised cheese.
The pastries, all made on the premises from family recipes, included a feathery shortbread square, a coconut-damson plum macaroon, thin ginger cookies, a bittersweet brownie square, a tiny mincemeat tart and an equally miniature almond tart. My favorites: the shortbread and the ginger cookies. The rest I could take or leave.
As for the tea itself, it was strong, hot and flavorful; but not quite authentic: Bertha's uses tea bags. If you don't want Earl Grey, request some other kind when you sit down.
Where: 734 S. Broadway.
Hours: Tea served 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day but Sunday.
Credit cards accepted: MC, V.
Features: Scottish tea.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 327-5795.
Prices: $7.40 for tea.