Going back to colonial times, English food has exerted a seminal influence on New York City’s gastronomy, with its puddings, overcooked roasts, tea sandwiches, and mountains of mashed potatoes. But as waves upon waves of immigrants and enslaved persons arrived here in the 19th century, other cuisines spanning the globe from Italy to West Africa to China began to hold sway. The proportion of restaurants serving English fare declined, so that now, say, a shepherd’s pie might still be found on the menus of gastropubs or diners, but few other places.
Sure, the vestiges of English food remained throughout the 20th century, especially at the tea houses frequented by department store shoppers in Midtown, and in enclaves in Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, where people who came more recently from the UK still live. Even today, Greenwich Village continues to be 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’d established Tea & Sympathy, a small tea house and cafe on Greenwich Avenue near Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Eventually, she would add an adjacent storefront that sold English tea and other groceries, and another that peddled fish and chips served with mushy peas — both are still going strong.
Tea & Sympathy is what might be called “wee.” Shallow, with just a few tables, and a semi-open kitchen from which pots can be seen dangling from the ceiling, the place is decorated with framed pictures of Queen Elizabeth II, a trompe l’oeil wall of books, and collection of teapots and toby jugs, like a doily-encrusted Kinks song. Catching the vibe of the neighborhood from the time of its founding, the name of the restaurant is inspired by a 1953 Broadway play by Robert Anderson about a student thought to be gay being persecuted at a boarding school.
Yes, Tea & Sympathy offers a full English breakfast cheerfully crowded onto a single plate called the Full Monty ($19.95). It consists of a roasted tomato, scrambled eggs, banger (pork sausage), English bacon (like Canadian bacon), and wholesome whole wheat toast, served with a glass of orange juice and proper tea service in a decorative pot with a sieve (pick English breakfast or Earl Grey). But to round out the plate, be sure to also order the $2 supplement of baked beans or black pudding (blood sausage).
If you go during the day, Perry will probably be working the dining room and more-expansive outdoor shed. She stops to joke with a regular customer from out of state, who dines there every time she visits, causing Perry to shake the gray curls that frame her face with glee.
While English food has been evolving via visionary chefs like Fergus Henderson, Ruth Rogers, and April Bloomfield, the food at Tea & Sympathy has remained more or less mired in earlier centuries. That is not to be deplored, as mashed potatoes, sweet-and-sour pickled beets, English peas, and shepherd’s pie have become increasingly rare in NYC restaurants. All these foods are enjoyable in a pre-healthy-eating sort of way, when the farm-to-table route often came via a freezer or can.
That said, the shepherd’s pie ($18.95) and its cousin the cottage pie are wonderful, a crustless casserole of ground lamb (or in the latter case, beef) topped with fluffy mashed potatoes that are in turn topped with cheese that anneals itself like a rubber swim cap to the potatoes. The cheese helps to cohere every bite, and the lamb tastes like lamb, not gamey but strongly flavored.
Another don’t-miss classic is bangers and mash ($15.95). It consists quite simply of a pair of sausages — the same ones in the English breakfast — fried to crispness and served along with mashed potatoes in a sea of onion gravy far in excess of what might be needed to moisten every bite. I hope you like it because you’ll be seeing this gravy again and again. The French might refer to it as a “master sauce.” The same gravy comes with the Sussex chicken, a whole Cornish hen with a stuffing that might cause it to be mistaken for a tiny Thanksgiving turkey. The flesh is moist, and the dish comes with so many tiny peas it would take all night to count them.
I went twice, and on the first occasion a friend and I ordered the side of beets ($4) to buffer us from the feeling that our meal hadn’t included enough veggies. If you love vegetables, as many of us do these days, you might stick with the sandwiches that form part of the restaurant’s tea menu, usually eaten at lunch or late-afternoon tea time. These include a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich ($8.50) best described as refreshing but not filling. Other vegetarian sandwiches abound, such as egg salad and watercress, and the frankly strange canned Heinz spaghetti on toast.
One of the best things we tried was sticky toffee pudding ($8.50), one of those English cakey puddings. It had a marvelous sweet and salty savor 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 of long ago.