And That’s the Tea
The Dunbar House in Sandwich brings the elegance and fun of a classic English Afternoon Tea to Cape Cod.
You walk through the doors of the old building, greeted by a dark wood bar, low ceilings and tapestries of gentlemen on fox hunts. The creak of the floors, the smell of brewing tea and the echoing laughter of guests permeate the space. Fireplaces crackle, enveloping you in their warmth. You’re not, in fact, finding refuge from a rainy London day, or relaxing in an English cottage. You’re in Sandwich, at The Dunbar House.
The property itself has been occupied in Sandwich since 1650, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that it was used as a tearoom. Colonel Henry Dunbar purchased the property in order to be closer to the widening of the Canal so he could supervise the work. Mr. Dunbar would invite his men over after work for billiards and Mrs. Dunbar would host teas for their wives. It was the Dunbars who added the carriage house, now used as a wine bar, to the property. Today, Kathryn Wolstenholme runs the tearoom, and is on a mission to bring back the Afternoon Tea.
“Our main goal is to keep the tradition of Afternoon Tea alive on Cape Cod,” explains Wolstenholme. “I want people to feel like they are being transported back in time and over to England. Everyone deserves a chance to get away from their day-to-day lives, stop multitasking, slow down and appreciate their surroundings.” The Dunbar House is certainly the place to do just that. Whether you’re in the bright, sunny dining room, the cozy, old tearoom or outside, enjoying the view, the aroma of tea and the clink of teacup on saucer will transport you to a simpler time, if only for a little while.
Afternoon Tea, one of the most well-known British traditions, right behind cheering on rugby teams in the pub and listening to the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, is not quite as ancient a tradition as many would assume. In 1840, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, started a habit of what we today would call “snacking.” During that era, the fashionable time to eat dinner was around 8pm, but the duchess would find herself hungry around late afternoon, unable to wait until dinner. She requested a tray of tea, cake, and the new-fangled “sandwich” be brought to her room during the afternoon. As time went on, she began inviting friends to join her, and thus, the Afternoon Tea was born. These teas became more elaborate and spread throughout the upper class, becoming an event, with society women flaunting their gowns, gloves and hats.
Wolstenholme took over the The Dunbar House in the spring of 2020 after the property changed hands a number of times since the Dunbars, most prominently in 2000 with the Hegarty family working to restore the colonial building while maintaining Mrs. Dunbar’s tradition of Afternoon Tea. While the main dining room is a newer addition, the high ceilings and large windows create a natural contrast to the dark paneling of the original design that feels organic and original to the building. Much of the décor at Dunbar has remained from its past lives, with antique books and blue willow china sets adding to the aesthetic.
Wolstenholme says, “From a young age, I often found myself at various tearooms with my mom and Nana.” One of those tearooms was Dunbar. Wolstenholme holds onto fond memories of time spent in tearooms around New York, as well as Dunbar, with her grandmother, debating which desserts were the best and experiencing the different décor. When it came time to move on, the owners already knew Wolstenholme, who was born and raised on the Cape, and knew the tearoom was in good hands.
And… what better way to escape than with loved ones and some tea?
The star of the show at Dunbar is, of course, the Windsor Afternoon Tea, a full English tea service. A full pot of British style loose leaf tea accompanies a tower of goodies filled with some classics and some Dunbar specials. With four sandwiches, two scones and four desserts, the Afternoon Tea’s treats do change seasonally, keeping the menu fresh while still honoring tradition. Guests can choose from an expansive tea list and either the traditional or vegetarian option for food (the vegetarian substitutes refer to the finger sandwiches). Both options include two scones—the traditional blackcurrant and “The Dunbar” which has dark chocolate and cranberry—with jam and cream to top them off. The dessert level features a classic mini Victorian Tea Cake, a chocolate cake, a fruit based dessert and the fourth dessert is changed seasonally.
But it’s not all tea and finger sandwiches. Appetizers to fit any craving and homemade pies and cake are available, as are larger full plates, crafted by Chef Patrick Hurley. Beer and wine menus are available, as well as “Tipsy Tea-tails,” which are cocktails infused with tea. “I had seen people in New York doing tea-infused cocktails, like Earl Grey martinis, but no one doing it here. Our favorite is the rosé sangria, which is rose petal tea with Villa Wolf rosé, a prosecco float, fresh cut strawberries and a rose shaped ice cube. All the drinks are named after places in Sandwich, so it’s called the Sandwich Sangria,” says Wolstenholme.
Wolstenholme explains one aspect that makes Dunbar unique is their commitment to using loose leaf tea. While Wolstenholme says there’s not much difference between loose leaf and tea bags for the casual tea drinker, for tea lovers, it makes all the difference. “Loose tea leaves need room to expand for full-bodied flavor. When they are placed freely in a tea pot or strainer, they are able to bob up and down in the water and be fully surrounded by water, thus creating a fuller flavor experience. Not to mention, loose tea is also the most economical and sustainable method,” explains Wolstenholme. “It’s also prettier!” she laughs. “It’s a rare place, and we want to keep up the tradition of transporting people back in time.”
Together, Wolstenholme and Chef Hurley have created, and are excited to host, monthly five-course dinners. After a career in event management for institutions like the Dan’l Webster and TGC Golf Club in Falmouth, as well as Mirabeau in Plymouth, Wolstenholme is bringing that experience to Dunbar to create unique experiences for guests. Every event sees a different menu, using local, fresh ingredients. Wolstenholme is prepping a greenhouse on the property, hoping to bring the freshest possible ingredients to guests. For those who can’t make the five-course dinners, but are looking for a fun event, Wolstenholme and Hurley also host themed luncheons. Previous themes have included Oktoberfest and Kentucky Derby, and Wolstenholme is constantly dreaming up new ideas.
Looking towards the future, Wolstenholme is looking forward to reopening the wine bar and hosting more evening events, including adding a dinner menu. While the wine bar has been out of commission for a while, Wolstenholme is hoping to add wine dinners to the schedule, in addition to the monthly dinners held now. And while the coronavirus pandemic has affected their ability to host events, Wolstenholme says they have helped guests with micro-weddings or showers, providing the perfect day for the small groups.
Philosopher Bernard-Paul Heroux once said, “There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea.” The Dunbar House proves that true, providing a cozy, relaxing atmosphere, helping guests escape from the world for an hour or two. And what better way to escape than with loved ones and some tea?
Visit thedunbarhouse.com to make your reservation!