By Betty Terry • Photography by John O’Hagan
Meet the woman behind a royally good tearoom.
Tea has been a part of Mary Greengo’s life almost since the day she was born. “I’ve probably had a cup of tea every day since I was 2 years old,” says the owner of Queen Mary Tea Room in Seattle, Washington. Although Queen Mary (as she is known to her patrons and her employees) is a Seattle native, she has British great-grandparents on both sides of her family. “Drinking tea is just part of my DNA,” she says.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that after earning both a culinary degree and a baking and specialty pastry degree, Mary decided to open a tearoom in her hometown 26 years ago. Some people thought she was crazy to start the venture in Seattle, where loose-leaf tea was an unknown commodity at the time. But Mary wanted to be her own boss.
She found the perfect name for her new business quite by accident. At the end of a lunch out with friends, Mary ordered a cup of tea. The waiter brought her an herbal tea bag and a mug of lukewarm water that tasted like coffee. So Mary did what any self-respecting tea lover would have done. She sent the tea back, exclaiming, “Egad! Can’t anybody make a decent cup of tea?”
Her amused friends immediately began to tease her: “Queen Mary has to have her tea a certain way.”
“I thought, ‘That’s it!’ Mary recalls. ‘Queen Mary will be the name of my tearoom.’”
So in 1988, she opened Queen Mary Tearoom & Restaurant in the heart of Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, just a few blocks from the University of Washington. Those early years were not easy. “In the beginning, I did it all,” Mary explains. “I cooked, I baked, I decorated.” The restaurant was open seven days a week and served breakfast, lunch, a formal afternoon tea, and dinner. “Some nights I did not even go home; I would sleep at the restaurant.”
That hands-on experience has stood her in good stead over the years. “Even though I’m not in the kitchen dicing the carrots anymore, I know how I want my food to look and how I want it to taste,” Mary says. She insists on using only the freshest ingredients. “We make everything from scratch,” she says. “Everything tastes real, and it satisfies you more.”
If there is one thing Mary is more particular about than the food she serves in her restaurant, it’s the tea. On any given day, more than 80 varieties of tea and tea blends are on offer at Queen Mary Tea Room.
“Before any tea makes it onto Queen Mary’s shelves, we have tastings with my entire staff of 28 people,” Mary explains. “There’s a whole ritual to how we do it. No one is allowed to talk while we’re tasting teas; everybody writes their notes down. We all need to buy off on each tea.”
In the restaurant and at the Queen Mary Emporium, which opened just down the street in 2011, Mary’s teas are marketed under her own Queen Mary brand. She comes up with the ideas for blends and does them herself. “I love teas that are full-bodied, that are complex and have depth to them—well-rounded smooth teas with a lot of flavor in them,” she explains. “I don’t like bitter or astringent. You won’t ever find that in my teas.”
Every tea has its unique label with original graphics, which she designs. “These teas are my children,” Mary says. “Every tea is a beauty unto itself.”
And if Mary is at the Emporium and sees someone buying tea, she does not hesitate to explain the proper method of brewing each one. “We sell beautiful, hand-picked, loose-leaf tea,” Mary points out. “Women have picked these teas by hand. Please honor and respect that by making sure you’re using the right type of infuser, your water is the proper temperature, and you’re steeping it for the proper amount of time. Treat our teas with respect.”
If you don’t, Queen Mary says, laughing, she may knock on your door and ask for it back.
The Queen Mary Tea Room and Restaurant, at 2912 Northeast 55th Street in Seattle, Washington, is open Wednesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. Reservations are highly recommended. The phone number is 206-527-2770. It is handicap accessible. The Queen Mary Tea Emporium is one block from the restaurant at 2809 Northeast 55th Street. It is open seven days a week, between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, and from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. You may also purchase the teas at queenmarytea.com.