“The path to heaven passes through a teapot.”
In Starved Rock Country, it seems certain two places where patrons would agree with that ancient proverb are Letty Mae’s Tea Room in Morris and the Lock 16 Cafe in La Salle.
Both have developed followings for their tea services and the delectables served with them in comfortable surroundings.
Letty Mae’s Tea Room
The first trick is to find it.
The address is 112 E. Washington St. but the shop does not front Washington Street.
You first have to walk through a courtyard between two buildings. Then a turn to the right brings you to the front door.
Inside you are greeted with a view of Letty Mae’s two floors of tables with tablecloths illuminated by an assorted collection of hanging lights. The tea and meals are served with mismatched bone china and utensils.
The clientele is overwhelmingly female, including multigenerational groups with grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters enjoying an outing.
“We do have gentlemen who frequent the restaurant, but they are few and far between, unfortunately,” said owner Jan Murphy, a native and current resident of Norway in La Salle County. “We tease them sometimes, but we also win them over with the food and they come back.”
The menu has sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche, desserts, beverages and numerous hot tea choices.
Letty Mae’s Tea Room was established by the previous owner, Laurie Belinski. And it was timing and the sharp eye of a friend that led Murphy to be the new owner.
Murphy’s experience was in banking, and after a stint as a caregiver for her late mother she was busy sending out resumes and applications to return to that career.
“Then my girlfriend saw a beautiful post on Facebook from the original owner,” said Murphy. “Her boyfriend had proposed and, of course, she said yes. He was from Michigan so she was moving there, but she didn’t know what she wanted to do with the tea room.
“She was thinking about it, and she was praying about it. She didn’t know if she was going to close it, own it from afar or sell. She just didn’t know.
“Well, my girlfriend came upon the post in her Facebook feed. She had never been there, but she saw it and said to me, ‚ÄòOh Murphy, this is so you.’ But I blew her off.”
Instead, the girlfriend was persistent, urging Murphy to go to the tea room for a look.
“I told her I didn’t have the credentials, but I would go check it out because it looked adorable,” she said. “Well, I walked in the door and fell in love with the place.”
Common sense did not prevail.
“The banker in me said, ’No! No! No! No! This is foolish. It’s economic suicide to jump into a business for which you have no training.’ I had never worked there. I had never even been there before.”
She did have a little experience, Murphy told herself. With four kids involved in sports she had hosted many team dinners.
Murphy made her move.
“There were 18 people trying to buy the business,” she said. “I was not the highest bidder. But the owner was adamant she wanted it to go to somebody who would love it the way she did and grow the business, and out of the 18 people she picked me.
“I felt very, very blessed,” Murphy said. “But at the same time I realized I had big shoes to fill.”
Out of respect for Belinski, Murphy decided to honor what she had started by making few changes.
“Laurie poured her heart and soul into this place, decorating it, using the names of family members and using family recipes.
“Letty Mae was her great-gramma, and the sandwiches and salads were named after siblings. I felt I had a huge responsibility to honor what she started and created.”
It also made business sense, Murphy reasoned.
“There was a lot of repeat business so it was important everything taste the same, look the same. and it have the same atmosphere.”
Now, after a year and a half, Murphy is beginning to name new dishes after the special people in her life, starting with the girlfriend who saw the tea room on Facebook and shared the post with her. There also will be some items in tribute to her mother.
But the mismatched china and aprons on display will remain. So will the small china cups better fit for children’s hands.
“There are a lot of people I think who enjoy the tea room because when they visit it brings up a lot of wonderful memories,” Murphy said. “They remember their grandmother’s china or a great aunt that wore an apron something similar to one on display.”
Letty Mae’s Tea Room
ADDRESS: 112 E. Washington St., Morris,
HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
PHONE: 815-416-1370, reservations for groups of five to 10 people.
Box lunches available
The Lock 16 Cafe
Every fall and spring, the monthly Lock 16 Afternoon Teas are an appreciated break from daily stress for many people.
“The whole concept of the tea is just to relax for a couple of hours,” said Ana Koval, president and CEO of Canal Corridor Association as well as the doyenne of the Lock 16 Center in La Salle where the teas have been held for the past several years.
The seasonal schedule varies each spring and fall. Up next are Christmas Teas from 2 to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 7 and 8. The price is $24.95 per person.
“You don’t want to have lunch before you come to tea,” Koval cautions.
Plus, varieties of tea will be brewed and served for as long as customers desire, she said.
Wava Riley, of Ottawa, is the hostess.
“Wava’s known far and wide for her entertaining and her love of tea, which she’s brought to Lock 16,” said Koval. “She’s the inspiration and provides a lot of the hard work that’s necessary.”
The teas draw customers from up to an hour and a half distance,” Koval said.
“Sometimes we do a sellout,” she noted.
Typically, to add some fun, there also are door prizes and a drawing, Koval said.
The clientele is mostly women.
“But we do have some couples that come, and some men who come,” said Koval.
The repeat customers from various points also make friends with one another.
‚ÄòWe have some people who when they come individually are seated with other people,” Koval said. “Sometimes groups of women who have met each other at the teas ask to be seated together when they come back,” said Koval.
For groups that can’t make the scheduled teas, they can arrange their own individual tea, Koval said.
“It requires a 24-hour notice because it takes us a while to make the food,” she said.
754 First St., La Salle
— Story by Charles Stanley, photos by Tom Sistak