Tea and empathy

For Fiona Palmer, opening her tea house was a way to re-create favorite childhood memories — like coming home from school in her native New Zealand, her mother waiting with a pot of tea and a tin of homemade cookies — or Sunday afternoons spent with her grandmother, the two playing duets on the piano. “She would have baked for a couple of days before and she’d come out with the big silver tray and the Royal Dalton, and we’d sit in front of the fire. It was just magical, it was a great one-on-one time — she was always the one you could tell anything to.”

Housed in a 19th century brick cottage in an area that used to be Old Corktown (just north and east of the present Corktown), Fiona’s Tea House is a quiet respite in a sea of parking lots, freeway entrances and exits, and high-rise office buildings. Once you’re inside, the concrete jungle fades away and you’re immersed in a genteel world of tea and scones. Soft music plays. The walls are the color of raspberry sorbet, and the tables are draped with rich fabrics. Best of all is the antique china, each piece delicate and beautiful, none of it matched to anything else.

“I have a love affair with this building,” Palmer says. “It’s my solace in the mornings when I come in; it’s an expression of myself; it’s something I can give to people that I love. I hope when people come in they feel that it’s a quiet, loving place.”

The cottage, built in 1879, was in reasonably good shape when she bought it, though it took 18 months of hard work to get it ready to open. A century of paint had to be stripped from the floors, and linoleum pulled up in the kitchen. The wiring and plumbing had to be brought up to restaurant code.

Palmer was born in Australia, grew up in New Zealand and moved to the United States more than 20 years ago. Her restaurant experience was as a manager at Daniel’s, a much-acclaimed but now-defunct Royal Oak restaurant. She raised a son, Jarod, who is now in college. Other jobs included makeup artist and stylist and executive secretary. She has traveled around the world. “But I was always glad to come home to my own little boy and my own house.”

All the while, the idea for the tea house was incubating. She kept a “wish book” — a folder of ideas, filled with paint colors, fabric samples, recipes, flower arrangements, furniture and table settings. “Every time I didn’t think I could do it,” Palmer says, “I would open it up or add something to it.”

As a chef, Palmer compares herself to Nigella Lawson, the flamboyant British version of Martha Stewart (if you can imagine Martha with flair). “The way she cooks is the way I grew up cooking with my mother,” Palmer laughs. “Except with baking, I never measure anything, and I usually don’t follow a recipe because I never have all the ingredients. Or I’ll take a recipe and embellish it a little bit.”

At Fiona’s Tea House, breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea are served Tuesday through Friday, brunch on Sundays and dinner on Fridays. The lunch menu features sandwiches, quiche, shepherd’s pie, pasties, soup and salads. Desserts are elaborate and always include pavlova, the national dessert of New Zealand. Edible flowers are used with abandon. “Presentation is so much of what goes into having an enjoyable meal,” Palmer says.

The recent addition of Friday-night dinners has expanded the original concept. Palmer calls her dinners “Old World food, real European stuff.” She lists leg of lamb, beef Wellington, stuffed Cornish game hen and breast of duck. Tea continues as a theme in the dinners in inventive ways: The curried fruit chutney that she serves with duck includes mint tea; the Cornish hen is marinated in English breakfast tea; a sorbet is made from jasmine tea and champagne.

Palmer is a Detroit booster who would like to see more restaurants and shopping downtown. The location of her tea house has been a challenge because there is no walk-by traffic. But she loves the neighborhood and has learned its history. She points out the window and says, “There used to be stables across the street, and there was a microbrewery next door.”

Customers who lived in the area as children bring in black-and-white photos from their family albums. Two blocks north, in a spot that is now freeways and parking lots, used to be Plum Street, the Haight-Ashbury of Detroit in the 1960s.

When Palmer goes out to eat, her favorite places are other elegant eateries in the city. She likes to bounce ideas around with other downtown restaurateurs, such as Sherman Sharpe who owns the Harlequin Café in Indian Village. “I love what Sherman’s doing over there,” she says. “I love the fact that you go there to graze; it’s not rushed. I often end up there on a Sunday night, and I love the jazz, or just sitting and listening to him; I like him because he’s eccentric. And he does some of the most wonderful sauces that I’ve ever had in my life.” Another favorite is Cuisine, a new restaurant near the Fisher Theatre run by Paul Grosz. “I love his restaurant,” Palmer says. “The food, the atmosphere, the service. When I go and sit with Paul, he says, ‘I’ve heard really nice things about your restaurant, and I’ve referred people there.’ That means a lot. He’s one of the nicest guys in the business.”

Opening a restaurant was much more difficult than Palmer imagined. She talks about how much she has learned, and how much people have helped and supported her. “This business is much rougher than people understand,” she reflects. “Rougher than I knew. It’s very hard.”

Like other chef-owners, she sees her restaurant as an expression of herself. “I opened this place very quietly because I wasn’t sure how people were going to react. I didn’t know if they would think it was really out there. I guess because there’s so much of myself in this place.”

What does she like to do in her free time? Sleep. Evenings most often find Palmer curled up at home with a pot of tea, cookbooks, or Gourmet magazine, or British House and Garden. She finds the restaurant business very consuming. “I’m thinking about it all the time. You can’t disconnect. When I go out for dinner, I see everything. I almost know what’s being said in the kitchen.”

One of the ways that Palmer shares what she has learned is by inviting girls from Detroit’s Wayne Elementary School to the restaurant. Every month she entertains a different group of 7- to-11-year-olds. The girls have tea and scones, and Palmer talks to them about being a woman in business. She tells them about her wish book and encourages them to create one for themselves. “I want them to know that, as a woman, there’s nothing in this world that you cannot do.”

She knew that the message got through when she heard a little girl’s voice on her answering machine saying, “Miss Fiona, I don’t really know what I want to say, except thank you, and I remember that there’s nothing in this world that I can’t do.”

Fiona’s Tea House is at 945 Beech St., Detroit. Call 313-967-9314.

Read other chefs' stories in Chow (this week's special restaurant collection):
Dish packs another (and another) helping of the East Side’s finest cuisine.
• Eastern paths meet Western ways at the up-to-the-minute Eurasian Grill.
Misha’s is "home cooking" with a rich and moving past.
New Yasmeen Bakery’s Souad Bazzi serves up Lebanese cuisine "naturally."
• Food for a small planet’s working week at the Small World Café.
• Chef Jeffrey Kalich makes Twingo’s a full-spectrum experience.

Elissa Karg writes about food for the Metro Times. E-mail her at
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