Triangle Dining: Pimiento Tea RoomMar 01, 2022 09:24PM ● By Crash Gregg
Article and photos by Crash S. Gregg
For all photos of images, click the image gallery at the end of this article
Let me begin by saying that writing for another writer is daunting, especially when she was very talented and entertaining with her restaurant profiles. For quite a few years, Christy Griffith was one of our two splendid restaurant profile writers for the Downtowner, until we lost her to the time-usurping hours of the hospitality industry (i.e., she started her own restaurant). I’m sitting here in her restaurant, preparing to sample the results of years of hard work and preparation, and hoping I will be able to do justice to the article, as she did for all the many other restaurants we featured in the magazine. Just looking at the menu, I’m excited to help show off her foray into the never-easy restaurant business. So, without further ado, let’s get this started!
Even though Pimiento Tea Room sounds like a prim and proper place, it is undoubtedly not your typical English tea room. “We’re not what most people think we are,” says Christy. “We don’t host high tea or use fancy china. We don’t use the words ‘proper’ or ‘authentic.’ We have no elevator pitch!” Yes, they do happen to serve delicious teas, scones, and little sandwiches during lunch, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. In reality, Pimiento Tea Room is an eclectic mix of upscale Southern cuisine with thoughtful and creative dishes, a great beverage program, wonderfully deceptive tongue-in-cheek interior design, and yes, an excellent list of teas, served in glass tea presses.
Owners Christy and Matt Griffith met at NC State and over the years dreamed of opening an unusual tea room. When an 1840 historic home in the Village District of downtown Holly Springs became available, they decided it was time to take the plunge, and Pimiento Tea Room (PTR) was born. It took several years, tons of permits, working closely with contractors, architects, vendors, and the Town of Holly Springs – and eventually, the house was ready. The addition they built for the kitchen and bathrooms blends perfectly with the historic character of the house. Original heart pine abounds inside, notably in the exposed beams and the floorboards throughout the dining area (square cut nails still intact). Like most things the Griffiths do, the restaurant is a family affair, and their three children work with them at Pimiento. Natalie, 16, does everything from food prep to dishes to tea-making; Daniel, 15, cooks Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch; and Eve, 14, is the weekend hostess and salad maker. Christy’s best friend Priscilla even moved down from Maryland to join them on their new adventure.
At first glance, all the art, wallpaper, and interior design look like they match the style of the old house in which it sits. You might even think the toile-looking wallpaper came straight from your grandma’s house – until you start to inspect it a little closer. After taking a second look, you’ll notice the main dining room wallpaper pattern is actually made up of furry lemurs, glaring at you from each wall (especially a random one that has been adorned with stick-on googly eyes). The interior decor is a constant source of conversation among guests. “We got more business from someone’s online review in which she said she loved the food, loved the service, but the wallpaper in the bathroom was so offensive that no one in her party would ever be back. We were not prepared for the number of people who came in specifically after reading that! We should send her a gift card,” says Christy. “We have the most famous bathroom in Wake County!” The large painting with the gilded gold frame in the main dining room features none other than Mr. T, and a myriad of framed photos in the lounge celebrating the life of Dolly Parton. “People ask us, ‘Why Dolly?’ and I always say, no matter what your politics are, we can all agree that everyone loves Dolly Parton.”
Matt discovered a piece of wallpaper that had been hiding behind wood paneling for decades. It’s now framed with the word “untraditional” written in pink neon mounted on top of it, declaring the subdued yet fundamental mantra of the restaurant. Another neon installation is a 13-foot-wide sign that reads “STEAKHOUSE,” but if you only count the letters that are lit up, you get “TEA HOUSE.” They got the sign from a shuttered steak restaurant and mounted it on one of the almost 200-year-old thick planks salvaged from the house renovations.
In the main dining room by the staircase, the next hidden gem will test your 80s trivia knowledge with framed character silhouettes. There are 20 random iconic figures ranging from cartoon characters to real-life people and everything in between. You know I had to try, and Christy told me I was the first to name them all correctly. Score! (PTR trivia: Christy’s friend Gina Stinnett surprised her with the silhouettes, creating and cutting them out herself.)
Now off the walls and onto the food! The menu at PTR changes weekly, with a few fan favorites that will always be on the menu (Christy said they might face a riot if some of the mainstay dishes disappeared). Ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible, so all dishes are seasonal and depend on availability. If you happened to look at their menu ingredient list, you might think their food is totally Southern-inspired, and you’d be right, but it’s not in an obvious way. How the ingredients are combined and prepared is what makes Pimiento Tea Room quite unique. Menu items are slightly familiar, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised (and gastronomically delighted) at the way Christy and Matt have created their own style of cuisine. There are four menus: Beverages, Lunch, Supper, and Brunch. You can count on seeing exactly what’s on the menu each day by checking the PTR website, as Matt does a great job of keeping it constantly updated.
On the Beverages menu, guests can choose from local NC Craft beers (by the glass, pitcher, and can) as well as Domestic brews; a variety of Wines and Bubbly, Signature Cocktails, Toddies, Spirits, Spirit-Free, Soft Sips, All-Season Teas, and Seasonal Teas. If you love any of the teas you try, they have 50-gram bags available for purchase. Look for both seasonal and mainstay signature cocktails, like the Widow Nichols.
Early owners of the house (in the late 1800s) were a couple named Marcus and Ginny Nichols. Marcus had a will drawn up stating that if he died before his Ginny, she would inherit the house and the surrounding land – unless she remarried – in which case the home would default to Marcus’s nephew, 30 years their junior. “Marcus did precede his wife in death,” says Christy, “And Ginny did get remarried… to the younger nephew! She was Holly Springs’ first cougar! We figured we should name a cocktail after her,” she adds with a laugh. “It’s strong and complex, just like Ginny.” The cocktail Widow Nichols features bourbon, rooibos tea, grapefruit, and rose syrup and is available year-round.
“Tea Sandwiches” are available at lunch, and they are a playful nod to what is known as a staple of traditional tea service menus. “Instead of dainty cucumber and watercress sandwiches with the crusts cut off, we serve hearty sandwiches on house-made focaccia – think fried bologna and pimiento cheese. And we don’t shy away from the messy sandwich game. If you don’t have crushed potato chips spilling off your sandwich all over your plate, someone didn’t make it right,” says Christy. Three sandwiches come to an order to encourage sharing. Each week PTR features three new sandwich options, with one always vegan. “We’re what I’d call a “flexitarian” restaurant. Often times our vegan offerings outsell the meaty items!”
For Supper, three new entrees make their debut every Tuesday, always including at least one vegan and one gluten-free option. The same goes for Sunday Brunch.
Now, on to the good stuff. My culinary visit began in the Soups category with their famous Brunswick Stew, an item that will forever be on the PTR menu. Dark meat chicken, tomatoes, corn, limas, and green beans make for an amazingly delicious old-fashioned stew. The corn pudding garnish (think cornbread without the eggs, so it doesn’t set) was a perfect addition to this satisfying traditional Southern dish. Next up was the Turtle Bean Soup with cumin-seasoned black turtle beans, house-made chow chow, with a corn chip and scallion garnish on top (Christy doesn’t believe in naked soups). This gluten-free, vegan dish had a bit of a mole flavor and packed a small amount of chile-style heat. The corn chips paired perfectly with the soup.
My salad dish for the evening was the Ten Layer Salad, a hearty yet meatless version complete with iceberg lettuce, tomato, celery, Monterey Jack cheese, pickled red onion, egg, green peas, and topped with fried black-eyed peas, scallions, and a pimiento cheese dressing. It was as healthy-looking as it was enjoyable (and they have a vegan version of this dish as with a smoky field pea dressing). With the fried pea topping, I didn’t even miss the bacon. It’s like a Southern-style Poké bowl!
The next dish up is one of their menu items that fits their tea room name perfectly: Scones + Butters. Scones come in regular, vegan (no cream), and gluten-free versions. The scones are wonderfully light and not too dry like some I’ve had; they are slightly biscuity and have just the right amount of softness and crunch to make for the perfect scone. But the star of this pair is the flavored butters. There are usually nine different flavors on the menu, with five rotating and four mainstays, and you can order a flight of any three. For my scones, Christy chose the Honey-Scallion (sweet and savory without being too honey-forward), Apricot (as good as it sounds), and Cinnamon-Brown Sugar (a perfect Southern flavor pairing for scones).
Matt brought out a few of their Signature Cocktails for me to sample between courses. As any self-respecting tea room should, all of their specialty cocktails are steeped with various teas for extra flavor (and it IS a tea room, after all). It is, in essence, using the alcohol to make a tea extract. I started with the Mango Tango Margarita, made with tequila steeped with Mango Tango fruit tea, rimmed with tajin (a Mexican spicy lime seasoning), and garnished with a jalapeño slice. Next up was the Kiss of the Dragon Mojito, made with rum steeped with their Kiss of the Dragon white fruit tea and finished with butterfly pea flower tea which gives the top layer a purple hue, then garnished with mint leaves. The Doc Holiday was last and is made with vodka steeped with their I’m Your Huckleberry tea (à la Val Kilmer’s character in the movie Tombstone), watermelon juice, basil simple syrup, and topped with a basil leaf. All were thoughtfully concocted to produce unique and delicious flavors. My visit was during warmer days, so these cocktails are not currently running, but you’ll always find unique seasonal offerings no matter when you visit. PTR always has a signature margarita on hand, dependent on the time of year. This past fall featured an Apple Cider Margarita made with their Hot Cider Honeybush Tea Tequila, and their current offering is a Blood Orange Margarita, made with Blood Orange Tea Tequila.
Now, onto the next menu category, Snacks. A shot glass overflowing with crunchy Fried Peas and Hominy showed up first, PTR’s version of bar nuts. My first thought was, “Where can I buy a whole bag of these?” (Christy and Matt: maybe a new product line?!). Following were the Assorted Pickled Vegetables, with the contents depending on what’s seasonally fresh and the pickling process varies at their whim. Some veggies will be pickled sweet, some sour, some spicy. From the PTR kitchen, “We pickle any and everything!” The selection on my visit included pickled okra, red onions, baby cornlets, tomatoes, green beans, and watermelon rind. Each had its own unique flavor, and this dish would be a great palate-cleanser between courses, even though it’s a small course unto itself. Black-eyed Pea Hummus was next, topped with lots of smoked paprika, drizzled with olive oil, and served with a selection of fresh sliced cucumbers, carrots, and celery. The deep black-eyed pea flavor was a nice contrast to the traditional taste of chickpea hummus. For something completely different, I highly recommend the Collard Greens Dip with Corn Chips. Dark and savory, the collards are cooked with Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes, and shallots. It has a little “wilder” flavor than spinach dip. I’ll definitely be back to try this again soon.
The Lunch menu items were on deck next. The Chicken Salad Melt featured three cute tea sandwiches with chicken salad, onion, pickled cucumber, cheddar, iceberg lettuce, and a secret sauce on their toasted house-made bread. Note: be sure to always read the item description on return visits to PTR since they seriously have dozens of different chicken salad recipes, each with a very distinct flavor. I sampled their Oak City Chai tea to go with the sandwiches, which arrived in a very prim and proper French tea press that holds about three pours worth of tea, perfect for sharing if you and a couple of friends want to share several flavors. It was sweet and a little spicy with good cardamom and cinnamon flavors. From the Savories section, their Sausage Balls certainly met that taste criterion with flavorful sausage, cheddar, parmesan, and rosemary. PTR goes through so many sausage balls that they had to plant rosemary bushes around the house to keep up with demand. As with just about everything at PTR, even the perfectly-spicy-for-sausage whole-grain mustard that accompanies the dish is made in-house.
Under Suppers of the Week, I tried all three offerings. The Napoleon pastry came out first – a savory take on the classic French dessert – and consisted of a smoked catfish spread, pickled red onion, baby greens, fried black-eyed peas, and Texas Pete aioli sandwiched between each of three light and crispy puff pastries, then finished with a drizzle of lemon gastrique. It was artfully paired with a spicy red cabbage and cucumber salad. This dish was sweet and savory, salty and umami, all at the same time. It was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The Rice + Beans was a smoky turtle bean/plantain purée topped with white wine risotto cakes crusted with cornmeal, tropical black-eyed pea salsa (with pineapple, cucumber, mango), cilantro, and pickled red onion. This was one of their vegan/gluten-free options, but you wouldn’t know it from the complex flavors – two thumbs up without hesitation. The last Supper dish arrived in a mini cast-iron pan, and its name, Cobbler, might throw you off because it’s not a sweet offering but a savory one. This amazingly delicious creation featured heirloom tomatoes, Obsession corn (a super sweet and crunchy variety Christy found at the State Farmers Market), cheddar cheese, basil, and topped with a buttermilk biscuit crumble. The Cobbler was well-accompanied by lemon-roasted green beans. You can be sure those sweet local tomatoes and corn will come back and be featured in all sorts of dishes this summer.
My last course of the evening came from the Sweets category of the menu. Christy told me that each menu will always have a gluten-free option as well as vegetarian and/or a vegan option. Each sweet comes with three petit fours (petit fours is French for very small fancy cakes, cookies, or confections), and each has a tea component to it. First was the Texas Sheet Cake, little chocolate cake squares covered in chocolate-strawberry ganache icing and finished with salted matcha toffee. The Tapioca Squares consisted of cocoa-coconut tapioca dipped half in chocolate and half in white chocolate, topped with toasted chai coconut. Both were satisfyingly rich but not overly sweet and the perfect final course for a delicious meal. PTR secret share: you can now order full-sized desserts after 5pm, but you’ll have to ask since they aren’t listed on the menu. They usually have a hot bread pudding with homemade caramel and buttermilk crème anglaise that elicits many oohs and ahhs from the dining room. Additionally, vegan options like Wacky Cake and gluten-free options such as a mousse or rice pudding are available.
If you happen to be eating dinner on a Saturday night, be sure and stay for the popular PTR After Dark with live jazz in the lounge area beside the bar. This event just started recently, but it’s already so busy that they’ve had to bring in tables and chairs from outside to meet the demand for seating. “Our musicians love performing here. The heart pine floors and ceilings really make for an amazing acoustic experience, and the intimate setting allows them to engage with the audience naturally and casually,” says Matt.
Check the website to find special events like their monthly Supper Club, usually the last Monday of each month. This ticketed event raises money for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. “When our daughter Eve was two, she was diagnosed with cancer. She was fortunate to have benefitted from the generosity of donors funding life-saving research that directly impacted the course of treatment she received. We spent the next ten years raising money for this organization so other kids could also get their happily-ever-afters, but we knew that any free time we had before the restaurant opened would be non-existent once PTR got going. Supper Club is a way for us to continue to give back,” says Christy. Each month, tickets go on sale (and sell out within hours) to an exclusive event featuring a multi-course tasting menu made up of foods not typically on PTR’s menu. Each month features a different theme and includes drink pairings. Past events include a Southern Seafood dinner, Oktoberfest, Friendsgiving, Mele Kalikimaka, and a Plant-Based supper, with a Mediterranean-inspired menu planned next. “It’s an event for adventurous eaters! We just run with a theme and have fun with it,” Christy explained.
I must admit I do miss Christy’s restaurant profiles in the Downtowner, especially as she is so much better at writing about food than I am, but I could not be prouder of the foodie destination that she and Matt have created in downtown Holly Springs. I’m a little glad they’re not located in downtown Raleigh nearer to me, as I know I would spend way too much time here enjoying some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and delicious dishes I’ve had. However, no matter where you live, it’s worth the drive to Pimiento Tea Room. Trust me; you won’t be disappointed.
Downtowner Notes: Pimiento Tea Room is relatively cozy and seats only 40 people inside and 28 outside on the front porch and under their big side tent. They’re open for both lunch and supper, and they offer a light menu in between. If they’re full, you can always order take-out from their website. PTR does not have a kid’s menu, nor do they have high chairs. Parking is available behind their restaurant, as well as across the street.
Pimiento Tea Room
200 N Main Street, Holly Springs, NC 27540
Tues - Thurs 11a - 9p
Fri - Sat 11a - 10p
Sun Brunch 11a - 2:30p