Bustling around in a small kitchen, members of Nelly's Needlers prepare lunch for the day. Orders come in from the dining area and are quickly filled. The trays leaving the kitchen belie the fact that they are created purely by volunteers in a limited working area. Quiche and salads leave with colorful garnishes, and the lemon tart looks like something out of a magazine.
Welcome to Nelly's Tea Room. In a tradition that began 25 years ago, volunteers from Nelly's Needlers will serve lunch and tea at Woodlawn Plantation every day throughout March. The tearoom compliments the 39th Annual Needlework Show, which runs from March 1-31.
Edie Bartlett has worked in the tearoom for five years and has managed the tearoom the last two years. She was a docent at Woodlawn when somebody approached her and asked if she wanted to work in the tearoom. She was first a waitress, then a day manager until she took over the whole event.
"We make close to $15,000," she said. "People are waiting at the door for us to open. We're usually slow the first few days, but not this year."
The second day, the room was already half full at 11:30 a.m. Lunch is officially open from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., but large parties of up to 40 are served at 11 a.m. The dining area seats 44, and more often than not, the tables are full and there is a waiting line. Each shift requires seven volunteers — at least three waitresses and four in the kitchen.
This past Saturday, Bev Morse was helping in the kitchen. This is her third year — she comes in two days a week; she's also an active volunteer at the public library and at Hybla Valley Elementary School. Irene Henry said that this was her first year doing kitchen duty, and she seemed to be enjoying it.
Kris Ann Crane has been working in the tearoom for the past seven years. She's so dedicated that she takes time off from her job with U.S. Customs to work for a whole week; the rest of the month she works on the weekends. She has worked as the bartender (they serve wine), but the last few years she has been running the cash register
Mary Lee Bolte can remember when the tearoom first began. Her mother-in-law, Adelaide Bolte, along with Pinky Matheson, started Nelly's Needlers 25 years ago. Adelaide started by teaching classes at Woodlawn, eventually forming the group, which is named for Eleanor ("Nelly") Parke Custis, the ward and step-granddaughter of George Washington.
Nelly's Needlers have raised funds for various items at Woodlawn and help with the annual Woodlawn Needlework Show. They sponsor needlework workshops for both adults and children. The next scheduled seminar starts on April 24 and will be taught by Anna Marie Winters. All members contribute various needlework projects to "Nelly's Corner" in the gift shop and periodically donate a quilt for a raffle.
Mary Lee Bolte was one of the volunteers who suggested that they start serving food during the needlework show. The first few years they went to Route One and purchased sandwiches from a local store. A few years later, they installed a kitchen on the lower level, which is where they served for years. Because of its location, it was called The Pub but was renamed when they moved to its present location in the Underwood Room.
This is the same room where formal tea is served on other occasions. Although it's called Nelly's Tea Room, it's not a traditional tea — tea, coffee, iced tea, sodas and white wine are available for purchase, but the food is ordered individually and is more of a luncheon. Guests can select from an olive and cream cheese sandwich; Woodlawn Salad; chicken salad sandwich; quiche and salad; or chicken salad plate. All plates are garnished and have a nice presentation. For dessert, there are lemon tarts and Decadent Chocolate for sale.
This has been the menu for the past few years, and Bartlett said that there was some concern when they couldn't find one of the ingredients for the lemon tart, which is very popular. They found it and were able to continue the tradition of serving lemon tarts.
Mary Lee Bolte is pleased that they moved upstairs and said, "I think it's more gracious. It's well worth the trip." She took a hiatus from the Needlers when she was working but has been involved again the past two years, working as a kitchen manager one day a week.
"It takes a lot of volunteers to run this," she said.
Nelly's Tea Room is located at Woodlawn Plantation, 9000 Richmond Highway. Show is open through March 31 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, call 703-780-4000.