How many of you recognize this building instantly? Don’t be shy, raise your hand! Or wiggle in your chair if you prefer.
Constructed by designer-builder Hugh Comstock in 1927, this is possibly the most famous Hogsmeade-style building in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Just writing this explains a lot about the spell that Carmel casts on just about everyone I know who has been here. It is like being inside a Harry Potter story wherever you go. I may have to start carrying my wand with me and buy some dress robes. Back to the Tuck Box: Comstock built it originally either as his own office, or in response to his wife’s hobby of making ‘Otsy-Totsy’ dolls, possibly both.
The building in the rear was also built by Comstock in 1929, and was used as a garden shop (now, opening tonight, a wonderful artisanal chocolate shop), while the kiosk next to the patio gate, now a fabulous hat shop (more on this in another post) was added in 1931.
The main building was first used as a restaurant (Sally’s) in the early 1930s. Then, in the early 1940s, two sisters from England, Mrs. Bumbridge and Mrs. Watson, turned it into a small tea room and named it The Tuck Box, the name by which it is still known today. Since then The Tuck Box has seen several ownerships, and you can read the story of all the changes in more details at this page.
The Tuck Box and a few other of Comstock’s fairy tale cottages (which you will see by and by as I finish editing the gazillion photos I took), are the buildings that I specifically came to find in Carmel. And I did not find the Tuck Box until my third or fourth town walk-about. I always seemed to either turn a corner, or follow my nose down another cute alleyway, and be led astray.
But an encounter was inevitable, as Carmel is not that big. And while I am at it, The Tuck Box is located on Dolores Street, between Ocean Ave and 7th Street. There, now you can easily find it.
The sign said open, the other (original) sign mentioned afternoon tea, so of course I walked in. Except they do not exactly offer afternoon tea, not the way you and I would expect afternoon tea: daily little savory sandwiches, cute little desserts and scones. They have a breakfast and lunch menu, and also offer tea (essentially one type) with scones, house made jam and fresh cream. They also have a daily selection of house made pies. But that is as far as their tea goes. When I said “But the sign says…. “, the response was “That is the old sign, and it goes with the building.” As in: it’s a historical thing. Which I get, but bummer!
I scanned the menu, which featured some classic American breakfast and lunch offerings, and opted for the Bay Shrimp Salad ($14.95). The menu also nods to some English classics, items like Welsh Rarebit and, depending on the day of the week, specials like Sheperd’s Pie, Beefsteak Pie, Chicken Pie, and Meat Loaf with Mashed Potatoes ($13.95 each).
While I waited, I saw what some ladies sitting at a nearby table were having, and decided that I would try their scones with some tea after all. That would be the Tuck Box Scones ($8.75), which are served with house made Preserves and Orange Marmalade, fresh whipped Cream and Ceylon Black Tea, or coffee. I asked what other teas they had, and the response was along the lines of “We have some other teas but they are in regular tea bags…” making it sound as if that was not a good thing. Essentially I was encouraged to go for their featured Ceylon Black tea.
While my tea and food were being prepped, I moved around and took some photos. I did this just in time, as the place was temporarily quiet and I could actually move around. Immediately after, more people arrived, including a family from England. As you can see, the interior is as small and quaint as you imagine from the outside.
The tea and scones arrived first, so I started nibbling on those. Both jam and marmalade were excellent, and the cream was real fresh whipped cream. The scones were also very good, though unlike any other scones I had ever had before. I have never had English scones in England, so I have no point of comparison if these were intended to be that way. They were warm and lightly toasted, barely sweet with a savory edge that went really well with the preserves and cream. All in all a repeatable experience, especially on a cold afternoon.
The Bay Shrimp Salad was… edible. Big large chunks of dark green romaine lettuce leaves, with a little cucumber, a slice of tomato, some green (argh) bell pepper, boiled egg, and shrimp that I do not quite know how to define, except that it was not the freshly prepared kind. So far it would have been nothing special but still all right. Then I tasted a slice of beet, and that was definitely out of a can, as were the blandest olives in the West. So no real afternoon tea, and no real good food. Such a pity in such a place. I see infinite possibilities.
I finished the scones, but nibbled on the salad then took the rest of it to go, figuring I could toss the beets and olives and have the rest for dinner. After the scones I did not have room for pie as well, and I have not been back for tea and pie yet, so my thoughts on their pies will have to wait for another time.
I asked for the check, and here is when I made an awkward discovery. The Tuck Box is a cash only business. Can you imagine? Such a famous place in such a highly touristic town being a cash only operation? I hardly ever use cash, so I do not carry much with me, and did not have enough. Apparently, this is a frequent situation because the server said that it was quite all right, and that I could find a cash machine a block around the corner. So that is what I had to do, walk out in the trust of the server, rush to the cash machine then rush back to pay the bill. One of the members of the English family in the table next to mine had to do the same thing.
So there you have it. Do go by and admire Mr. Comstock’s beautiful and unique architecture, and enjoy some hot black tea and warm scones with home made preserves. This I can certainly recommend, and I will be back for myself. If you are hungrier than that, however, and are partial to good food, do yourself a favor and walk across the street to the fabulous La Bicyclette (more on this in another post), or one block around the corner (across the bank with the cash machine) to the also fabulous Basil.
I hope you have enjoyed this close up view of this famous Carmel fairy tale cottage. More to come…
Other chapters in The Carmel Journals you might enjoy:
And just beyond Carmel: