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OUTINGS: WELCOME TO WONDERLAND!

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by Helen Rosengren Freedman

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We haven’t asked them, but we’d wager that if sisters Haley and Lauren Fox were to choose their favorite TV commercial, it would be the one for Splenda, where butterflies alight on cakestands, and ladies in parasols twirl in a shower of sparkling crystals. A visit to one of the Fox sisters’ restaurants — Alice’s Tea Cup, or Alice’s Tea Cup, Chapter 11 — is a step back into the sweetness of childhood. Which is probably why kids love going there — and their parents are happy to tag along.

From the White Rabbit scampering along the walls to the fairy dust sprinkled on young diners upon arrival, these are lovely spots to sip a hot chocolate or to dig into one of their famous pumpkin scones with jam. Everyone needs a treat, and each time you take your kids to Alice’s Tea Cup, it feels like another layer on a sweet tradition. Which is just where Haley and Lauren are coming from.

The sisters grew up on the Upper West Side (where they still now live), and were often taken for special afternoon teas at palaces like the Plaza and the St. Regis. Tea was an honored beverage in the Fox household. “Our father has always loved tea, and our mother makes her own tea bags and carries them to restaurants,” they report.

When the girls moved to L.A. to pursue careers in showbiz (Lauren is still an actress), it was not to Spago they’d head for lunch, but to afternoon tea in the cutest spot they could find. “We had a favorite tea place and we were always telling the owners: ‘You should open up one of these in New York!’”

By the time they moved back to the Big Apple, Haley had met and married Michael Eisenberg, who was running a nightclub/supper club in Montreal, but who had grown up in Mamaroneck. He pushed the girls to pursue their dream. “One night we walked past a ‘For Rent’ sign on West 73rd Street, and Michael said: ‘There’s your tea place!’”

That was at the end of 2001. The laser hair removal salon, which had been the last tenant in the space just west of Columbus, was zapped (actually, gutted), and Alice moved in.

“We grew up on ‘Alice in Wonderland’. We’ve always loved the story — and we felt it was a theme for children and adults alike,” Lauren explains. “We also thought the theme had a bit of funk to it.” Adds Haley: “Our idea was to create a tea house that was not the standard ‘pinky up’ place. We wanted a place that was friendly for everyone, where it was really cute and child-friendly.”

At Alice’s Tea Cup on the West Side, and Alice’s Tea Cup, Chapter 11, which opened this past December on 64th Street, just east of Lexington, you can come in for breakfast, brunch or dinner and try such selections as blueberry cornmeal pancakes with strawberry butter and syrup, French toast bites baked bread pudding style, tea-smoked salmon with penne, and BLT sandwich with blue cheese spread on toasted black bread. Depending on your hunger meter, you can start your afternoon tea choice with ‘The Nibble’, progress to ‘The Mad Hatter’, or go all out with ‘The Jabberwocky’. You can also just drop in with a book, cozy up with a tea or coffee, and be left blissfully alone.

This is quite a special world to be a part of, as Haley and Michael’s son, Maddan, 3, is fast finding out. He began ‘working’ in the restaurant business as an infant. “I’d put him in the Baby Bjorn and he’d help me set tables!” says Michael.

During school breaks, and in the afternoons after school, Alice’s is filled with children enjoying “wee tea” treats (like ‘white rabbit dark chocolate mousse with milk chocolate shavings’) and sipping berry bunched tea served in bright pink teapots. A special lineup of “after school snacks” includes banana bread with jam, carrot and celery sticks with homemade peanut butter, and for the youngest diners: pureed baby food, flavors changing daily.

Planned for June is the opening of Alice’s Tea Cup, Chapter 111, in a former stable on 81st Street, between Second and Third. This restaurant will be twice the size of the West Side space, and will feature comic book-style murals, and a wizardry theme to appeal to boys. Chapter 111 will also offer much larger party spaces than the cozy private rooms at Alice’s 1 and 11.

Also upcoming is an online store — an expansion of the counters already in operation in the restaurants; and the launch of a gift basket business. They’re also in discussions to franchise their operations, probably first in Coral Gables, Florida.

“People often come to us for advice on starting up this kind of business, and we’re always happy to share our experiences,” Michael says. “Most of our franchising inquiries have come from mothers — and this is the perfect profile.”

SPECIAL EVENTS FOR KIDS AT ALICE’S:

• On Wednesdays at 4pm, there’s “Tea for Two” for moms and daughters/sons. Cost: $32, polus tip per pair; $20 per additional adult/$12 per additional child. Each child receives a free fairy necklace!

• Power Poetry Readings are held the first and third Sundays of each month, at 9am. Cost: $12.50 per child; free tea and scones for adults!


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