Podunk is tucked on the north side of 5th Street, and though it's in the middle of Manhattan, the interior is not unlike the living room of a cozy country home—down to the shelves of children's books, mismatched furniture and tableware, and dollhouses in pastel. Elspeth is the charming proprietor, donning tiny round black glasses, straight out of a fairytale. Order from her at the counter and seat yourself inside the long and narrow tea room. I'm partial to a two-top on the middle right, with large wooden chairs that lean back, and gigantic armrests for extra comfort. The menu boasts over a dozen tea sets, all with quirky names such as This and That Tea, Tea a La Bonne Femme, and Little-Lattle Tea.
Our Old Friends Tea ($29) is my go-to tea set at Podunk. Six petite sandwiches, both sides of white and wheat heavily buttered, layered with paper thin cucumber slices, shakes of salt and pepper. There's a cheddar biscuit, the other savory component of the tea; it's intensely cheesy and buttery at once. It easily crumbles after you break though the crisp surface and is perhaps my single favorite part of the tea set.
Vanilla scones are moist, darling vehicles for that deep pot of thick, freshly whipped cream, sweetened just a bit. The jams rarely change, and I'm comforted by the sight of a sweet orange marmalade and basil-flecked strawberry jam. Look closely and you'll spot a cookie trio amid the blueberries and strawberries. That's a gorgeous, classic butter cookie on top, with chocolate chip hiding underneath and a snickerdoodle at the very bottom. All bear soft, chewy centers and crackly edges. (I have a friend who enjoys these cookies so much that she comes just to get the cookies as a to-go snack.)
The cupcake, with a vanilla butter base, is the single unnecessary part of the set. If anything, the bulky, frosting heavy creation distracts from the daintiness of tea at Podunk. It is best replaced with extra cheddar biscuits—you can never have too many of those, especially when they are still warm. All pastries are baked in-house, including a pound cake-like golden cinnamon cake wedge, like the snickerdoodle cookie recreated in cake form.
A pot of Earl Grey accompanies the Old Friends Tea, but let Elspeth know your preferences and she'll gladly set you up with a different, perhaps more ideal pairing—mine was a fragrant apricot black tea on this visit. The tea set is delivered to your table, but come back to the counter when you are done and ready to pay. It's an informal set up, one that couldn't be less like the white-tablecloth afternoon teas that dominate Manhattan, and it's a place that I return to time after time.
231 East 5th Street, New York NY 10003 (map) 212-677-7722