Not often, but every now and then, you walk into a place which is perfect, that is not trying too hard, that is not overly decorated, that though fairly new, feels like it’s been there a long time, just waiting for you.
That’s how I felt, walking into Buttercup Cakes for the first time and magically, every subsequent time. The room is airy and light, uncluttered. The floor is beautiful, made up of vintage-looking tiny, classic, black and white tiles, like it could have been there since the early 1900’s. In fact, it was leftover from the previous tenant, a Noah’s bagel shop, and Buttercup was smart enough to keep it intact. There is a line of square marble tables along the wall to the right. On the left, there is a simple display of fresh flowers for sale, next to the glass case. The array of daily cupcakes and pastries are housed on the counter and in the glass case.
Stepping further back into the room, to the right, there are shelves of well-chosen cake-related items for sale. As an admirer of thoughtfully stocked gift shops, I love Buttercup's dry goods almost as much as their divine cupcakes. I’ll browse these shelves at each visit and use any excuse to buy a screen-printed tea towel, a new cookbook on cakes, unique birthday candles or cards, or a jar of the house-made plum jam. (More about the jam later on.)
In the very back of the room, are a few larger tables, set with vintage linens, silverware, and china. This area is where Buttercup is now serving afternoon tea. Amazingly, my favorite spot for a tiny, perfect cupcake is now the setting of a fresh take on afternoon tea. It’s nearly impossible to convey my joy at this turn of events.
Though the Monterey Bay area is stuffed full of outstanding restaurants serving a wide variety of cuisine from around the globe, a decent afternoon tea is hard to come by. One of the reasons we took up the habit of giving teas was just to get our fix of the experience, a DIY necessity as it were. But Buttercup has come to our rescue.
A disclaimer here: I am not a journalist and have very little interest in getting to the bottom of anything or rooting out the cold, hard facts. I’ll leave that to others. These are my impressions, my feelings on this lovely place. I don’t know who the wonderful owner(s) of Buttercup are; it’s enough for me to know they’re makers of magic. Yelp can give you 227 reviews of Buttercup that will give you volumes of information on cupcake flavors and frostings. I want to tell you what Buttercup feels like and perhaps to give a hint as to their methods.
Their tea menu is structured unlike most traditional menus. As you book a reservation for afternoon tea, they ask if you will be having a cream tea. This is the option that consists of a pot of tea, freshly baked scones, and a trio of toppings. If you would like scones, you need to say so right then, and you do indeed want scones. You may also want savories, but you can decide that when you arrive. There is no option on the menu for a traditional three-course, sandwiches, scones, and sweets combination. Instead, there is a long, thoughtfully written menu of savories with dessert from which you chose three items including many vegan and gluten-free choices. Normally, I’m nonplussed about both of these dietary restrictions but Buttercup uses these parameters to create artful selections using the best of California’s local produce. They are taking the forms of tiny afternoon tea foods and remaking them into something delicious and unique. Herbed mousse might be piped (yes, piped, with a small-gauge shell tip) onto cucumber ovals and garnished with a tiny petal of pickled ginger and a wisp of dill. Another unusual feature of their savory tea is a beautiful mixed green salad which arrives first. In this simply dressed salad, you see how Buttercup’s afternoon tea is being merged into a light, modern meal. Though I adore traditional tea, even I have to admit that it can be so carb-heavy and rich that you may not feel well after indulging in an entire tea. Some might find this revisionism traitorous, but I find it refreshing. On one visit, a small dish of summer peach and plum slices was presented in which every bite of fruit was at its absolute peak. Do you know how rare that is? In over fifty years of eating out, it is a first for me. This was a completely different creature from the under-ripe, hard-melon-filled generic fruit bowls commonly found next to sandwiches in restaurants across America. This little dish of ripe fruit slices was more like one you would make for dessert at home, served in a little china dish, in the dead of summer, because your backyard peach tree was loaded with peaches. Buttercup was serving this fruit not because it was the cheapest at the warehouse store, rather, because the farm they order produce from, just up Highway One from Santa Cruz, sent them the most perfectly ripe fruit because it was in season. I know Chez Panisse pioneered this concept way back in the early 1970’s but I’m so impressed to run into it here in a little bakery in Santa Cruz where it is practiced without fanfare, seemingly as naturally as breathing. Buttercup seems to say, “Of course we’ll use the best fruit in our salads, sandwiches, cakes, and frosting. We love the taste, we think you will, too, and we think you deserve it.”
These are not Chez Panisse prices. As afternoon tea goers know, going out for a festive tea can be pricy. Buttercup cupcakes are not cheap. Their special occasion cakes are not cheap. But that beautiful pink frosting on the Bramble cupcake, topped with a fresh raspberry, is that color pink due to fresh fruit puree, not red dye #6. And you can taste that fruit, underscored by the high quality butter in that frosting. With this superb quality of cake, you are satisfied with your choice of cupcake and truly don’t need to eat many. You will want to taste more flavors, of course, and that is the brilliance of the mini cupcake; you can sample several of Buttercup’s unique flavor combinations, from blood orange to Earl Grey to hibiscus.
Which brings me to the dessert portion of afternoon tea at Buttercup: you are offered a selection of their mini cupcakes and pastries from which to choose as many as you’d like. That little gesture, trusting a guest’s natural good manners to limit possible over consumption of those fabulous cakes, is the pinnacle of sweet hospitality. And it works; you are happy to eat one or two of these little jewels and feel completely satisfied and cared for.
At all three visits, we had been served by Annie, a young, smiling server who did, actually, treat us as guests in her home. That alone is quite rare and most beautiful. It says to me that she is working for people who allow her to be natural and more or less, be herself. She explained all the tea choices and then kept our teapot filled with hot water throughout our visit.
What propelled her work from efficient and charming to amazing super star status was the offer to bake us scones when the reservationist failed to note our cream tea reservation. She OFFERED to bake scones, right then. And she meant it. And she did it with a smile, willingly. And they were delicious. Wow. I take that to mean that Annie was empowered to do whatever she judged necessary to make our visit the best possible. To my unending delight, she achieved that goal. An eternal thank you to Buttercup and our wonderful server.
Another pleasurable facet of Buttercup’s afternoon tea service is the table settings. The tables are set with light-colored vintage tablecloths and cloth napkins, mixed floral china cups and saucers, and vintage serving pieces such as heavy glass pitchers for water and vintage silver platters. With the cream tea come three miniature canning jars, one with the perfectly tart house-made plum jam, then lemon curd, and a creamy spread. Three tiny silver spreaders accompany the spreads. The savory course may come on a traditional two or three-tiered server.
Extra pieces are kept in a glass-front china cabinet, just at the back of the tea service area. The serving pieces look like someone with a good eye spied these at yard sales and consignments stores to bring them together for a new life; they didn’t need to be “repurposed” they just needed to be returned to their original purpose. The tables look refreshingly unstudied and very inviting. There is nothing stuffy or cloying in the décor or table setting, no excess ruffles or dolls. You feel free to enjoy your table companions, a delicious tea, and uncluttered space.
When we reserve a date for afternoon tea, we stress that we’d like both the cream tea and the savory and dessert options. Since they are just beginning afternoon tea service, things do not always run smoothly, but we accept the little bumps as growing pains. At Buttercup, anything can be forgiven because they are my new local tea house.