Restaurant Reviews

Little Hen: Afternoon Tea with Friends

Little Hen's afternoon tea sticks to British tradition.
Little Hen's afternoon tea sticks to British tradition. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Houston is dreary right now. Our New Year has been cold and windy, rainy and glum. Looking out over our backyards or neighborhood streets, we see blackened and withered leaves clinging to plants that may or may not come back to life this spring. While Houstonians don't get cabin fever in the same way that our fellow Americans way north do, the patch of gloomy, inclement weather has us yearning for some color and liveliness.

And that's where friends come in. There are few things more uplifting than conversation and camaraderie with people you like. When a friend's adult daughter wanted a special birthday afternoon tea, Little Hen was suggested. The English-inspired brunch spot, which first opened in Miami in 2019, landed in Houston at River Oaks District in January 2023. Though I had never been, another friend had raved about her brunch at Little Hen with her pals. With my friend and her daughter seeking a special experience, it seemed like a promising option, so reservations were made for a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon.
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A French buffet adds antique glamor to the space.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Though I had driven by River Oaks District at 4444 Westheimer,  I had never been to the upscale shopping and dining development, probably because Hermes and Rolex are usually not on my shopping list. It's a bustling world of pricey brands and see-and-be-seen restaurants. Driving through the mass of well-heeled pedestrians, I made my way to the parking garage and found a spot quite easily. Garage parking is free while valet is available at certain spots for $10.

Heeding the "smartly chic" dress code at Little Hen, I wore dressy heels, which were not fun for traipsing through a parking garage, down stairs and through a barrage of folks clutching shopping bags.  I emerged into a world where an older couple stood in front of Cartier's store front, the husband reassuring his wife that making a classic choice for her new necklace was the right decision. A small, elderly woman looked completely out of place except for the fur coat she was wearing and a small handbag which probably cost more than all of my purses combined.
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A glass ball chandelier combines Bell Epoque glamor with contemporary style.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Little Hen stands out in the maze of retail shops and restaurants. Faux flowers hang over the entrance and cover the outdoor terrace, including an Instagrammable wall of blossoms leading to the patio. A couple of tables were actually occupied on this very chilly afternoon. There were heaters, but 40 degrees was still too cold for my blood. I headed inside.

My friends had arrived a couple of minutes earlier than I, so they had already been seated. I was greeted by a young, smiling woman who led me to the table. After our hellos, we oohed and aahed over the pretty floral teacups, English china plates and crystal champagne flutes. Though fake flowers are part of the restaurant's design, there were fresh floral centerpieces on each table. The restaurant's wallpaper blooms with pale pink roses and the painted walls are of a matte French blue. The space is made more contemporary by the glass windows that allow it to be brightly-lit inside. I would have preferred a more intimate and cozy feel but the entire development is modern and glass-filled, better to watch all the toffs going by.
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Macarons come in an array of flavors at Little Hen.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We had declined the offer of water, for which there is a nominal charge. I have read that it is spritzed with rose water, an ingredient I prefer to wear than imbibe. Instead, we ordered a bottle of Gambino prosecco since both mother and daughter were celebrating January birthdays.

The afternoon tea is $38 per person or $48 with an added glass of prosecco. We opted for the bottle at $40, which was reasonable for the quality. Our server was friendly and attentive, bringing our prosecco in a champagne bucket and stand. She poured some into each of our cut crystal glasses, then asked for our tea preferences. My friend and I opted for English Breakfast while her daughter chose the house Little Hen tea which was more of an infusion of citrus and mint.
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We are reserving a cozy booth next time.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We were enjoying the slight yeasty minerality of the prosecco which we all felt had a hint of grapefruit on the end. Our server returned with two teapots, one of English Breakfast, the other of the house tea. We should have probably let them steep for a few minutes before pouring because they came out rather weak. I am a cream and sugar person, so I had to give it a few minutes, otherwise I would be drinking milk water. My friend's daughter has been a tea aficionado since her pre-teen years and I used to let her ransack my tea collection when she would visit. She loved the Little Hen tea and also the English Breakfast.

Our dainty food soon arrived on a three-tier china tray. It's called a curate for those in the know. I am in the know because I Googled it. By also binge-watching the MGM Plus television series Belgravia, I learned the creation of afternoon tea is usually credited to the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Around the year 1840, the duchess decided she was too hungry to wait for the normal dinner time of 8 p.m. so she offered ladies of her circle the opportunity to gossip over a cup of tea while allaying hunger pangs.

There were no duchesses here, so our server led us through the sweet and savory items. The bottom tier had five different finger sandwiches for each of us. The middle held three cranberry scones and three orange zest scones. The top tier was prettily decorated with six macarons of varying flavors and three chocolate bonbons.
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Petite sandwiches are light finger foods.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We started with the sandwiches which were thin, crustless rectangles. The cucumber sandwich was extremely light served on white bread with just a touch of mayonnaise. I could have used a bit more cucumber but that's just me. We all thought the tuna was one of the better sandwiches with my friend's daughter describing it as almost Southwest-inspired. That was probably due to its red pepper bits. My friend ate the egg salad first because she doesn't normally like egg salad so she wanted to get it out of the way. To her surprise, she not only liked it but she thought it the best one of the bunch.

My favorite was the chicken salad, served on wheat loaf bread with a sweetness that I could not identify. Again, I would have liked more chicken. I know tea sandwiches are meant to be light but these could have used just an extra swipe of filling. The salmon sandwich was our least favorite. Other than the taste of cured salmon, it didn't have much else going on.

We moved on to the scones. Unfortunately, as my friend was trying to delicately reach for one of the cranberry ones, it plopped onto the floor instead. She picked it up with a look of sheer disappointment. I told her they would probably bring her another one but she didn't want to ask. I offered her mine instead since I prefer the orange ones anyway. However, our server noticed and was quick to replace the runaway scone with a fresh one without us having uttered a word.
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Somehow a flowered teacup makes tea taste even better.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Scones are not normally eaten on their own, for a reason. They can be dry and tough. Most often they are pastry vehicles for clotted cream and strawberry jam. However, The Little Hen's versions were similar to an American biscuit inside, quite fluffy and tender. Still, we smeared on the whipped cream and strawberry puree with abandon.

Our teas had steeped long enough to be at the right strength. We were two-fisting it with the tea and the prosecco, though in an afternoon tea sort of way, not a frat party way. Though my friend and I were really enjoying the dainty eats and pretty decor, her daughter's delight with the whole experience made it even more memorable. And she was given a beautiful dark pink rose for her birthday.

Our server brought to-go containers for the leftover scones and macarons. We had been restrained in our consumption which meant my friend's teen boys would each have a scone and a macaron at home. For some, Little Hen's afternoon tea may not be a complete meal but we thought it was more than enough. Or maybe we were filled up on prosecco and tea.

Speaking of which, there are only two toilets at Little Hen, so be prepared to stand in line with all the other guests who have gulped down an entire pot of tea.
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Floral photos are a must before leaving Little Hen.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We left the restaurant, impressed by the service and charmed by the ambiance. Winter is a season in which the weather can lure one into the doldrums. An afternoon spent with a pot of hot tea, colorful flowers and the warmth of friends can be the antidote.

Little Hen
4444 Westheimer
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.