MILWAUKEE — When Carrie Matteson heard that the Watts Tea Shop would close at the end of the year after nearly 90 years in business, she knew she had to take her newly married daughter-in-law, Leah, to experience the beloved restaurant before it vanished.
“Forty years ago, I started working downtown and would come here for lunch,” Carrie Matteson said the day after Thanksgiving, sitting for breakfast at one of the tearoom’s many tables with white tablecloths. “Where else do you get tea where you pour it over your own little infuser?”
As if on cue, a waitress arrived with the women’s order, a separate tea service for each.
Leah Matteson had ordered the restaurant’s signature black tea. “It reminded me a lot of when I had studied abroad in London and had an afternoon tea there,” she said.
The Watts family sent a shudder down Milwaukee’s collective spine last month when it announced that Dec. 31 would be the last day for of business for the second-floor tea shop and its longstanding china and glassware store downstairs, George Watts & Son. Reservations are in high demand.
For generations of Milwaukeeans, a visit to the 1926 building on North Jefferson Street has been a tradition, particularly during the holidays. Shopping excursions to the store are typically bisected by a break in the elegant restaurant.
“I’ve heard so many stories on how customers have become acquainted with the business, working downtown 30, 40 years ago, or coming with their grandmother,” said Sam Watts, 37, the company’s fifth-generation chief executive.
Over the years, the tearoom has become a fixture on lists of revered restaurants worth a visit. In 2011, the James Beard Foundation named it one of its “American classics.”
Mr. Watts said the idea of closing had been introduced at family meetings from time to time. This year, the time seemed right. “The china shop has been essentially an online company for the past few years,” he said. “We have maintained the storefront as a throwback.”
The idea of keeping the tea shop open, while closing the store, was never considered. “There’s a symbiotic relationship,” between the two, Mr. Watts said. “We felt if one was going to close, the other should also.”
George Watts & Son traces its roots back to the 1870s. The tea shop came later but quickly became a key part of the family’s mercantile profile.
“Around 1930, my great-grandfather noticed the whole staff left at lunch to go to the Cook sisters’ tea shop nearby,” Mr. Watts said. “So he invited them to take a vacant space on second floor.” A year after the sisters moved in, they sold the restaurant to the Watts family.
For decades, it has served staple dishes like sunshine cake — a light, three-layer chiffon cake — and house-made English muffins.
There are no plans yet for anyone to take over the tearoom space. The store will be converted into an entryway to the building, which the Watts family owns.
The closing leaves a hole in Milwaukee dining that can’t easily be filled.
Carrie Matteson belongs to a group that does volunteer work, and each year, they held a luncheon at the Watts. She is not sure where they will meet now. “Where else do you have this besides a private club?” she asked.