Downtime

The Uncanny Scenes After the Queen’s Death at a British Café Far From the Motherland

Two women with a life-size cutout of Queen Elizabeth.
Outside Tea & Sympathy on Thursday. Cleo Levin

For New Yorkers looking to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth this week, there was one clear place to go. Tea & Sympathy is a British restaurant with an attached grocery and royal memorabilia store in Manhattan’s West Village. On Thursday night, it was busy, the restaurant and sidewalk dining area packed with people wielding bangers and mash and cups of tea.

When I asked what had brought them there, they all answered to the effect of, “Where else would we go?” Many were British. A couple of English pubs were mentioned, and someone speculated whether the British consulate would be doing something, but no one seemed to know exactly where that was.

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People’s grief took different forms—some were hanging around outside the store, commiserating; others were just coming in to buy armfuls of crisps or to pick up a takeout order of fish and chips. (A tribute of sorts.)

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Michelle Aaron and Carmella Chapman were waiting for a table, carrying small Union Jacks. When I approached them, they unfolded a life-size cutout of the queen. “She’s like the rock of England and everything British,” Michelle told me. They had returned to England for William and Kate’s wedding; when Princess Diana died, Carmella had slept out in front of Buckingham Palace. Aaron is dedicated to bringing the cutout of the queen all around with her—she’d also taken it to her son’s graduation.

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Not unlike the reaction online, some people were less reverent for the moment. When I arrived, a couple American passersby made comments that sparked a heated argument with some of the staff. As they walked away, someone said, “He just said he doesn’t like British people. You can’t joke about that at Tea & Sympathy!”

It had been a long day for the employees. They said TV crews had come early, before Queen Elizabeth’s death was announced, and the police had also been around all day. Those interviews with the press had been awkward; the staff didn’t understand whether the reporters wanted them to pretend like the queen had already died.

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“I’ll tell you one thing: Fox does whatever the fuck they want,” one employee told me, saying that reporters had come into the store and started filming without permission.

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Even among the staff, emotions were mixed. I spoke to one employee from Scotland who assured me no one wanted to hear his opinion today. When I insisted, he explained that it was sad, but he wasn’t a fan of the monarchy. That wasn’t an unpopular opinion at work, he said—a lot of the staff is Irish. His own assessment: “A lady died.”

Americans in attendance described the curious bond some feel for the royal family. John Christian White said he comes to Tea & Sympathy to mark moments of historical significance for Great Britain. He’d come earlier this year during the queen’s Platinum Jubilee for a celebration and block party.

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The merchandise inside Tea & Sympathy.
The merch. Cleo Levin
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“It’s something that I bond over a lot with my mom,” he said. “I think for other people of my generation—I’m in my late 20s—our moms were all very obsessed with Princess Diana back in the day, so, as royal watchers growing up, it’s something that feels like we bonded with our parents over. So even though we’re not English, per se, it still feels like a bit of culture that is ours too.”

Some who stopped by seemed perplexed by all the goods for sale: Had the shop produced Queen Elizabeth merch to sell on the fly after her death? Visitors noticed the Platinum Jubilee flags that have the years 1952-2022 printed on them—which, at a glance for the less mathematically inclined, might seem like the years of the queen’s life. “This year we have a particularly higher amount of Queen-related paraphernalia just due to the fact that it is her Jubilee year, 70 years as a monarch,” Molly, Tea & Sympathy’s manager, assured me. “In no way did we anticipate her passing today or in the coming days in any way.”

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An out-of-town woman named Addison and two friends stopped to take pictures with some of the decorations, saying they had no particular connection to England or the queen, but they thought they’d remember the moment for years to come. They were on their way to a Harry Styles concert at Madison Square Garden. “I hope he does a tribute to her tonight,” one of Addison’s friends said. “He has a song named Diana.” The other friend interrupted, “One Direction has a song named Diana.”

That night, 25 blocks north, Styles led the audience in a round of applause.

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