It was the “garden” that first piqued Martha Cameron’s interest in the property at 4518 N. Lincoln. Finding green space right on Lincoln Avenue was nothing short of a miracle, even if it consisted only of four scraggly trees and a tangle of weeds. Together with an interesting commercial space and a promising location, it was an irresistible package.

“The only question mark was the type of business I wanted to open,” Cameron says. “When a friend suggested doing a tearoom, everything fell into place.” Named for the home of fictional heroine Pippi Longstocking, Villa Kula opened on October 21, 1998, selling loose-leaf teas in bulk and serving a light menu of salads, soups, and high tea–the traditional late-afternoon meal consisting of scones, sweets, and finger sandwiches–throughout the day.

Cameron describes herself as “a student of fine teas, rather than an expert” and pursues the subject with the same energy she brings to her ongoing careers as a building rehabber and a teacher at Great Oaks School in Evanston. Between sips of a subtle white tea called Silver Needle, she explains that all true teas are made from the leaves of the many varieties of the evergreen shrub camellia sinensis.

“The finest teas are made from the leaves at the tip of the branches,” she says. “They’re differentiated either by color and grade or by district of origin, as is the case, for example, with Darjeeling and Lapsang.” Eager to clear up a common misconception, she adds, “Herbal teas–teas made from the leaves and flowers of other plants–are properly called ’tisanes,’ and that’s how we list them on our menu.”

While she waits for a second pot of tea to finish steeping–this time a fragrant jasmine–Cameron passes a plate of cupcake-sized scones strewn with currants. At Villa Kula they’re served with the requisite strawberry jam and homemade creme fraiche in lieu of the traditional clotted cream. “Do you know what clotted cream does to your arteries?” Cameron asks.

Villa Kula’s original clientele was largely female. “Men would come in with their wives and girlfriends, enjoy the experience, and then ask me to expand the menu so they’d have more choices,” Cameron remembers. “When Tom Cicero talked to me a year ago about joining the staff, it was serendipitous.”

The tearoom was transformed into a full-service restaurant in November 2000, with a menu that Cicero expanded to include entrees like lamb chops with ratatouille, blue cheese ravioli, bell peppers stuffed with plaintains and black beans, Limousin beef tenderloin with malanga root cake, and jerk-marinated pork tenderloin in a grilled mango-pineapple rum sauce. Cicero, who was most recently chef de cuisine at Atlantique in Andersonville, offers an eclectic menu that changes seasonally, and there’s always a good selection of vegetarian dishes.

Villa Kula’s three dining rooms are arranged shotgun-style, with the kitchen at the back of the building. Dark Arts-and-Crafts-style wainscoting is used in all three, but even on a blustery and overcast afternoon the restaurant seems light and airy. The dining rooms overlook the garden, where canopies strung with Japanese lanterns shield most of the 50 seats from the sun without obscuring the colorful mural and the faded vintage advertisement painted on the wall of the adjacent building. Live jazz piano on the weekends and the locally made artwork on the walls enhance Villa Kula’s strong sense of place.

Cameron, who recently celebrated her 47th birthday, describes herself as “blessed.” “Who could ask for anything more?” she asks. “I feel so connected, so anchored to the community. And I think part of that comes from working in the garden. Planting trees and flowers says you’re planning to be around for a while.”

Villa Kula is at 4518 N. Lincoln, 773-728-3114.

–Barbara Revsine

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.