Every now and then, you discover a hidden gem that combines good food with ambiance and a touch of modern conveniences. A couple of years ago, Kathy, my college roommate and a Laurel resident, invited me to lunch at Lee’s Coffee and Tea in the heart of downtown. I was a little irritated as I drove around historic buildings over Laurel’s narrow brick streets struggling to find a vacant parking space outside Oak Street Place. It was obvious something was going on in the centuries-old building, formerly a Sears store, based on the number of cars. My irritation evaporated as I pushed open the heavy glass doors of Lee’s on the ground floor of the impressive brick building and was hit with the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and espresso.
Walking into the spacious coffee shop and café featuring two-story-high tin ceilings, exposed pipes, and tin and wood touches, I was impressed with the owners’ ability to renovate an old building into a warm, inviting space filled with bistro tables, a lunch counter, and window seats. I soon learned from my friend that Lee’s is a popular breakfast, coffee, and lunch spot among tenants residing in the apartments above as well as locals. As if on cue, Erin and Ben Napier, stars of the HGTV renovation show “Hometown” walked in for a lunch meeting at a larger table in the back. They are frequent guests – even daily diners, according to a magazine article in which Erin brags on the “best homemade soups on the planet” - and have featured Lee’s on their hit show.
But enough about the surroundings. Lee’s serves some of the best coffee and lunch items in the city of Laurel. Just so you’ll know, though, all menu items are available all day. A slightly different menu is offered after 4:30, but lunchtime is the best time to go if you want to people watch.
Speaking of breakfast, a cup of Lee’s coffee or espresso made with both local and national coffee roasters’ bean, homemade scones and other baked goods is the perfect day-starter. Beverages are between $2.50 and $3 for 12 ounces; $3 to $4 for 16 ounces. Options besides regular and cold brew include cappuccino, Americano, raspberry truffle and caramel delight lattes, and a variety of mochas, include white chocolate. Lee’s also serves a number of chilled coffee drinks, including iced latte and chillers like Black Forest mocha, vanilla bean, caramel, and chocolate chip. All are in the $3-$5 range.
If you’re in the mood for caffeine-free, try a number of fruit smoothies ($4.50 for 16 ounces), hot chocolate ($3.50), chai latte ($3-$3.50), and hot tea ($2). Perfect accompaniments to coffee in the morning are the breakfast sandwich ($4.25) created with your choice of variety of bread, cheese, vegetables, and egg or an omelet ($5.25) that can be made to order and filled with your favorite ingredients. Both come with a side of fruit.
Baked goods include crustless quiche ($5.25) filled with ham, egg, cheese, and vegetables; homemade pop-tart ($4); blueberry or chocolate muffin ($3); cranberry orange scone ($3.75); white chocolate or cinnamon bread pudding ($4.50); blueberry delight compote ($4.50); chess squares ($3); and a variety of cookies and cake slices.
The coffee and tea is delicious, as are the morning delicacies. However, it’s the innovative sandwiches, soups, paninis, and wraps served a little later in the day that keep Lee’s customers coming back.
I knew what I planned to order when I looked at the menu. A classic BLT is my go-to lunch order when I visit a new place. It’s hard to mess up a BLT. However, my friend urged me to try what is unofficially known as the house specialty: a BLT topped with pimento cheese ($6 for half; $9 for whole). I reluctantly ordered the combination sandwich, but was soon glad I did. Thick slices of bacon are topped with tomato slices and shredded lettuce. A generous helping of “Aunt Lee’s pimento cheese” is the crowning touch.
The founder, Aunt Lee, really knew how to make homemade pimento cheese, and her recipe is still being used today as a solo sandwich ($4.75/$7.50) or topping ($1) for BLT. Or, order a grilled BLT and pimento cheese, panini-style, also one of the Napiers' favorites. Any way you try it, it’s delicious.
Other sandwiches (all in the $5 to $8 range depending on size) are chicken salad, corned beef, hamburger (and yes, pimento cheese can be added for $1), grilled chicken, turkey and Swiss, and vegetarian. Wraps and other items include chicken Caesar wrap ($8); chicken and cheese quesadilla ($8); loaded baked potato ($6.50); and salads ($4.50-$9.50 range) like Caesar, garden, chicken salad, and chopped. Sandwiches and wraps are served with Zapp’s potato chips, which only enhanced Lee’s rating in my book. A bowl of comforting soup is one of my favorite sandwich sides, and like Erin claimed, Lee’s didn’t disappoint. The potato soup ($3.50/$6.50) was rich, creamy, and loaded with chunks of potatoes and bacon. Other good bets are creamy chicken and rice, French onion, and chicken and sausage gumbo. Soups are rotated throughout the week, so some may not be available on the day of your visit (and trust me, you will definitely want to visit if you haven’t!)
Besides the laid-back atmosphere, historic ambiance combined with modern touches like free Wi-Fi and reasonably-priced coffee drinks and food, Lee’s has become known as a fun place to visit on Friday evenings. Entertainment ranging from live music, board game nights, and “bring your own vinyl records” rotates during the month beginning at 6:30 p.m. Lee’s is located at 409 W. Oak Street in downtown Laurel. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.