Time for tea, at last - the best tea rooms
For ages we’ve been predicting the arrival of the tea room as an antidote to the coffee bar. Finally they’re on their way, as Donald Reid reports
Let’s play word association. Tea and … well, there’s coffee, and for the last decade or two we’ve been in a mocha monopoly with coffee chains over-populating our high streets, railway stations, book shops and most places in between.
Tea and … biscuits, that most comforting of combinations, but regarded as rather too humdrum for café culture. You can’t charge as much for a cookie as a cup cake, you see.
Tea and … Sympathy, the name of the Greenwich Village tea room that’s one model for the new wave of tea houses in Glasgow and Edinburgh: Miss Cranston visits the set of Sex and the City.
Tea goes with things, you see. Fifi & Ally in Glasgow saw the New York thing a little ahead of the curve and paired tea with fashion in their original ‘Cupping Salon’ in Princes Square. With their large new premises on Wellington Street the focus has moved on to a much broader range of restaurant-level food and drink, but afternoon high teas are still extremely popular as an indulgent treat for recessionary days when there are birthdays, retirements and other social gatherings to be organised.
With sparkly pink menus, floral designs and an eye-popping array of ‘yummy, scrummy’ cakes, there’s a determinedly feminine tone to Loopy Lorna’s, a 2008 arrival at the foot of Morningside Road in Edinburgh. Here tea goes with company and proper cakes, freshly prepared in a visibly busy open kitchen.
Erica Moore of Eteaket, meanwhile, may share a taste for perky feminine decor, but she’s keenly aware of her male customers. ‘Tea’s a bit like wine,’ she explains, ‘and men like to have a bit of knowledge on the subject.’ Just as wine, then coffee, brought in a new lexicography to everyday food and drink, so we’re becoming more articulate in tea, getting to know our oolongs and pu-ers and silver needles.
If coffee is about hurrying the modern world, then tea goes with slowing things down and a wee sit down. Car-boot sales have been scoured for the china crockery, bone-handled knives and cakes stands that are essential kit in the modern tea room.
Arrivals such as the Tearoom @ the Butterfly and the Pig on Glasgow’s Bath Street or the Bakehouse Co. on Broughton Street in Edinburgh capture these old fashioned values while making sure that their tea is served with a contemporary take on good food and friendly service. Their appeal shines a light on the real throwbacks, such as the longstanding Mackintosh-designed Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, which may capture a slice of local history but seem to struggle to realise that they could be back in fashion.
While there’s little danger of tea subverting king coffee anytime soon, what is brewing is tea with imagination, and an eye to the future.
[Update: Fifi & Ally's Wellington Street branch and Loopy Lorna's are now closed]
Take Three: Tea with the Times
41a Frederick Street, Edinburgh, 0131 226 2982, eteaket.co.uk
A carefully planned and designed tea ‘boutique’ from ex-lawyer Erica Moore, with two rooms tucked in at pavement level just off George Street. Respect is given here to understanding and appreciating tea, with branded caddies, pots and other kit available for sale and tea-tasting evenings once a month.
17 Clerk Street, Edinburgh, 0131 667 8466, anteaques.co.uk
A unique tearoom-cum-antiques shop that takes the silverware as seriously as the tea menu. Food is limited to a small selection of cakes and organic chocolate truffles, and with just a few tables among the vintage coats and antique furniture, booking is recommended for the weekend.
Tchai-Ovna House of Tea
42 Otago Lane, West End, Glasgow, 0141 357 4524
A notable survivor from an earlier era (it opened in 2000), this river-bank hang-out takes its lead from hippy Goa or Marrakesh rather than metrosexual New York. Inspired by the philosophy that ‘learning about tea is a way of learning about other cultures’, here it’s tea with a shisha, veggie food, alternative music and backpacker tales.