I have now been visiting, reviewing and recommending good tea rooms for over twenty years. In that time, the question of what a tea room is, is one that I have often been asked to comment upon. Today, more than ever, this is an interesting and multi-dimensional question. Let’s start, however, by going back in time as history can help us to understand where we are today and, perhaps, why.
According to britainexpress.com tea shops originated at The Aerated Bread Company where, in 1864, the manager began to serve food and drinks to customers; she gave tea to those she favoured so the story goes. This began a craze and they quickly popped up all over Britain. In those times, of course, they provided a safe haven for women to meet with their friends unchaperoned without loss of reputation. Going back even further, however, coffee houses were responsible for the introduction of tea as early as the 1600s. Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org) cites Thomas Twining as opening the first known tea room in 1706, at 216 Strand, London. Already you see we have different names for places where tea and food may be served; tea shops, coffee houses, tea rooms. Herein lies the multi-faceted factor and may begin to address the dilemma of what a tea room is. Most dictionaries seem to define the term tea room as small cafe or restaurant serving tea and other light refreshments. Some also say these are also known as tea shops.
When I began my research into tea rooms of Britain (and sometimes further afield), I felt I needed to consider not only the above factors but, also, what potential readers would be looking for in a tea room. As well as having been asked the question, “so what IS a tea room?” myself, I have also asked the question of many other people to ascertain their views on the subject. The answers have been as interesting as they have been varied. Some consider a tea room a very traditional affair with lace tablecloths, fine bone china cups and saucers, classical or 40s music playing, table service, loose leaf tea and glorious cakes, whilst others may have a wider view that incorporates delis that serve good tea and good food; chic, modern and comfortable places where they can meet with friends. What I have found over recent years is, as new tea rooms emerge, the values remain traditional but the set up may vary. There has been great interest recently in all things vintage and shabby chic; this has provided popular for many establishments and makes a great style. Interestingly, thinking about the safe haven for women back in history, many offer a haven for parents with young children; a safe place to go with young children, meet up with other parents or simply feel comfortable on your own as a man or woman.
What I have found fascinating over, perhaps, the last 8-10 years is the emergence of deli tea rooms. At one time delis were largely places to buy quality food and drinks but not a place to consume them. Nowadays, the deli tea room, or cafe, seems to be ever growing in popularity and most that I have visited serve wonderful food and loose leaf teas. With a range of home baked cakes always on display also, it would be hard to argue that these were not, in fact, tea rooms in all but name. I have also visited a number of places such as converted pubs serving a range of food, including cakes, that serve loose leaf teas as standard. Though these may not be considered tea rooms, they certainly seem popular and are holding up the torch for good tea in food establishments, which I applaud. On Twitter, @brewteapub is taking tea drinking seriously by raising funds to open somewhere with the feel of a pub that serves loose leaf tea by the pot, alongside tea cocktails; now that’s innovation.
History has shown us that tea rooms, cafes, tea shops, coffee houses have in common the serving of fine food and drinks. In the 21st Century we are continuing that trend, whether we call it a deli, tea room, cafe … And then, of course, there is the pop up tea room, which is another whole blog in itself . . .