When racking your brain for quintessentially British past times, chances are that ‘having a lovely cup of tea’ will come right at the top of your list, but it seems our friends across the water now think they’ve got the know-how behind the perfect brew too. It’s high time we let off some steam and explored the wonderful world of transatlantic tea rooms…
The Art of Afternoon Tea
There are many who consider tea drinking to be an art form – and they’d be right – but there are few places that take this statement a tad more literally than others.
London, England: As you might expect, London has quite a large assortment of venues for the discerning art lover, as well as a huge range of modern hipster-type tea rooms claiming to be ‘completely original’. A sojourn to Sketch blends the best of both worlds, where you can sip in style within a remarkable marshmallow-esque gallery designed by divisive visual artist David Shrigley. Within the space, you can enjoy a 239 piece strong exhibition, which explores the universal themes of ‘life, death and beyond’, all while daintily nibbling at your carefully put together selection of flaky pastries and artisan cakes. Considering the calibre of creative types behind the project, including the thrice Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, this is an avant-garde experience worthy of the capital.
Highland Park, Illinois: At the other end of the spectrum, and the other side of the ocean, sits Madame ZuZu’s – a highly agreeable amalgam of art studio and tea house dedicated to merging artistic expression with refreshing rare teas and delectable vegan-friendly treats. Live music and craft workshops allow for a much more interactive exchange than you’re likely to get at any other venue and those who get involved can walk away with a handmade piece of memorabilia to remember the day with forever (or buy a succulent souvenir from the adjoining shop). With opening hours to suit late risers, and bands and DJ’s clamouring to get a slot in the ever swelling schedule, this Illinois based start-up is fast becoming a hangout to be reckoned with. Of course, this may have something to do with the enigmatic Madame ZuZu’s alter ego (and co-owner of the operation) – Smashing Pumpkin’s frontman, Billy Corgan.
There’s always room for a little quirkiness where tea is concerned, and whether you’re discussing neighbourhood gossip or setting the world to rights over your brew, there’s something to be said for a setting which screams eccentricity.
Brighton, East Sussex: Brighton based outlet, The Tea Cosy, offers kitsch in abundance and offers English peculiarity by the bucketload. Once described by The Times as ‘bizarre on a biscuit’ this humble outfit ramps up the Royalist sentiment, serving up food and drink combos with names such as Prince Harry’s platter (boiled egg with toast soldiers) and rounds of Balmoral’s (crustless coronation chicken triangles with a scone on the side).
From the walls (chairs, ceiling, table tops and every other surface in sight), you’ll be watched by all manner of monarchical portraits – from paintings and collectible crockery to questionably cross stitched cushions – and, when sliding into a free spot, consider low hanging bunting a significant hazard.
Receive a Royal welcome in Brighton (Images c/o The Tea Cosy)
Savannah, Georgia: Stateside and down south, The Savannah Tea Room drips nostalgia from every pore. Borrowing inspiration from the master of nouveau, Charles Rennie MacKintosh, with a large dollop of fanciful décor on the side, the unaffected sincerity of this tea room will soon warm your cockles and you’ll likely find yourself rifling among the knick knacks in the in-house shop in no time. Filigree and fine jewellery glints in the amber lighting, and porcelain pots and saucers chink delicately while providing a polite reminder of the ‘break it, buy it’ policy. Superbly snug and wonderfully personal, this Georgia-set hideaway has one foot firmly planted in history and isn’t afraid to show it.
The fine selection on offer at Savannah Tea Room (Image c/o The Tea Room)
Tea Worth Travelling To
Isle of Skye, Scotland: Even in the most remote of locations, one simply can’t be doing without a bit of chai to fuel their onward adventures, which is probably why the owners of The Small & Cosy Tea House have taken it upon themselves to make sure visitors to the Isle of Skye don’t journey on an empty stomach. Situated in Digg, a short hop from Scotland’s stunning Staffin Bay, this former croft has been tastefully and tactfully renovated to suit all types, and with an astoundingly exotic array of flavours (including maple toffee, plum caramel pearls and honey orchid) there is nothing here you won’t want to try once. If you’re not planning on moving for a while, you may wish to look at the soup list and baked items also.
Dive in to delicious cakes by the coast (Image c/o The Small & Cosy Tea House)
Boulder, Colorado: Further west and resting in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse can probably claim to be the most well-travelled tea room in the world. Having been constructed entirely by hand in Tajikistan, the building was then transported piece by piece and reconstructed as part of the twinning ceremony between the two cities. Its exquisite interior and each ornately carved detail reflects the prevalence of Persian influence, whilst every aspect of the design has been geared towards establishing the importance of cultural connections and promoting the value in learning about other nations. With loose leaf festivals and the occasional five-course dinner (where all dishes contain tea in some form) taking place throughout the year, these fine purveyors take tea as it was intended – seriously, with a hint of spice.
Matcha of the Day
Of course, the English aren’t the only ones’ who believe that tea should be celebrated at every available opportunity, even if we don’t always tend do it with as much grace as some of our Eastern counterparts. But, whether you’re into convention or want to get away from it at all costs, you can always find a little something tucked away that will help soothe those cosmopolitan blues.
The serene scene at Shofuso (Image c/o Frederikto)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: In a tranquil hub to the west of Philadelphia’s energetic centre sits Shofuso – a serene Japanese shelter surrounded on all sides by meticulously groomed gardens, trickling waterfalls and softly pealing chimes. Beginning life as part of a MoMA exhibition, the house and its surroundings have gone through many trials and transformations since their construction in 1957, and have blossomed into a supremely pretty and incredibly important site that delights guests of every generation. Retaining every strong tie to its origins, members of the prestigious Urasenke School perform traditional tea ceremonies to fascinated guests, who can choose to watch, learn and partake in the service if they so wish. Standing on ceremony never felt quite so rewarding.
Dublin, Ireland: Over on the Emerald Isle, stationed auspiciously on the banks of the River Liffey, Tea Garden provides a satisfyingly surprising getaway from almost everything one would expect to find in the middle of Dublin. On entering, you’ll find a series of ambiently lit rooms with low lying tables and incredibly comfy looking cushions scattered about the place; you’d be forgiven for feeling like you were in your own living room after five minutes, so try not to nod off. The friendly staff will even tell you about the health benefits of each brew (of which there are many), if you have both time and the inclination. However, if you fancy something a little left field, why not opt for a green (and wholly in keeping with your location) matcha milkshake?
We simply couldn’t conclude this piece without referring to the classics, and while all these young upstarts may come along with their barista blends, deconstructed cakes and futuristic finger sarnies, it is an out-and-out fact that the traditional tea room will always reign supreme. People travel great distances and across continents in search of the perfect cream tea, and wars still rage (in Cornwall and Devon, at least) about whether the jam should be placed on the scone before or after the preserve. Whatever your thoughts, a visit to one of these bastions of British culture should be placed firmly on your bucket list…and scheduled in for at least one Sunday of every month.
Harrogate, Yorkshire: Arguably the grand dame of all British tea rooms is the famous Betty’s in Harrogate, North Yorkshire (and various other locations across the county). Nearly one hundred years old and going strong, it may come as a shock to some that this institution was actually started by a Swiss baker seeking his fortune. Amongst many other things, he brought a certain finesse to afternoon ceremonials and a string of pretenders have followed in his wake. For heaven’s sake, do not leave without sampling a fat rascal (seriously, we’re not pulling your leg).
Greenwich Village, New York: Anglophiles and expats should not fear, though. If you’re across the pond and in desperate need of a quick Brit fix, then Tea & Sympathy is undoubtedly the place you need to be. With tongue placed firmly in cheek (if you hadn’t guessed from the name alone) this shrine to everything English is a hub of heartiness and warmth in the centre of New York’s ever so trendy Greenwich Village; through tuck boxes brimming with bona fide Brit goods (hobnobs, brown sauce, baked beans etc.) to deliciously assembled Bakewell tarts. They even do deliveries via their genuine Hackney Carriage (the famous London black taxi) should you want to recreate the whole experience in the comfort of your own home…and why wouldn’t you?
British treats galore in the fantastic Tea & Sympathy (Image c/o Tea & Sympathy)
One Small Steep For Man…
More experiences for the hardcore tea fanatic
Boston Harbour – Raise a mug in defiance at the site of the largest disaster in tea’s extensive timeline (probably), where chests upon chests of loose leaves were flung unceremoniously into the waters surrounding the colonial city to protest the Tea Act of 1773. Not exactly our kind of tea party, but an important moment nonetheless.
The Cutty Sark, Greenwich – Swing by beautiful Greenwich to see this glorious old tea clipper – the fastest in the West no less – in all its majestic glory and get an up close and personal look at the history of the captains, crossings and cargo that made such an impact to the country’s trade industry.
Twinings, The Strand – Despite the odd lick of paint and a few refurbishments, the world’s first tea shop still houses all of its original 1700’s charm. With a pick ‘n’ mix wall of deliciously aromatic blends, purpose-built tasting bar and a marvellous little museum full of antiqui-teas there’s plenty to keep even casual drinkers entertained – you’ll know your Assam from your Oolong in no time.
Tregothnan – Britain’s first and only tea plantation can be found in the heart of Cornwall, where the conditions for growing bushes bursting with flavourful brews are ideal. Now cultivating over 35 varieties of leafy goodness, Tregothnan not only knows its stuff when it comes to steeping, but also now ships stock to connoisseurs in China. Impressive.