Many consider drinking tea to be a form of art — and they’d be right — but a few places take this statement 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.
Enjoy an exhibition that explores the universal themes of life, death and beyond, while daintily nibbling on a selection of flaky pastries and artisan cakes. Considering the caliber of people behind the project, including the three-time Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, this avant-garde experience is worth the money.
Highland Park, Illinois: At the other end of the spectrum sits Madame ZuZu’s — a highly agreeable amalgam of art studio and tea house dedicated to merging artistic expression with 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 forever. With opening hours to suit late-risers, and bands and DJ’s clamouring to get a slot in the swelling schedule, this Illinois-based start-up is fast becoming a hangout. Of course, this may have something to do with the enigmatic Madame ZuZu’s alter ego (and co-owner of the operation) — Smashing Pumpkins' frontman, Billy Corgan.
There’s always room for a little quirkiness where tea is concerned, and whether you’re discussing neighborhood gossip or solving the world's problems, there’s something to be said for a setting that screams eccentricity.
Brighton, East Sussex: Brighton based outlet, The Tea Cosy, offers kitsch in abundance and English peculiarity by the bucketload. Once described by The Times as "bizarre on a biscuit" this humble outfit ramps up the Royalist sentiment, serving 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.
Savannah, Georgia: 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 have you rifling among the knick knacks in the shop. Filigree and fine jewelery 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.
Isle of Skye, Scotland: Even in the most remote of locations, you simply can’t do without a bit of chai to fuel onward adventures. 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 flavors (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.
Boulder, Colorado: Farther west and resting in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse can probably claim to be the most well-traveled 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. Every aspect of the design has been geared toward 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.
The English aren’t the only ones who believe that tea should be celebrated at every available opportunity, even if it's not always done with as much grace as some 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 the cosmopolitan blues.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: In a tranquil hub to the west of Philadelphia’s energetic center sits Shofuso – a serene Japanese shelter surrounded on all sides by meticulously groomed gardens, trickling waterfalls and softly pealing chimes. Beginning as part of a MoMA exhibition, the house and its surroundings have gone through many transformations since construction in 1957. It has 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.
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, if you have both time and the inclination. However, if you want something a little different, opt for a green matcha milkshake.
We simply couldn’t conclude this piece without referring to the classics. 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 for at least one Sunday of every month.
Harrogate, Yorkshire, UK: 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 100 years old and going strong, it might come as a shock that this institution was actually started by a Swiss baker seeking his fortune. Among 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 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 center of New York’s trendy Greenwich Village. The spot has bona fide Brit goods — hobnobs, brown sauce, baked beans etc. — and delicious Bakewell tarts. They even do deliveries with 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?
More experiences for the hardcore tea fanatic:
Boston Harbor - Raise a mug in defiance at the site of the largest disaster in tea’s extensive timeline, 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, UK - Swing by beautiful Greenwich to see this glorious old tea clipper 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, UK - Despite the odd lick of paint and a few refurbishments, the world’s first tea shop still houses all of its original 1700s charm. With a pick ‘n’ mix wall of deliciously aromatic blends, purpose-built tasting bar and a marvellous little museum full of antiqui-tea,s there’s plenty to keep even casual drinkers entertained — you’ll know your Assam from your Oolong in no time.
Tregothnan, UK - Britain’s first and only tea plantation can be found in the heart of Cornwall, where the conditions for growing bushes bursting with flavorful 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.
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