There’s a popular type of eatery in the British Isles that is pretty rare in the USA. It’s a place where you can get sweets, sandwiches, sometimes soup, maybe a salad, coffee if you must, and most importantly tea.
At a tearoom you can get a light meal, an afternoon pick-me-up of tea and sweets, a simple early supper, or maybe breakfast. It occupies a place somewhere between a luncheonette and a bakery café. The menu is limited, the tea selection vast, and the sweets home-baked.
An ad for the Birsay Bay Tearoom on the Scottish island of Orkney said it best: “Serving light lunches, delicious homebakes, and a range of coffees and specialty teas.”
We visited three on a recent trip to Scotland that were delightful stops for a traveler’s light lunch, as well as scrumptious scones and pastries. In Glasgow, the first was in the style of Charles Rennie MacIntosh; the second was in the darling tourist town of Pitlochry; and the third was on board the elegant former Royal Yacht Britannia, now docked in Edinburgh.
Glasgow native MacIntosh was an influential architect, designer and artist who blended the art nouveau and japanese styles with complete originality. Glasgow is filled with his work, including the art school, which tragically was destroyed by fire this summer, just a few months before the completion of a total renovation. MacIntosh not only designed buildings, but their interiors and furniture as well.
The Willow Tea Rooms is a recreation of his original design on Sauchiehall Street. The current tearoom – dominated by his signature oak, tall-backed chairs – also incorporates his stained glass designs and distinctive graphics. From the second floor, it overlooks the pedestrian mall on Buchanan Street. The third-floor Chinese Room, painted in a vibrant blue, has low-backed geometric seating.
The menu at the Willow includes categories for Soups, Light Bites – like oat cakes or scrambled eggs – and Scottish Dishes like my finnan haddie (smoked haddock) fishcakes or Marsha’s avocado toast with Lapsang Souchong tea-smoked salmon. You could also order a salad, sandwich, or toastie (grilled sandwich).
There were, of course, scones – plain or fruit with jam and either butter or clotted cream. Tempting Treats included the Willow’s famous meringue, a generous pillow, crisp on the outside and melting within, offered with either cream or fresh berries. Victoria sponge (cake), clootie dumpling with custard, and lemon drizzle cake were a few more of the traditional desserts on offer.
With an entire page of tea offerings, it was the most extensive menu of any of the tearooms we visited. The tea service was simple but complete, with a pot of tea, a jug of hot water to dilute if needed, a strainer with its resting cup, and a warm cup and saucer. The clientele was mostly locals with a scattering of fellow tourists.
Hettie’s tearoom in Pitlochry, a charming resort and tourist town between Inverness and Edinburgh, was our next experience. The tea service, picked from their long list of custom blended teas, included a small minute glass for precisely measuring the steeping time as the sand ran through.
Sandwiches, Salads, and Baked Potatoes were the categories for the main course. Choose your fillings and condiments from the list of options – then consider a soup or pick a pastry. Grilled brie and cranberry on a baguette was for Marsha while I went for chicken and avocado sandwich. The cakes and scones looked delicious, but we were too far along on our well-fed trip to have dessert at lunch.
Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the royal family greatly enjoyed their voyages around the empire on the royal yacht Britannia. The 412 foot ship, rendered obsolete by jet travel, now lives on as a popular attraction docked in the Firth of Forth. The Royal Deck Tea Room, a bright and airy space with enthralling views of the busy harbor and ever-changing sky, occupies the space where the royals would have relaxed at sea.
Here you can live out your royal fantasy over a delicious meal. We went all out for the Cream Tea Special – tea or coffee, a sandwich, scone or slice of cake and a glass of champagne. A lunch splurge.
This time the teapot and creamer were silver and the napkins embossed with the yacht’s crest. The sandwiches, from the brief menu, were beautifully presented.
Chicken salad with cured bacon and horseradish was my pick. Marsha had Ayrshire honey-roasted ham with tomato. Our classic desserts were Victoria Sponge, a favorite of Queen Victoria, and Dundee fruit cake, a Scottish favorite from the 19th century. The champagne was delightful, but later, while touring the boat, we wondered if we might have a little lie-down in one of the tastefully appointed royal suites.
Tearooms are a simple yet elegant option for a light meal or snack. I’m now on the lookout to see if I can find some this side of the pond.