Thursday, 18 July 2013

Vintage Café, Eastbourne

I imagine there are probably umpteen tea rooms called The Vintage Café around the country, so it's nice to see one making an effort to actually have a vintage theme, rather than just have some old cups and saucers and pay lip-service with the name. Don't get me wrong, vintage crockery is in evidence here, and plenty of it (aside from cup and saucer, the tea comes in a pot and the milk comes in a jug - only the stainless steel strainer let the side down, but was at least an indicator of loose-leaf tea). But more of an effort has been made. The vintage theme continues in the decor and goes beyond tea - I seem to recall a vintage dress being in the window too, which was a nice touch.

Of course all of this stylistic frippery is to no avail if the tea's no good. Fortunately for us all then, this Vintage Café serves a good selection of the basics (English breakfast, Assam and Earl Grey), as well as Tea Pigs (chamomile, peppermint and lemon & ginger). All of the above are priced at £3.40 for a good-sized pot that is advertised as "for two" but I polished it off myself. There'a good range of coffees too, if you're that way inclined, plus old school soft drinks including ginger beer which, I am told, is very tasty. In other words, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to washing down your cake, because you will want a slice of something from the wide (and tasty) range of offer.

In summary then, here's a fairly new-looking café that is playing the vintage card hard, and backing it up with decent fare. You'd think it would do well in Eastbourne, a place that has a high retirement population. Of course, it also has a very seasonal population too, so fingers crossed there is enough trade for the Vintage Café to prosper, and that it can differentiate itself from the crowd enough to thrive when competing with the seaside fish'n'chip crowd. Time will tell, I guess.

Contact them: 07949 163188

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Clementines, West Runton

I sometimes wonder how nice it must be to own a business that has no competition - it is a recipe for success? Take Clementine's café and bistro in the tiny seaside village of West Runton, on the North Norfolk coast. Now West Runton is hardly over-run with tea shops or, indeed, catering establishments of any sort. So if you want a cup of tea and a slice of cake, or something more substantial, and you're halfway between Cromer and Sheringham then you go to Clementines by default. There aren't really many viable alternatives. So all the owners have to do is turn up and put the kettle on, right? Guaranteed success?

Well, maybe, but more likely not. Even without competition, if a tea shop is no good it will fail, simple as that - consumers are too discerning and too fickle to tolerate mediocrity. Lucky for us all then that Clementines is excellent, and successful on merit. Since we're here to talk about great tea, let's start with that: the loose leaf basics are all well catered for (English breakfast, Assam, Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong, Ceylon and Earl Grey), and these are supplemented by a wide range of bagged teas from Clipper (green tea, organic decaf, peppermint, camomile, lemon & ginger, wild berry and a "comforting infusion"), plus Tick Tock decaf. So much to choose from! Plus Fair Trade coffee and hot chocolate. You're spoiled for choice, basically. Oh, and the teapot comes served on a little metal stand; I know it's probably to save their tables and/or tablecloths, but it's a nice touch and something the purist in me very much approves of.

Accompanying food is good too, from the obligatory cake (including gluten-free and dairy-free options) to more substantial meals - Clementines has a particularly good breakfast menu, and I can personally vouch for both their full English and eggs Benedict. The vegetarian cooked breakfast also looked terrific. And of course, being a seaside town there's a fish and chip supper on a Friday evening. What more could you wish for?

To summarise then, Clementines does everything right and nothing wrong. Should you find yourself half-way between Cromer and Sheringham and in need of a brew, you're fortunate - there may only be Hobson's choice, but it's also the right choice.

Contact them: 01263 838770 | www.clementinesofrunton.co.uk

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Enough To Feed An Elephant, London

It can be hard to find good tea at a reasonable price in London, especially near tourist hotspots. Hard enough that when somewhere comes along offering good, honest tea at a decent price, with friendly service and all within a stone's throw of one of the most popular attraction in the city, it has to be worth a mention.

Walk down from the London Eye and cross the road, and you're there, at the oddly-named Elephant To Feed An Elephant. It's a big place, nicely furnished with an assortment of old, wooden tables and chairs (most equipped with Chelsea clips - this is London, after all). Slightly bizarrely, but nonetheless endearingly, one wing of the café is kitted out like an old Tube train, complete with vintage Tube seats, and line maps and mirrors (to suggest windows) above each seat. It's surprisingly effective (as I hope the poorly lit photo on the left shows) and I bet overseas tourists love it.

What of the tea then? Well, all the prerequisites are in place: a proper cup, tea in a pot, real milk. And there's variety too, with fruit teas, decaff and a choice of black teas on offer. Should something be wrong with you, and you want something other than tea to drink, well, you're well catered for too, with various coffees, hot chocolate and more cold drinks than you can shake a stick at.

Then there's the food. As you would expect from an establishment with this name, the menu is vast. It's also fairly basic, in that fry-ups, jacket potatoes, pizza and pasta are all on offer. But here at Great Tea Towers, we don't mind a bit of basic, as long as it's honestly priced and served with a smile. Which it is, here. There's a nice range of cakes too - the cherry muffin was a particularly good accompaniment for my cuppa.

I'll be honest, when I first saw Enough To Feed... I didn't expect too much, but it was cold and wet and I needed warming up. How pleasantly surprised I was. Yes, I know it's south of the river, but as I've already said it's right next to the London Eye, so very handy for lots and lots of people. Right across the road from the highly-recommended London Duck Tours start point too, and only a hundred yards or so from Waterloo station. It's good tea, in a central location, that won't cost the earth and isn't Starbucks. Really, what more do you want?

Contact them: 020 7401 3655 | www.enough2feedanelephant.co.uk

Monday, 11 July 2011

Midbay Café, St Brelade

I know, it really doesn't look like much from the road, does it? It looks a bit better from the beach, as you might expect, but even then the Midbay Café is just a humble caff in a line of more elaborate looking hotels, restaurants and dining opportunities. So yes, it's a bit basic... but don't let that put you off. This is a step up from your average beach caff.

This website is all about tea, so let's start there. If you just ask for a bog-standard cuppa, you get a little mug of Cooper's tea, and it is outstanding, strong and packed with well-balanced flavours. If this is the quality of the standard fare, you might reasonably expect other great choices to be on offer. And you'd be right: Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Assam, Darjeeling, Camomile, green tea and more fruit teas than you can shake a stick at. All reasonably priced too - not outright cheap, you understand, but then this is St Brelade...

Being a beach-front café (let's dispense with talk of caffs, somehow it seems inappropriate for Jersey), there are, as you would expect, a decent number of tables to sit outside and, despite the fact that Midbay is far from the largest eatery on the promenade (I'm trying to avoid saying it's relatively small), good use is made of interior space. There's plenty of seating, whilst stopping short of cramming tables in to the point of claustrophobia.

As is the case with many of the teashops here on Great Tea, there are plenty of food options too. In addition to the usual cakes and pastries, Midbay offers a decent array of fairly-priced hot meals. It's not going to be winning any Michelin stars but that's not what this website is about - what you'll get is decent portions of honest food, and you can wash it down with a cup of truly excellent Cooper's tea.

All in all then, there may be plenty of classier looking joints along the seafront at St Brelade, but if you want a decent cuppa in honest surroundings at a fair price, Midbay is the place to go.

Contact them: 01534 744714

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Biddy's, Norwich

Biddy's Tea Room has a trump card to play, and it plays it at every opportunity, that card being the vintage theme. Everything is vintage. The decor. The artfully mismatched crockery. The seemingly random but probably carefully chosen selection of chairs. Everything is designed to say "this is a vintage tea room, the like of which you may remember from rose-tinted nostalgic memories of yesteryear." And you know what? It works.

Despite bordering on the quaint, Biddy's is both cool and cosy, a genuinely nice place to hang out, and relaxing too - the wilfully bygone atmosphere somehow makes you want to linger longer over your tea. That can only be a good thing. And speaking of tea, as we always are, what an array they have here: everyday, decaff, lapsang souchong, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, rose garden, green tea, English breakfast, Darjeeling, peppermint, camomile, white tea, and more fruit teas than you can shake a stick at. You can ask for lemon or soya milk with your tea too, if either of those takes your fancy - a nice touch.

Despite a varied menu, I am (naturally) going to recommend a cake to go with you tea - there's a wide selection that varies, including some from the delicious Half Moon. But if you're on a diet, there's a wide range of finger sandwiches too... or why not combine the two? Biddy's do a proper afternoon tea on a tiered plate, in sizes for one, couples or groups. Also on the menu, you'll find ploughman's lunches, soups and pancakes, sweet and savoury. Spolit for choice really.

The vintage atmosphere is further ramped up by the piped music from the 1920s - 1940s. Oh, and when I visited there was a lovely big Union Jack hanging from the ceiling, although whether that's a permanent feature or just there for the royal wedding, who knows?

I have to point out a slight access issue - Biddy's is upstairs above a trendy shop, and is reached via quite wide but also quite steep stairs. Those with pushchairs, buggies, wheelchairs or the like may need to think twice. Hopefully it won't stop you though - Biddy's is a quintessentially British tea room, unashamedly wallowing in nostalgia, and we should applaud and relish it in equal measure.

Contact them: 07927 662797 | www.biddystearoom.com

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Greenhouse, Norwich

In which I try to resist making puns about green tea...

The original purpose of this website was to highlight establishments serving great tea, in great surroundings and with great service. As time goes by though, I realise that it has also become a means of highlighting tea shops that stand out from the crowd. I don't want to say that I only feature venues that have a unique selling point, because that sounds like horrible marketing jargon. However, it is true to say that nearly every tea shop I feature on here has something about it that makes it a bit different from the norm. That is especially true of this place...

The Greenhouse is a tea shop with an ethos and a message: to trade ethically and promote environmental matters (hence the green tea puns, see?). Tucked away in a lovely old half-timbered building (and yes, though are solar panels you can see on the roof), just up the road from the characteristic (and soon to be sold off) city fire station, The Greenhouse squeezes a heady environmentally-friendly mix in, as you would expect from an establishment whose slogan is "premium organic produce that doesn't cost the earth". But don't worry, that "premium" doesn't mean that everything here is expensive - on the contrary, this is a bargain tea shop!

First off then, let's deal with the tea; I just ordered a tea, plain and simple. Not that I wasn't spoiled for choice with a chalkboard menu that offered rooibos, breakfast tea, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Assam, chai, camomile, fennel and fruit teas. From what I was served, the breakfast tea is the default. It was served in a big mug that bore the slogan "Reforest the Earth". The tea-bag was left in which, for me, was a nice touch. And I'm happy to report that it was the best cup of tea I've had this year. If I'd wanted, I could have had it with soya milk too, rather than the dairy norm - a nice touch that you don't often see.

And what of the wider menu? Well, as you'd expect it's predominantly organic and vegetarian. There's plenty on offer too, from snacks to heartier meals: sandwiches, soup, jacket potatoes, salads, ploughman's, and home-made pasties (served cold). The best thing to go with your tea though is one of the selection of delicious home-made cakes - I had Rose's Lemon Drizzle Cake with my cuppa, and it was excellent. Many of the cakes bear the name of their respective creator in this way, which adds to the feel of the place. And what a place - The Greehnouse has a lovely wooden floor, artfully mismatched furniture, and a small outdoor seating area too. Oh, and a number of strategically placed signs encouraging visitors to switch off their mobile phones. Whether this is for the health of the staff or the general well-being of the customers is unclear, but either way it's another nice touch.

The Greenhouse doesn't limit itself to being a tea shop either. There's a secondhand bookshop upstairs, and a produce shop downstairs selling some of the organic and fairly traded produce that the tea shop serves, and more besides. You can even buy seeds, so that you can go home and grow your own, an activity heartily encouraged by all at Great Tea. And finally, though it's not in your face, there's a rack of information leaflets on all kinds of topics, environmental and political - two that stuck in my mind were entitled "Inquiry into new nuclear power stations" and "Really Mr Huhne?" So yes, this is a place of principle and a place with an agenda, but neither is rammed down your throat. And even if it was, it's an agenda worthy of your consideration and support.

As I was getting ready to leave, a small group of protesters came in bearing placards. One read "Curb bankers' bonuses". It's that kind of place. It's where great tea and great principles mix... and it's thoroughly, entirely, utterly and unreservedly recommended.

Contact them: 01603 631007 | www.greenhousetrust.co.uk

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Station Bistro, Wymondham

The Station Bistro in Wymondham's historic railway station was formerly known as The Brief Encounter Refreshment Room and Restaurant, then taking its name from the classic David Lean film. Unfortunately, this didn't mean that you were going to catch Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard making discrete comments about their feelings for each other in clipped Cholmondley-Warner English every time you went there. What is did (and still does) mean, though, is that you're going to encounter (see what I did there?) a tea shop with a vintage railway theme and brimming with memorabilia.

As it's former full name suggested, the Station Bistro is divided into a refreshment room and a restaurant. The former has walls that are crammed with prints of old locomotives, mostly steam, and other paraphernalia relating to the Norfolk rail travel of yesteryear. The latter is the big draw though - essentially the restaurant is decorated as if it's a train carriage, with authentic, reclaimed train seats to sit on... complete with proper luggage racks overhead. And with windows overlooking the station platform (which, despite the "historic" name is still a functioning mainline railway station, popular with commuters) you could almost be on a train.

I suppose I'd better talk about the tea, given the nature of this website. There isn't a lot of choice - English breakfast or Earl Grey. I had the former, and though I had to let it steep for a bit it tasted good (in the end). At least it came in a proper pot, as you can see on the left. It was nicely served too - on the day of my visit the waitressing staff were all very smiley, which makes such a difference. And although the choice of teas might be quite limited (I guess there were no decaff or fruit teas in Celia Johnson's day), the options for what to have with your cuppa are varied: as you can see, I went for the crumpets with mine, and am happy to report that they were excellent. The usual scones (including a cream tea option), sausage rolls, cakes and tea-cakes were also available, and all sounded quite tempting. There's also a reasonable main meal menu which, although pretty standard fare, at least promises home cooked food. Always a good thing.

The core ingredients for a good tea shop are all in place then, but it's really the setting and theme that makes Brief Encounter stand out as special. If you're interested in trains, or love the film, or simply just enjoy a bit of general nostalgia, then this is the place for you. Especially so in the restaurant, with the train carriage furniture and fittings. My only quibble is that surely they could push themselves a bit harder and do more with the railway link? Maybe tie in themed meal evenings or link up more with the nearby Mid-Norfolk Railway, which runs steam trains to Wymondham (though not to this station)?

All in all though, this is a tea shop which deserves a longer encounter...

Contact them: 01953 606433 | station-bistro-wymondham.co.uk

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Mad Hatter's Tea Shop And Courtyard Garden, Wymondham

I must admit, I was seduced into going to the Mad Hatter's Tea Shop. I had a flyer that promised a free cup of tea or coffee with any slice of cake. Now free tea is an offer that is just too good to refuse, not that I often need much prompting to eat cake...

I won't need a flyer to get me to go again though, because whilst the Hatter may be Mad, his tea shop is lovely. The flyer also promised "a little slice of homemade loveliness, wrapped up vintage style" and that's a pretty good summation of the place. Little it certainly is - accessed through a clothes shop called Diva (or, if you're on a bike, in a wheelchair or pushing a pram via a brightly-painted pink gate in the adjacent side-street), the Tea Shop itself ia a bit of a squeeze. Lucky then that there is plenty of space in the Courtyard Garden.

The vintage style is exemplified by the crockery used - as shown in the picture, it really is a bit of a mish-mash, but all the better for it. Crucially, you get a proper cup and saucer, milk in a proper jug and a pot that may well be served "for one" but had enough in it for three cups and change.

There's a reasonable selection of teas on offer too, backed up by a decent range of savouries and cakes, many of which (the flyer informed me) are locally sourced. I had a piece of orange cake with my tea and, again, as you can tell from the picture, not a crumb was left. If all the food is that good, they won't go too far wrong.

And then there are the little extra touches that make an establishment stand out. Firstly, it seems like the sort of place that is convivial to striking up conversations. As I was settling up another customer, completely out of the blue, called out to ask me how to spell Ruislip. She didn't know me from Adam, but it didn't matter. Secondly, the Tea Shop sells tea-related gifts: tea-pots, mugs, little tea trays and the like. And they're quality items - no chintzy rubbish here. And finally, there's the service: maybe I just got lucky but the young waitress who served me could not have been more charming and that, as I've said before, makes such a difference.

So, the The Mad Hatter's Tea Shop And Courtyard Garden... you'd be mad not to go

Contact them: 01953 606667 | Facebook page

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Walnut Grove, Dorchester

Thomas Hardy loved Dorchester, and immortalised it as Casterbridge in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I don't know if Hardy liked a good cup of tea, but if he did it's a shame that Walnut Grove wasn't around in his time, because he would have loved it.

Nestling down a side-street, just off the pedestrianised South Street, Walnut Grove is a relatively large café/restaurant with a biggish menu and keen prices. The decor has a very distinct style, and that's always a good thing, even if the style in question isn't to everyone's taste. The dark walls and silver accents do work, in my book, and give the place a very contemporary look. One side-effect though is that it can look a little dark in there. Or maybe it's just that I visited on a gloomy, overcast day.

A pot of tea for one will do two cups comfortably, and it's decent tea - just about strong enough, yet with subtle flavour. Another plus point is that prices are pretty keen - we had two buttered scones, a pot of tea for one and a glass of milk, and that came in at under a fiver. There's a choice of teas too, with fruit teas and decaff available.

As you would expect from an establishment that bills itself as a café and restaurant, the food menu is extensive, with snacks and more substantial meals on offer. The latter looked substantial and, from what I could see, were popular with the locals, and that's always a good sign, right?

What really makes Walnut Grove stand out though, that little bit above many other tea shops, is the level of service. The staff are friendly and helpful to the point that they really can't do enough for you, though fortunately not to the extent that it gets to be too "in your face". But it's these things that make a difference - there are lots of places in Dorchester, and anywhere else for that matter, that will serve you a good cup of tea. However, it's not just quality in the cup that is required to elevate this to great tea.

Contact them: 01305 268882 | Facebook page

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Pop's Place, West Bay

The purpose of this website is to guide you towards a good cup of tea, as you know. And rest assured anywhere that serves a poor cuppa will not get a write-up. But it's not just the tea that gets a place on here - it's helpful if the café in question offers a little something extra, or has a unusual selling point. And Pop's Place certainly does.

Pop's nestles on the estuary wall in Bridport's West Bay harbour, the last in a line of similarly painted fish'n'chip establishments. I say establishments, but these really are (and I don't think the proprietors will mind me saying) not much more than sheds. Nicely decorated and very well maintained sheds, but sheds nonetheless.

Let's get the tea out of the way first. It's hot, strong and served in a good sized mug - it's not high-falutin' (it's PG Tips, as it goes), but it tastes good as you sit at the little table next to Pop's and survey the harbour scene. You help yourself to milk from a jug, and put as much or as little sugar in as you like whilst at the counter, so you can tailor the tea to your exact preference. There may not necessarily be massive choice, but the tea they serve here is great tea.

The service is great too, friendly and welcoming, from the proprietor and, I'm guessing, his daughter. Yes, this may be a tiny establishment, but it feels big-hearted.

So what are the unusual selling points I mentioned earlier? Well, it's the range of food accompaniments to have with your tea, all of which are perfect seaside fare. First is the fish'n'nchips - I am reliably informed that the cod is excellent: skinless, boneless and in a wonderfully light batter. Then there are the Dorset pasties: locally made, with locally sourced ingredients, these are excellent. The lamb and mint is good but the steak and stilton is spectacular, and I would recommend this in an instant. Then there's the volcano ice - a dessert confection consisting of a warm doughnut with ice cream, sauce and sprinkles. This, I think, is bound to keep the kids happy.

So, you're at the seaside and you want a decent cup of tea, and while you're about it you fancy something to eat too, something suitably decadent, unhealthy and, let's be honest, seaside-y. Pop's Place covers all these options in some style, and serves it all up with a friendly smile and a bit of a chat. What more could anyone want? Great tea from a great shed!