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!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Twyford's, Beccles

Much of Twyfords' strength comes from its setting - it looks like it was formerly a little arcade of old shops, the fronts of which are preserved within the new, covered shop. This adds a bit of character to what might otherwise be just another modern refurbishment. And then there's the secret garden terrace (not such a massive secret, given that it's advertised outside) which provides a sunny spot to enjoy a cuppa away from the hustle and bustle. Admittedly, Beccles is hardly a metropolis but it's still nice to get away from the shop window sometimes.

So what of the tea? Well, Twyfords offer Teapigs and Suki teas, in addition to their own Twyfords blend. I had the latter and am pleased to report that, although it looked a bit wishy-washy (usually a bad sign), it tasted very nice. Served in a nice pot and with milk in a jug (as you can see in the picture), and with a neat cup'n'saucer combo that had a built-in biscuit tray - who could ask for more? Well, technically the decaffeinated amongst us could ask for more, as I didn't see any decaff tea on the Twyfords menu. On the plus side though, they are quick to point out their green credentials, name-checking the Rainforest Alliance, stressing that their wares are certified organic and that their teas and coffees are fair trade. All good. Oh, and whilst we're on the subject of drinks choices, it's probably worth mentioning that there are four different types of hot chocolate on offer here...

The accompanying menu is pretty decent too. In addition to a fairly extensive menu of snacks and light meals, Twyfords also offers an extensive menu "to go", incorporating baguettes, paninis, wraps, jacket potatoes, cakes and more. It all looked pretty tasty from where I was sat. We had cheesecake to accompany our tea; whilst I had the traditional version, Mrs Great Tea had the triple chocolate cheesecake, the "triple" in question being milk, dark and white chocolate layers. You can just about see it in the photo. Having been called upon to finish it, I can recommend it, but only with the caveat that it is incredibly rich and that one piece is really enough for two people. Especially if it's only an hour since you had a pub lunch in The Kings Head...

Speaking of which, Twyfords is a licensed premise, and they offer a range of wines and St Peter's organic ale. This can only be a good thing, as can the fact that Twyfords also offers free wi-fi for its patrons. I wish more tea-shops did this.

So, if you find yourself in this part of Suffolk and are in the mood for a cup of tea and a slice of cake, there is probably nowhere finer. Prices are towards the upper end of what is reasonable for tea and cake, but still, you get what you pay for, and great tea is always worth it.

Contact them: 01502 710614 | www.twyfordscafe.co.uk

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Tea Lounge, Norwich

On one side of their flyer they call themselves The Tea Lounge, on the other it's The T Lounge. I'm going to go for The Tea Lounge on the basis that a single letter T should only be used by a man who pities the fool... So, The Tea Lounge it is.

And what a great place it is to find great tea! The range of teas is satisfyingly large - traditional, decaff, fruit teas, green tea, rooibos, Earl Grey, lapsang souchong, darjeeling - and you can order it in pots for one, two or three drinkers. An always-nice touch is that the tea pots come with little infusers suspended beneath their lids - no ratty old tea bags in sight! For the unenlightened who don't want tea (what's wrong with you?), The Tea Lounge offers Spanish hot chocolate too, which I'm told is very nice, plus a variety of coffees. Stick with the tea though!

There's a comprehensive food offering too. As well as paninis and cakes (oh so many cakes!), breakfasts and light lunches are also served, whilst proper afternoon tea - the whole "plate of sandwiches, plate of cakes and pot of tea" package - can be served by arrangement. What I'm trying to say is that it's a good place to go for great food as well as great tea. Brick Lane bagels are also offered too - apparently this is a good thing, so I thought I'd mention it.

Beyond the menu and the friendly service, The Tea Lounge is full of excellent little touches that make it a great place to just spend time. There are works of art by local artists on the wall, some of which are for sale. There are quality newspapers to read. There are (a few) secondhand books for sale. There are toys for kids to play with. There are proper china tea sets on display in cabinets, and some of these are for sale too. And not that they like to blow their own collective trumpet, but they make the best cheese scones in the world too.

Add to all this the facts that they have a cake delivery service (subliminal recommendation: lemon drizzle, lemon drizzle ,lemon drizzle), offer Mad Hatter's tea parties for kids and provide a LGBT Valentine's night and you start to see that this is an unusual place... and lest we forget, unusual is a good thing. So there we are, The Tea Lounge: so good, it's great!

Contact them: 01603 619728 | Facebook group