Trim waitresses gliding around in starched white pinafores, delicate aromas of freshly brewed Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong, the genteel tinkle of stainless steel on proper china: Whatever happened to the great British tearoom? With the homogenization of the high street, you could be forgiven for thinking they'd all but disappeared. Look beyond the big-brand coffee chains, however, and you'll find them alive and kicking. Here are some of the best.
Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, York Bettys, bettys.co.uk, started out in 1919 when Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont set up shop in England. The company's flagship store in York (there are five others in Yorkshire) was inspired by the interior of the Queen Mary cruise liner, and is a grand concoction of burnished oak paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows and ornate mirrors. Yorkshire specialties such as hot buttered pikelets a kind of thick pancake and fruit scones vie for menu space with cakes, pastries and hot meals.
Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow
Design fans will love the beautifully restored Sauchiehall Street premises of this Glasgow institution, willowtearooms.co.uk, which were designed by the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1904. An extension, in Buchanan Street, has been impeccably fitted out in Mackintosh style. Both venues are a favorite with visitors, so go early to avoid the queues. Waitresses still wear rustling black satin uniforms like the ones they were sporting over a century ago.
Sally Lunn's, Bath
Local myth has it that Sally Lunn's, sallylunns.co.uk, is located in the oldest house in Bath, the elegant Georgian city in the southwest of England that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home of the original Bath bun (a rich bread similar to brioche), the restaurant boasts a kitchen museum in its basement. History buffs can see an oven used in the 1600s and other period implements.
A newcomer to the tearoom scene, Eteaket, eteaket.co.uk, is a hit with the Edinburgh cognoscenti. Most of the 40-plus leaf teas are sourced from smaller estates around the world, which the company says secures a fairer price for plantation workers and is kinder to the environment. However, "it's not all kaftans and flower power," says owner Erica Moore. Hot pink and turquoise seating and brightly colored fondant fancies served on vintage cake stands inject the necessary note of playfulness.
Peacocks Tearoom, Ely
Situated about 30 km from Cambridge in the town of Ely, Peacocks, peacockstearoom.co.uk, was voted Top Tea Place in 2007 by the U.K. Tea Council and that's no mean accolade when your competitors are the Dorchester and Savoy. The august body praised Peacocks' warm atmosphere, amazing range of teas and delicious sandwiches. There's also the lovely riverside setting and wisteria-strewn gardens, both enticing draws on a sunny day. The tea count runs to almost 60 varieties, and as you'd imagine there are no tea bags allowed.