Caffeine, Cafés and Corporate Chains

As tea, coffee and cakes brim over into the narrow streets of York, assesses the traditional tea room against the corporate names to which we are so accustomed

Photo credit: Lucy Dixon

Photo credit: Lucy Dixon

Caffeine is on regular tap these days from more chain outlets in York than you can shake a stick at, and with at least nine coffee houses from the big three (Starbucks, Café Nero, Costa Coffee) in the tiny square mileage of York city centre, its rival, the tea room worries about extinction. So what’s so great about coffee chains, and what has caused their dominance over the very British institution that is the tea room, especially in ye olde city of York? Firstly, there’s the obvious advantage of coffee houses being dual purpose; you can drop in for a couple of minutes, get an Americano to go for £2.10 and be off spending your loan elsewhere. Or you can chow down on a baguette in a comfy chair relaxing with your buddies for hours on end.

Tea rooms only really offer the latter, with the ‘to go’ option being pretty much a no-go on all fronts, and it’s this disadvantage that seems to cost them customers. If you go in, you’re in for a minimum of 30 minutes, including ordering, waiting, eating, drinking, checking out the waiting staff and paying up. I stopped by a few of York’s tea rooms and found that unlike the coffee chain, a visit varies hugely from place to place. Take Bullivants of York for example. A Bullivant cream tea is £5.25, and gets you a homemade scone.

Anyway, it also happens to be a cosy intimate little place on Blake Street with lavender sprigs hanging on the wall, laced curtains and novelty tea pots in the window. Bullivant is definitely worth a visit. Light lunches of sandwiches, breakfast, and baked potatoes are all reasonably priced at £6-8, plus you come out feeling very British. My only criticism; McDonalds is directly opposite and kills that feeling immediately.

Bailey’s Tea Room, at the top of Museum Street, was entirely different. The chef for example, with tracky bottoms, silver chain, a prominent strut and definitely too much hair gel seemed a bit out of character. Plus my cream tea was served with squirty cream instead of clotted. Bizarrely, I still kind of liked the place as it held no pretension as to what it was about, which was reflected in its cheaper pricing. The staff were all full of smiles and chit-chat and, considering £3.75 gets you a squirty cream tea, it’s not so bad.

Next time your caffeine levels are low, don’t stop by at a chain with more than 15,000 stores

If you’re after the ultimate in tea room brilliance, Bettys is the obvious cliché, but I would highly recommend Grays Court Tea Room. You can find it behind the Minster, near Treasurers House and it’s one of my favourite spots in all of York. It’s very out of the way and quiet, but when you go in you instantly feel patriotic. It oozes old England with its mossy, cobbled entrance and surrounding potted plants, but the peculiar choice of sofas and controversial art gives it a very retro student feel.

But I can’t help but worry that these places are under threat. At least three new coffee houses (excluding the big three) opened in York last summer, and most of those in the city centre are located on street corners, meaning a doubled-fronted presence. Business-minded for definite. We all know you can get a pretty fair coffee at Costa or Café Nero. The interiors are welcoming, there’s no danger of laminated menus and there’s stylish canvas artwork (usually showing people in coffee shops drinking coffee whilst you are in a coffee shop surrounded by people drinking coffee). Even the mass-produced cakes are delicious.

But, next time your caffeine levels are low, don’t stop by at a chain with more than 15,000 stores worldwide in 44 different countries, hit up a tea room. We’re supposed to be famous for it after all…

One comment

  1. i agree! there is a fabulous tea room on Goodramgate, called Ambience Cafe Bar, with a little ‘walled’ garden out the back which is fab for warm days (and smokers). The staff are really friendly, and genuinely don’t mind you taking your time to enjoy the scenery, which includes a section of the City Walls.

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