What’s in a Name: Tea Rooms v. Tea Rooms

Oh joy! A new tea room opened in your neighbourhood and you can’t wait to stop in for afternoon tea or a great cuppa. You make your reservation, grab a friend, and off you go. When you get there, you find that their idea of “afternoon tea” is what you call lunch, and the only tea on the menu is a generic teabag in a cup of tepid water.

How to distinguish a real tea room from those others
How to distinguish a real tea room from those others

Wait a minute! Didn’t their name say “tea room?” So where’s the tea? Where’s the three-tier stand? Where are the scones? The fact is: Not all establishments that call themselves a tea room serve tea as a meal or as a specialty beverage.

The term tea room (or tearoom) can be used to describe what many people call a lunch room: a café-type establishment that offers a light mid-day meal. Often attached to shopping venues like antique malls, gift shops, and department stores, they provide respite for weary shoppers wanting a break for lunch or a snack.

Originally tea/lunch rooms catered to female customers, and were usually owned and run by women. They were considered respectable places for “unescorted” ladies (read: no menfolk) to enjoy a meal in public. Ambiance ranged from dainty to fussy; menu choices tended to lean toward composed salads and aspics.

Tea/lunch rooms – where “tea” is a light meal served in a casual environment – are most popular in Eastern Canada and U.S. Southern and Midwestern states, but can be found just about anywhere. Most do serve good food. Some even serve afternoon tea in addition to lunch, although often as a private or special arrangement. The tea itself, sadly, is usually not what a tea lover is looking for.

How can you avoid disappointment? Try to review the tea room’s menu before heading out. If that’s not possible, consider their business hours: if they’re open only from 11am to 2pm or thereabout it’s a good bet that the only meal they’re serving is lunch. If that’s what you want, go for it. But if it’s tea you’re after, keep looking – there are plenty of tea-worthy tea rooms out there.

Although not as common, there are two other categories of “tea room” that you may come across, and neither of these should be mistaken for a place to get good tea. Resort hotels and cruise ships often feature a dining room where guests can avail themselves of light meals, desserts, “munchies,” and beverages 24 hours a day. These are often called tea rooms, and they’re included in the price of the room or cabin. Finally, in some contexts, tea room refers to public restrooms used for male homosexual encounters. If you want more information about this type of tea room, you’re on your own.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: Tea Rooms v. Tea Rooms

  1. Great fun to read. A hotel’s “tea room” is often like a hotel’s “included breakfast” … disappointing and/or overpriced. Yes, “included,” for some establishments, means “We happen to serve it and will charge extra if you eat it.” As for tea room, it merely means, “We have tea cups and tea bags and may serve coffee in the same cups… Scones? Isn’t that a sort of wall-mounted light?”

    1. A.C. Cargill

      You hit the nail on the head, Granny! Actually, if you read my tea manners quiz, you will see that scones CAN be on walls! Thanks for the return visit to our blog. We missed you! 🙂

      1. You are welcome… never disappear for long, or intentionally. Just a bit difficult to keep up with all the great reads sometimes. Have a good weekend.

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