Charles Rennie Mackintosh
The advent of the tearoom came about in 1875 when Glasgow tea retailer Stuart Cranston hit upon a simple idea for encouraging customers to sample his teas. He provided tables and seating for 16 people at his Queen Street store and advertised a cup of China tea “with milk and sugar for two pence–bread and cakes extra.” He had invented a popular new place of public refreshment.

Stuart’s sister Kate quickly spotted the potential for growth and set about opening her own tea room empire that included both tasteful tea salons for women, and billiard and smoking rooms for men. In 1897, she opened the first of five tearooms designed by young artist and architect Rennie Mackintosh. Kate was known for her outdated Victorian dress and flamboyant hats, but her art nouveau tearooms were considered to be the latest fashion for Glasgow society.

No one was more suited to set the pace for a new century than the forward-thinking Mackintosh. He had recently completed the new Glasgow School of Art. In the same manner as America’s Frank Lloyd Wright, Mackintosh designed not only the building, but also the windows, lights, furniture, wall coverings, and floors. No detail was too small; he even designed the typeset and art found on the menus of Miss Cranston’s tearoom.

In 1903, Mackintosh began work on the Kate Cranston’s Willow Tea Rooms. Of all the interiors created by Mackintosh, the grand Room de Luxe, with its silver furniture and leaded glass windows, was the jewel in the crown of their twenty-year partnership. Taking tea there was so exclusive that customers willingly paid a penny more for their cup of tea.
The Willow’s Room de Luxe, Glasgow
The world is fortunate to have one Mackintosh tearoom still carrying out its intended function. In December 1983, Anne Mulhern recreated the Room de Luxe in the original location and the Willow Tea Rooms were reborn. Eager guests from around the world queue for as much as an hour to experience the restored tearoom and the spirit of its internationally famous architect.

The Willow Tea Rooms sit above a jeweler’s shop on Glasgow’s bustling shopping street of Sauchiehall (Gaelic for “alley of the willows.)The willow theme is featured throughout the building. The simple bowed facade, art nouveau windows and ironwork signage immediately signal that this is the scheme of an out-of-the-ordinary designer.

Entrance to the tearooms is gained through the jeweler’s shop, past irresistible Mackintosh-inspired jewelry and up a flight of stairs to the restored mezzanine Gallery. One more flight of steps leads to the Room de Luxe and its coveted 12 tables. The distinctive tall back chairs create a “room within a room” for protecting the privacy of diners’ conversations. The furnishings are all Mackintosh reproductions.

The barreled ceiling and bright windows make the cozy room appear much larger than it is. Today’s guests are often dressed more casually than they would have been during Kate Cranston’s reign. Still, the room’s timeless appeal cannot be stymied by today’s changing fashions. This is a beloved temple for any arts and crafts pilgrim.
The Willow offers meals served throughout the day, highlighted by a tea menu comprised  of a selection of sandwiches (including smoked salmon, cucumber or roast beef); scones with butter, jam, and clotted cream; and pastries from the dessert trolley. As well, a complete list of 26 black, green, flavored and herbal teas is offered. Eyes and appetites are both satisfied here!

All this Mackintosh mania may inspire you to learn more about the popular artist. Start at the Glasgow School of Art, located a short walk away on Renfrew Street. Considered to be one of the most influential and significant structures of the twentieth century, here you will see an exhibition space and book store filled with Mackintosh memorabilia. The staff will be happy to steer you to other prominent buildings located throughout the Glasgow area.

If you are a Braveheart fan, be sure to budget a half-day to explore Stirling Castle and the nearby William Wallace Memorial. Don’t miss the castle’s recently restored kitchens. The town of Stirling is an easy day trip from either Glasgow or Edinburgh. For lunch, visit The Tea Room tucked away on Millhall Road. This family-run business offers home baking and light meals, coupled with stunning views of Stirling Castle.

Read about The Willow and other great tea rooms of Scotland, England and Wales in The Great Tea Rooms of Britain by Bruce Richardson.

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