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 tearoom empire that included both tasteful tea salons for women, and billiard and smoking rooms for men. Kate was known for her outdated Victorian dress and flamboyant hats, but her art nouveau tearooms were the latest fashion for Glasgow society. In 1903, she opened the last of her five tearooms, The Willow on Sauchiehall Street, designed completely by artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
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 and wife Margaret Macdonald, even designed the typeset and art found on the menus of Miss Cranston’s tearoom.
Of all the interiors created by Mackintosh with Cranston, the Willow’s grand Salon 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.
Students of both architecture and tea are fortunate to have one Mackintosh tearoom still carrying out its intended function. Now named MACKINTOSH AT THE WILLOW, the multi-storied building, including the Salon de Luxe, has been restored to its former elegance. Eager guests from around the world once again queue for the chance to experience the restored tearoom and indulge in the spirit of its internationally famous architect.
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 street entrance next to an irresistible Mackintosh-inspired gift shop. You may ascend a flight of stairs to the restored mezzanine Gallery or continue one more flight of steps to the Salon 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 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. Be sure to seek out his buildings scattered throughout the city.
Nearby, at 97 Buchanan Street, you can further indulge your cravings for tea and Mackintosh at the new Willow Tearooms.
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 more about the Glasgow Tea Room Movement in A Social History of Tea by Bruce Richardson and Jane Pettigrew.