Well, you may be surprised to know that it isn't about drinking cups of tea with one's little finger crooked out at an affected angle. Of course, English tea rooms started out in the 1700s as places to drink that 'most refreshing of cups', the newly imported, oh-so-special, tea. But that is all a long, long time ago and a 'tea room' is (and has been for most of its history) more about quality food enjoyed in a pleasant environment.
Of course a tea room serves cups and pots of tea .... along with coffee, hot chocolate, milk, juice, iced drinks, you get the picture. Of greater importance is the mouthwatering choice of cakes, pastries, tarts, gateaux and savoury treats. What you need to know is that when an English person says 'What's for tea?' they are referring to the meal 'tea' which, if you are unfamiliar with the term, just means a light suppertime meal, as opposed to a heavier, more substantial 'dinner'. You need to also understand that a 'tea room' is not a 'tea shop' - somewhere where a tea merchant sells loose tea and related paraphernalia. That is quite a different thing. The french make the distinction quite simply - salon de the is a tea room, boutique de the is a tea shop, with the whole speciality-ness implied by 'boutique'.
Tea rooms in this accurate sense grew in enormous popularity with the creation of Lyons Corner House which brought this type of restaurant within the reach of the masses. Tea rooms like this are to be found throughout Europe....France and Switzerland have their salons de the, Germany and Austria have their Teestuben....but England does remain, for many people, the acme of the experience, whether it is a stop-off for 'elevenses' (a little something with tea or coffee at around eleven o' clock), a light lunch or a more traditional 'afternoon tea' or 'cream tea'.
For many children, a tea room is their first experience of 'eating out'. I have very fond memories of being treated to a chocolate wafer biscuit [cookie] and a glass of orange squash while my father had a toasted tea cake* (a perennial English tea room favourite, see pic and check them out soon at Birkinshaw's!). Weekend trips to town with my mother, when I was a teenager, always included a stop for elevenses at our favourite tea room, 'Tulliver's', with a view over the river and in the town that provided the fictional setting for George Eliot's 'The Mill on the Floss' (hence the name, for those of you familiar with the feisty heroine, Maggie Tulliver). A tea room is generally a less formal, quicker way to experience 'eating out' than a 'posh' restaurant but still with many of the same niceties hence its wide appeal.
In fact, when I think about it, my life is peppered with so many tea room visits that I could not possibly pick a favourite. From my husband's lovely treat of afternoon tea at the Ritz after suffering prolonged post-partum depression, to my own weekly treat to myself whilst studying in Germany of visits to a lovely little place on the edge of the woods outside Bochum (where they did the most delicious Apfel-Mandel Torte and served everything with heaps of Schlagsahne), to a quaint half-timbered building part way up Lincoln's Steep Hill and my memories braving the tourist throngs to take tea in one of the oldest tea rooms in England, Sally Lunn's in Bath. I suppose what this tells you is that I feel pretty imbued with the whole 'tea room' culture. Being English definitely helps, being a passionate cook is part of it, and enjoying bringing a little something special into the everyday is also an asset.
* Pssst, a toasted tea cake is not 'cake' as you know it. A 'bread cake' is a northern English term for a flat bread roll (like an English muffin) so a 'tea cake' is a sweetened, yeasted bread 'cake' made with fruits soaked overnight in strong tea. It is then split, lightly toasted and served with butter melting into it. Yummmm!