Saturday, 10 May 2014

Tea Tour - Watford High Street

We love visiting vintage tea-rooms with their pretty decor, comfy chairs and vast selection of loose-leaf teas. But they do seem to be rather thin on the ground, and they don't always make themselves easy to find, often having no online presence at all. And whilst their middle-of-nowhereness can make them attractive it also makes them far less accessible than the big-brand middle-of-everywhere chain coffee shops that seem to take the majority of custom when it comes to selling hot drinks. Happily though, the independents are fighting back, and there are now some really great tea and coffee shops springing up on our high streets, making a name for themselves with unique identities, good quality food and drink, and a flair for the personal touch when it comes to marketing. We discovered a couple of these on our Tring Tea Tour, and we were hopeful that Watford High Street might provide us with a few more.

Our first stop, right near the bottom of the High Street, was Ocean Bells Coffee Company. A relatively new indie coffee shop, Ocean Bells is owned and run by a married couple who discovered a passion for coffee whilst on their travels around the world.

Ocean Bells is quite a slim shop, but its interior design makes good use of its limited space, with tables placed close around the walls. We managed to squeeze five people around a table, but larger groups might have difficulty finding seating together. Funky lighting creates a feeling of intimacy at each table, despite the proximity of other customers. It's an inviting atmosphere: modern yet with a touch of the vintage about it. In such a small space it wasn't a surprise to discover that there was no loo. These indie shops are often of necessity small spaces, in order to be affordable to run and make a profit. Being creative with space will only take you so far; in the end something has to go. Luckily for Ocean Bells there is a loo located in the shopping centre next door, just a few seconds away, so not too much of an inconvenience for customers.

Ocean Bells, although primarily a coffee shop, pride themselves on stocking a good range of tea. Their website states that they serve loose leaf tea, but their stock seems to be solely Teapigs teabags (or tea temples, as Teapigs market them). Now, we do very much like Teapigs, with their superior whole-leaf tea bags, but loose leaf tea definitely does not come in a bag! To further add to the confusion, the teapots at Ocean Bells come with internal infusers, so they could very easily serve loose leaf tea (although, in my opinion, using a teapot with an infuser somewhat defeats the point of using a teapot!). Each tea is served with a sand timer and the instruction that the tea will be ready to pour when the sand runs out. A cute touch, but utterly pointless for the Superfruit infusion that I ordered as it required a good six-plus minutes of brewing time before it was ready to drink. I would suggest the issue here is that they are putting a teabag into an infuser into a teapot, which is going to seriously hamper the brewing process. The crockery was very much chipped around the edges, and whilst I personally have no problem with this, I do think that it makes for less than professional presentation.

Several of my Tea Ladies (and Tea Gent on this occasion!) ordered sandwiches, and reported back that they were fresh and delicious. But we were still waiting for one drinks order after everyone had finished eating, and had to chase this up with counter staff who were mostly busy serving take-away orders. We were also made rather unhappy by a photographer (I assume taking promotional photos for the cafe) who snapped away at us without doing us the courtesy of asking our permission and despite the fact that we all looked extremely uncomfortable. Rather rude, in my opinion. 

Ocean Bells is perfect for a brief bite or energising coffee-and-chat, but less so for a lingering lunch and a relaxing cuppa. But it was good to see an indie shop so busy and thriving, and if you want to drink your coffee in a vibrant atmosphere, then Ocean Bells is a much better bet than the nearby chain coffee shops that dominate the area. I would encourage you to try it out.

Our next stop was Cafe on the Corner, just off the High Street on Queens Road. This, I admit, was a mistake on my part. When I visited last year, Cafe on the Corner appeared to be a cute and tiny tearoom, with comfortable sofas and wingback chairs, lovely little decorative touches, friendly servers, and good food and drink, nicely presented. Somehow, in a few short months, this has all changed. It's a quirky little shop, with nothing on the ground floor except for the entrance door. You walk in the door and immediately downstairs is the counter, where you place your order and pay. Then it's back upstairs again, then up some more stairs to the seating area. Where, sad to say, much of the comfy seating has been replaced by large tables. I'm sure this is practical, but it's also less pretty (although it did give us the chance to all sit together and indulge in some superhero colouring, which we'd brought along in lieu of a quiz! Yes, we are all grown-ups, just in case you were wondering...). The servers were not quite surly but were certainly lacking smiles. And whilst the menu contains sandwich options such as mozarella, basil and sun-dried tomato, this is served alongside a handful of crisps. The tea arrived in a mug, already milked (Did they ask if I wanted milk? No) and (Bad form!) with the teabag left in. It was a bit of a disappointment, as I chose Cafe on the Corner over Presence (a lovely independent coffee shop), merely because I was hoping for some proper tearoom action. Ah well...  Check out the website's gallery for how the cafe used to look.

Next up was a bit of a wildcard on the tea front: Tarboush, a Mediterranean/Lebanese restaurant with some interesting flavoured teas on their menu. As we turned the corner onto Market Street the heavens opened, and with rain sheeting in under our umbrellas we all managed to get thoroughly soaked. And that was before the challenge of getting past a burst drainpipe that was arcing water across the pavement at head height! We arrived sodden, and deposited our wet things on an empty table next to where we would be sitting. The staff were very accomodating of our damp state, as well as slightly amused! We ordered drinks straight off, in an attempt to warm up. The cardomom, cinammon, apple, ginger, and clove tea on the menu turned out to be flavoured black tea, in teabag form, from a company called Rabea. And whilst I wasn't overly impressed with the tea itself, the presentation was pleasing, with each tea served in a glass mug, and with freshly chopped pieces of fruit or spice corresponding to the tea's flavour added for taste and effect.

All of us Tea Ladies ordered food. The meals were huge and appetising. Not feeling very hungry I just ordered a side dish: haloumi. It was served with salad and I was also offered bread (gratis) and altogether it just about filled me up. We really enjoyed ourselves at Tarboush, despite feeling wet and chilled, and I will definitely be going back again soon.

After a brief detour to the local toy shop and comic shop, and just catching the tail end of yet more rain, we made our way to our final tea destination of the day: The LP Cafe. Situated right at the very top of the High Street, and round to the right - (Yes, right to the top, keep going. Round a bit further. There you are!) - the LP cafe is "on a mission to escape from the rest of the world and enjoy the tastiest coffees while discovering the best sounds." There's a laid back air about the place - come in, relax, play with the lego on the table! - and because of its location away from the main High Street it really does feel like a little retreat from the world. 

The LP Cafe uses JING whole-leaf tea in large teabags. I tried the Earl Grey, which was mellow and well-balanced, without the overpowering headiness that some Earl Greys have. Tea for one is served in a large cup and saucer, and tea for two comes in a vast teapot that just keeps on pouring.

As well as serving top notch coffee, a range of teas, and a selection of sandwiches and cakes, The LP Cafe - as the name might suggest - sells vintage vinyl, with records for sale decorating the walls, and a bargain box at the back of the shop. Open daily, The LP is also cutting a niche for itself as an indie venue, hosting talks, tea tastings, and comedy nights, and managing to squeeze around 30 people into their small space, and keep them happy too. All this, and they've even managed to fit in a loo. Bravo LP Cafe, bravo! The staff were lovely and the whole atmosphere was just bright and happy. We had a lovely time, and we'll definitely be going back.

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