Leave the bustling centre of Milsom Street behind you and enter quiet, cobbled Queen Street of Bath. A more appropriate name could not be found for this quintessentially elegant and salubrious backwater of a city where really good, authentic tea rooms are in short supply. At numbers 2 and 3 there is a veritable institution: The Canary.
Presumed to have been owned by the same family between 1951 and 1998, an acrimonious divorce between the owners brought the “closed” sign down for the very last time on what was once Bath’s most popular and iconic tea room.
In the ensuing years two restaurants came and went, both languishing and, ultimately, failing in this locality. Then, in 2011, Peter Meacock and his sons Tom and Rowan bought the building as an investment opportunity.
“We saw the street and we really liked it. We live in the apartment above the tea room, and when we moved in we started hearing stories from all the local families about what a very special place this Canary tea room used to be. So we decided that we would renovate the building and re-open it, under the same name, in August this year,” Peter told me.
The three men wanted to keep the relaxed café feel, an homage to the 1950’s and 1960’s eras that are so popular with today’s interior designers and trend setters. The wooden tables are covered with PVC coated royal blue tablecloths, the chairs are covered with bright cobalt and yellow Sanderson’s velvet and the Menu is very much focussed on the sort of old-fashioned food that was eaten way back then.
Chef Alex Barjstatt, whom Peter used to know from the days when he owned the Severn Shed restaurant and Alex used to work at Harvey’s in Bristol, is busy in the kitchen in the basement. I am offered tastings of really delicious lamb shank shepherd’s pie, confit of duck leg, a soft scotch egg and a classic Caesar salad. “We really wanted to choose comforting, warming, seasonal dishes that people could relate to easily. We also do a very good value Sunday lunch with all the trimmings: it’s an old café style menu for families,” Tom explained.
But it is also the cakes for which The Canary is earning its share of fame since its doors re-opened. Tom is an avid baker, and although a builder by trade, he would much rather be in the kitchen baking and creating new recipes. Pear and Nutella; lemon, lime and mixed berr; pineapple, coconut and cherry and chocolate honeycomb and fudge ganache are just some of today’s offerings. Cakes are presented right in front of the counter, so that as soon as you enter through the door you are welcomed by an array of sweet, tantalising treats. As a sales strategy it works, and I fall right into the trap. A big slice of berry cake is in front of me with my pot of tea.
All the loose teas have been specially chosen from Gillards of Bath from the Guildhall Market. There is also a bespoke Canary “Breakfast Blend” (Assam and Darjeeling teas) and “Afternoon Blend” (Indian and Ceylon teas). The Canary also serves Prohibition Teas, otherwise known as gin and tonic or wine, in the evenings. There is also a choice of Champagnes, Prosecco, Gem amber ale, Wild Hare pale ale or Bounders traditional cider. The Canary is open from 9am till 9 pm, and vicinity to Charlotte Street Car Park must surely also be key to their success, in a city where finding a parking space for more than half an hour is harder than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Peter sourced most of the china for the tea room from vintage expert Catherine Stokes, whose business Mrs. Stokes Vintage China is also based in Bath. She organises an online china shop, a china hire service, a stall in Bath’s Union Street, vintage and artisan fairs and The Secret Tea Party events. Her brief for The Canary was to source bright, graphic, geometric blue and yellow pieces of china that would reflect the theme and the colour scheme of the tea room. There are very few floral themes on any of the china because during the 50’s and 60’s there was a turning away from Victoriana and chintz.
The success of The Canary is evident: tables are full, staff are busy, the clatter of cups and plates fills the air and Peter and Tom are delighted with the life-changing decision they made.
“So many people have come in to tell us how glad they are that the tea room is back and busy. There are so many families in Bath that have lived here for generations, and to have somewhere informal, friendly and tucked away in a quiet, familiar corner is really important and special. Many of the businesses around us have been here a very long time indeed. This is that sort of town,” Peter explains.
In the old Canary young men proposed to their sweethearts, mothers came with their children after school, families met for lunch and office workers came for their morning pot of tea. And so it is now: a new generation can enjoy this quirky and unique eaterie. Take time to savour all the design details, the art work and presentation. A great deal of thought has gone into its creation and below the stairs is a very talented and hard working chef.
The Canary website: www.thecanarytearooms.co.uk
Follow the team on Twitter: @thecanary
Catherine Stokes: www.mrsstokes.com
Follow Catherine on Twitter: @mrsstokeschina