The term “tearoom” can attach to a number of different tea-related venues, from restaurants and tea parlors to private spaces used for tea ceremonies. Most tearooms can be broadly classed as either Western or Eastern in style. English tearooms are exemplary of the Western-style tearooms: these are parlor-like places, often in homes, where tea and small cookies and sandwiches are served at designated times. An Eastern tearoom is the kind of tearoom commonly found in Japan and China. They are usually small, enclosed rooms, often in dedicated tea houses, where tea ceremonies are performed and tea is served to certain guests.
In many countries, tea is more than just a beverage — it is a piece of the culture, and an important piece of the societal fiber. Tearooms are common in these places. There is no set definition of tearoom, but in most cases, it is a space, whether large or small, public or private, where people gather to drink and appreciate tea.
The earliest tearooms appeared in China. Tea, which is indigenous to many of China’s mountain slopes and inland fields, has been a part of the Chinese culture for many centuries. The finest teas were reserved for members of the dynastic nobility, and tearooms were where those nobles served and entertained their guests. Many of the earliest tearooms were in palaces and private homes.
Tea retained its status as a drink of the elites for quite some time, largely owing to the price of export early on. Countries like Russia and Japan were early importers of both green and black tea blends from China, but the cost was such that only the wealthiest people could afford it. Tea in those cultures was often highly ceremonial and revered.
Members of the Japanese elite developed an entire tea culture as early as the 16th century. It began with the construction of a tea house, a free-standing structure often built overlooking elaborate tea gardens or meditative landscapes. Tea houses were primarily built for tea ceremony, an ancient ritual that combined tea preparation and hospitality. Traditionally, guests would participate in the often elaborate tea ceremony in the tea house’s tearoom, then adjourn to the gardens or reflective spaces for quiet meditation. The tea ceremony and tearoom culture is still important in Japan, but is not as prolific or central to society as it once was.
The tearoom culture is a bit different in the West, but centered still on ideas of hospitality, entertainment, and wealth. Western-style tearooms reached the height of their popularity in Victorian England. A traditional English tearoom was a parlor, usually in someone’s home, where servants would serve tea and light snacks every day at an appointed hour.
In the modern day, tearooms are for the most part more relaxed. Many cultures now feature public tearooms that operate much as a café or coffee shop would, just with an emphasis on tea. Western tea shops that offer high tea in the English tradition also often adopt the "tearoom" name. In China, entire tea restaurants, known as cha can ting, are popular places for diners to enjoy tea and tea snacks at any time of the day. The modern Chinese tradition of yum cha, a set tea time in many businesses and schools, also brings some of the elements of ancient tearoom culture into the mainstream.