Joanna Blythman on the Willow
Willow Tearooms 8/10
AFTER the tragic fires at the School of Art in Glasgow, the restoration and reopening of the Willow Tea Rooms, which Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed for the legendary Miss Cranston, seems doubly poignant, doubly important. The dogged Willow Tearoom Trust, catalysed by another impressive Glasgow woman, Celia Sinclair, carries even more of a responsibility than perhaps it had expected. It wasn’t just a question of faithfully honouring Mackintosh’s unique tearoom with authentic contemporary craftsmanship, but also relighting an old beacon that keeps the Mackintosh legacy burning brightly just as a dark shadow has fallen over the art school only footsteps away.
I walk in with butterflies in my stomach. Please, please, don’t let this be a Mockintosh pastiche. I needn’t have worried. The experience actually makes me want to cry, but in a joyous way. It makes me proud that I come from Glasgow, a city that despite all its challenges, shows an irrepressible creativity, a world-class metropolis that can produce a Mackintosh, a Cranston, a Sinclair. This isn’t forelock-tugging art and architecture designed to big up the stature and wealth of its owner. Whether you’re talking Mackintosh, Cranston, or Sinclair, these are people advancing a project that any ordinary citizen who just likes a cup of tea can take part in. And these visionaries view that citizen as someone who, irrespective of their means, merits and can appreciate the finer things in life: beautiful glasswork, elaborate gesso reliefs, sinuous ironwork, and last but not least, the civilised ritual of an immaculately served afternoon tea. Mackintosh was the best sort of Scot, open, intelligent, with an independent frame of mind, a modernist who looking beyond his petty parish to be inspired by the latest architectural styles and decorative ideas in Europe and Japan. In a world of Scotland the Brand, tawdry with whisky liqueur and Nessie fudge, Charles Rennie Mackintosh remains Scotland’s finest expression of itself.
I won’t presume to describe the interior. You simply have to visit. What is obvious though, from the people around us, is how they interact with their environment. Several of them, from the cut of their cloth, look to be architects. They walk around, upstairs and down, marvelling at what they’re seeing, soaking up every detail. Some of them will doubtless go on to incorporate what they’re seeing into lectures, books, PhD theses. There’s a general feeling of enchantment, one with an international spread. From the staff (the tearoom is run as a social enterprise) to the customers, everyone has a smile on their face. We all feel that our days, indeed our lives, have been enhanced by spending some time in this extraordinary environment.
Food? All I ask is that it isn’t bad enough to spoil my euphoria and my prayer is answered.
It’s way better than National Trust, botanical gardens, ‘visitor centre’ standard. In fact the more we eat, the more I’m impressed.
Here are two soups: one a sharp-sweet roasted tomato, full-bodied and fruity; the other, a broth with silky haricot beans, firm lentils, carrot, celery, flat parsley and rosemary that is Tuscan in style. Both come with good sourdough. Feelgood hormones generated by this sensational environment streaming through my system, I take the risk of the barley and wild mushroom risotto. No fake ‘wild’ here, the bouncy grain is loaded with porcini, girolles, trompettes, ever so slightly sweet from patiently sweated onions, its glutinous potential kept in check by the crunch of the toasted flaked almonds on top.
A pleasant summer quiche, more of a flan really, with flaky pastry, peas, and a kaleidoscope of spring onion or chives and a good fresh salad deserves better than the home-made coleslaw, which is let down by its sickly, vinegary mayonnaise, and chilly potato salad.
Everything is served with grace here, on Willow pattern china.
Even tap water arrives chilled in elegant decanters. Miss Cranston must have appreciated a stiff drink, so it’s not just the leaf tea selection that is extensive but also the list of alcoholic possibilities. Yet afternoon tea is really the main thing here: neat finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones, miniature tartlets, cakes and macaroons, all daintily served, all high standard, all baked on the premises.
What a total joy the Willow Tearooms are.