Babingtons Tea Rooms in Rome is an extraordinary institution in a city which knows a thing or two about ancient history. Coming up to its 125th anniversary in 2018, the original Babingtons Tea Rooms was opened in 1893 in Via Due Macelli by two enterprising young women who wanted to make a respectable living in the Eternal City. Gentlefolk Isabel Cargill and Anna Maria Babington arrived with 100 pounds in their pockets and a plan to provide Rome’s flourishing English community with somewhere to drink tea – only found in pharmacies – and read newspapers.
It was such a success that it transferred to its prestigious, current premises at the foot of the Spanish Steps a year later. This locale was actually the former stable block of the 18th century palazzo designed by Francesco de Sanctis, architect of the Spanish Steps and the Casina Rossa (today the Keats Shelley House), but was soon bustling with trays of tea, the rustle of newspaper and crinoline, as well as the whisper of delicious local gossip. Some things never change (well, maybe the crinoline).
Babingtons Tea Rooms: a fragment of living history
The untrained eye might confuse it for a tourist-pleaser catering to the unfortunate Brit who can’t abide foreign muck when he travels, or worse, a chintzy trope of Englishness peddling tea and scones to Anglophile Italians.
In reality, Babingtons Tea Rooms is neither. It is, in fact, a fragment of living history, as extraordinary, in its own, modest way, as any of Rome’s renowned ruins. Somehow, despite the ravages of time, this genteel spot has survived the arrival of McDonalds and the eye-watering hoisting of rents in the luxury stores which surround it. Babingtons Tea Rooms arguably broadened the Roman taste for tea, as well as providing the only public bathrooms for ladies of its time in Rome. It catered to the English bent on exploring Italy as part of the Grand Tour, as well as those who has happily settled overseas, as well as attracting local attention.
While iconically Roman, Piazza di Spagna had long attracted well to do English men and women of letters, from Keats to Byron, who supped and quaffed at Café del Greco on via dei Condotti. Keats’ former lodgings in Rome, on the other side of the Spanish steps, still today stands as Babingtons Tea Rooms’ mirror image and a complimentary bastion of Britishness.
Babingtons Tea Rooms first thrived and then survived wartime Italy, with a peculiar type of Dunkirk spirit of its own. Current co-owner and heir to the Tea Rooms Rory Bruce (Isabel Cargill’s great grandson) recounts how the staff pooled their rations during the war to make sure they could still bake, brew and sell. It was even a seat of the Resistance, hosting partisan efforts to defeat the city’s German occupiers. Post-war, the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of Rome, its return to wealth and vivacity helped Babingtons Tea Rooms keep up with the rent and complete one or two modest overhauls.
Babingtons Tea Rooms: preparing for the 125th anniversary
What can you expect to find today? To drink in, over 40 kinds of tea, hand-blended on the premises, as well as more than 80 blends that can be purchased to take away in the small shop area. The menu includes scones and other cakes perfect for afternoon tea, but also handsome lunches, salads, steaks, and even cocktails, with a fun few mixed with tea, just to maintain the theme.
There’s also a fair bit of cute merchandise to buy in store, carrying the cute Babingtons cat logo. According to Babingtons lore, there has always been a cat or two about the place, although the current furry resident is kept out of the restaurant, but you may spy him through the window at the back.
2018, Babingtons Tea Room’s 125th anniversary, will bring lots of engaging events and themed evenings, so keep an eye on the Testaccina blog and on the Babingtons Tea Room website for further information. Hell, there might even be a new blend of tea or two on the menu, you have been warned. Rock n’ Roll!