Babington's Tea Rooms


P. di Spagna, 23
Open daily 9am-8:15pm. Closed Tue.

Babington's Tea Rooms, a venerable institution that dates from 1893, occupies the most coveted spot in all of Rome. It sits next door to the famous Spanish Steps, a tourist trap that surely accounts for the bulk of the tearoom's clientele. On a recent trip to Rome, I became one of these unfortunate souls.

Stepping inside is a remarkable experience. The hustle and bustle of the hectic Roman life outside is instantly banished. In their place, one is greeted by a stately British calm. The plural in the name connoted a series of adjacent rooms, all with high ceilings and a sea of dark wood. All very, very quiet.

And seemingly deserted. On the Monday afternoon of my visit, only a few tables were occupied. So getting seated was not a problem. Perusing the menu, however, is more difficult. Not for any issues of linguistics - the text appeared to be perfect English. No, the difficulty comes in figuring out what items to order so as to still have money for the flight home. For these tend to be on the high side. A one-person pot of Pouchong is 11.50 euros ($13). A pot of Gunpowder, the least expensive tea on offer, is 8 euros ($9). A similar pricing philosophy permeates the food pages. Buttered toast is 5 euros. Care for some egg and mayonnaise salad? This will set you back 17 euros ($20).

But what's money at times like this? How many hundred-old tearooms could there be in the world? Suck it up and order, I tell myself. My selection falls upon the Grand Pouchong, described in the menu as a "very lightly fermented tea, almost a green tea, with a delicate aroma." Unfortunately, the pot arrives full of boiling water, rendering the tea nearly undrinkable, with a taste closer to that of Gunpowder than the exquisite notes of Pouchong. Strangely enough, it is accompanies by lemon and milk, but nothing that may permit me to filter or remove the tea leaves.

Though the setting is new, the service lady seems eerily familiar. I have seen many like her during my years of work in Eastern Europe - a heavy set woman who never smiles, and is utterly efficient about moving menus, cups and chairs. It's only people that she is not too fond of. Surely, I am thinking, she's not deserving of my tip. But she decides otherwise, and holds on to my change. And I am in no mood to argue.

So the next time you find yourself in Rome, be sure to take in the majesty of Spanish Plaza. Just don't imbibe any of Babingtons' teas. Head for a caf� instead and order yourself an espresso. After all, when in Rome...