S&C’s critic and reporter Emily Priest heads to Southsea favourite The Tea Tray on the latest stop of her Southsea Food Tour and finds an atmosphere that’s worth coming back for, time and time again.
The Tea Tray is a unique little place on Osborne road, just off the seafront. Baking and painting (the cafe is run by local artist Fark, and champions many of the city’s urban arts scene) since 2010, it’s a café full of colour and in the last week, I have been there at least 3 times. But, perhaps surprisingly for a food critic, the food is not the reason I keep going back for more.
The café‘s décor is a mix of modern and 60s styles with retro tables with painted legs and a large yellow lamp that reminds me of a Dr Seuss film. The walls are alive with artwork from Fark and other local artists. Home of the ‘be excellent to each other’ birds you’ll have seen all round Southsea, The Tea Tray also has a large seagull painted on the back wall and cartoons on the toilet doors. You know this is a venue with a unique edge from the moment you walk in. Soft jazz welcomes you as you sit down, take off your coat and read the menu.
It isn’t a large menu yet the breakfast and lunch options still tempt you. Breakfast choices include mushrooms on toast and scrambled eggs, while lunch options are a selection of sandwiches or salads. Sandwiches either have ham, fig and honey mustard with rocket and pickle or cheddar with apple slices, onion chutney and rocket. They looked amazing, as I watched other customers order and eat, but I would prefer more choices on offer.
The Teatray has a good range of drinks – coffees, loose leaf teas and soft drinks – as well as cakes, served on decorative cake stands, something I had not seen before. There’s a separate counter for cake, decorated with vases full of flowers and takeaway boxes – very sweet – that tempts customers with flavous including a fig cake, Bakewell tart and an Earl Grey tea loaf. They all looked impeccable.
I’m not a huge cake fan so I ordered a tea and a full English breakfast, including two sausages, two rashers of bacon, toast, tomatoes, mushrooms and scrambled egg – too much for me. I asked the waitress if she would be able to halve the amount and with a smile on her face she said, ‘Of course! And what toast would you like?’
‘White please,’ I replied.
She gave me another grin and hurried off to the kitchen with my order. In many places I’ve visited, they wouldn’t halve the size of the order on request, or at least not so willingly, and I was impressed by the waitress’s kindness and flexibility. Feeling good, I poured myself a cup of tea.
Once again, The Tea Tray had top marks for aesthetics, I was served a dainty colourful teacup, teapot and two saucers. It was refined and pretty and I felt like a lady for once in my life. I made sure to stick my pinky out as I took a sip.
More than just a café, The Tea Tray is also a gallery and a vintage store. Occasionally they have jazz musicians performing and also put on special events such as the Christmas crafts evening last December. With its clean space and open plan, this must be a great venue for small gatherings or intimate events.
My food came out a while later, with great presentation. On a large white plate was a light pile of scrambled egg with cherry tomatoes – still on the vine – on top. There was a generous portion of mushrooms, a thick rasher and a long sausage. One slice of granary toast was placed on the side with a chunk of butter.
Did you notice what was wrong with this picture?
I had been given granary toast, not white as I asked. I didn’t mind too much. I should eat more healthily and the mistake on my order gave me an excuse to try. The butter was hard and couldn’t easily be spread but the scrambled eggs were perfect. They were soft and fluffy, with a rich flavour, and not greasy. The bacon and sausages were quality and supplied by local butcher Buckwells. The mushrooms were cooked with rosemary to give a different, tangy flavour and the cherry tomatoes popped in your mouth – warm and juicy.
Even though I had ordered only half a Tea Tray breakfast, it was plenty for me. Overall, it was good with quality ingredients cooked well – no greasy fry up here and no Gaviscon for me today!
The prices at The Tea Tray are just above average with many options costing around £6-£7, although – as regular readers on my Southsea Food Tour will know – these prices are normal for the more ‘upmarket’ Palmerston and Osborne Road.
I paid up and said goodbye and both the waitress and manager were very cheery, wishing me well and to ‘take care’.
When I got home, I realised something – they had charged me full price for the breakfast, although I’d only had half the amount. I paid almost £9 for my breakfast and tea. A pot of tea costs £2.20 and the full English normally costs £6.95. Surely if I had half of everything this would come to around £6 in total?
The Tea Tray uses high-quality ingredients that taste good, although there is limited choice on the menu and the staff made a few mistakes on my visit.
So why did I go back? If I can get cheaper food elsewhere and more choice – why have I visited The Tea Tray several times this week alone?
Simple. The atmosphere.
The Tea Tray has a relaxed and unique vibe, and the décor, artwork and friendly staff combine to make this café a quiet little sanctuary in the city. It’s a perfect place for a hot drink, a spot of people-watching, reading a book, or writing. I always feel welcome and that is what matters.
If you’re in Southsea and fancy cake, a good breakfast or just a place to watch the world go by, I firmly recommend The Tea Tray. It may not be the best stop on the Southsea Food Tour to eat, but it’s one of the best to relax in. Try it yourself and find out.
Photography by Emily Priest