Open Mon–Thu 10am–8pm, Fri–Sun 9am–8pm
A few years ago bubble tea was a largely unknown entity in London. Despite 20 years of massive success in Taiwan — where it was created — and much of the Far East, it had yet to catch on over here. Fast forward to 2014, however, and it seems that there is now an endless supply of specific shops and concession stands selling the funny looking milky drink with balls in the bottom. Chatime is one such chain of bubble tea shops with branches in Soho, Chinatown and now Portobello Road.
For the uninitiated, bubble tea is a refreshing cold milky drink based on tea or fruit juice and usually served with balls of tapioca at the bottom, all of which is drunk through a wide straw. You can see why it might not have been an instant hit. The ‘bubble’ part comes from the froth on top of the drink when it is shaken and there are many variations on the basic ingredients and an almost endless list of flavour combinations.
Places like Chatime are bringing a more ‘Starbucks’ element to proceedings by homogenising the process and having proper shops to soften the — admittedly weird — blow of drinking what is essentially cold tea and tapioca through a straw.
The style & crowd:
Visiting on a Tuesday evening the Chatime Portobello shop, just opened, was entirely deserted save for the very friendly staff and manager Cheng-Kai. The interior was a peculiarly sterile blend of McDonalds seating and Apple Store minimalism, all clean lines and high chairs.
It also had a hanging cardboard Instagram frame that you could stand behind and Instagram yourself drinking bubble tea in an Instagram frame in a bubble tea shop. Very meta.
Being new to this whole thing I deferred to Cheng-Kai who whipped me up a half sugar Chatime Milk Tea with tapioca and a Lychee Black Tea for my companion. The milk tea was actually very refreshing and, once you got over the chewy balls of tapioca randomly appearing in your mouth, was really quite nice. A cold, sweet, bitter, milky, chewy drink is not something that you can get anywhere else really.
The Lychee Black Tea was very refreshing but really just a less sugary version of iced tea, which is perhaps how iced tea is meant to taste and not the luminous, saccharine stuff we normally get served.
Looking at the menu it was clear we had really only dipped a toe into the world of Chatime, as the options to customise your drink ranged from roasted milk to oolong mousse (no idea) with rainbow jelly, aloe vera and grassjelly toppings.
It may sound novelty but there’s no denying that Chatime and its ilk are offering a genuinely different and interesting product to the high street. It could just do with slightly less clinical surroundings in which to enjoy it.