A new venture, the t-bar, hopes to transform the image of our national drink. By Charlotte Packer
You may not have noticed it, but for some time now tea has had an image problem. Although we still regard it as our National Drink and between us we gulp down a staggering 185 million cups each day, we are complacent about it: apart from the brand of tea bags we buy out of habit, we give it very little thought. Tea is there simply to break up the day or to ease us through domestic dramas.

Having imported and drunk the stuff since the middle of the 17th-century we should, as a nation, have an exceptionally well-developed taste for tea and be aware of its rich variety. But instead we content ourselves with cups of steaming tea dust made at work with cheap bulk-buy bags or bought from the ubiquitous corner cafe. Where we have rejected poor quality coffee, insisting on freshly ground beans, we still accept exceptionally bad tea; and while we have learned to tell our Kenya AA from our Monsoon Malabar we really don't know our Assam first flush from our Formosa Oolong.

Unlike coffee, tea is not a drink associated with luxury. It is cheap and easy to make and, as far as most people are concerned, it only comes in a bag. But this perception of tea as just a hot brown liquid, could be about to change. Following in the wake of the coffee bars which have taken our cities by storm, Whittard of Chelsea, purveyors of quality tea and coffee since 1886, has entered the fray with its first cafe, called simply the t-bar.

Since its opening on Tuesday, the public will not only be able to buy excellent, freshly brewed tea, but they will be introduced to 45 different varieties of the leaf. Well-known blends such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey will, of course, be there, but so will many that few will have heard of let alone tasted: these include single leaf varieties such as Jasmine Pearl and Monkey Picked. And no selection of teas would be complete without a seriously good Darjeeling (which is often described as the Champagne of teas) so Whittard's will include Margaret's Hope Estate Darjeeling on its menu, which is regarded as one of the finest Darjeelings in the world.

The huge success of coffee bars such as The Seattle Coffee Company was in part the inspiration behind the t-bar, and Simon Hill-Norton, Whittard's new business director, makes no secret of his admiration for such operations. "If we could get close to what Ally Svenson at Seattle has achieved, I'd be thrilled," he says. But the real force behind the move to open the cafe came from Whittard's customers. "Really, again and again our customers would ask why we didn't have a cafe."

Four months ago Simon was given the go-ahead to create the first of what is hoped will be a chain of t-bars. He and Giles Hilton, Whittard's "nose", quickly spotted the one, tiny gap within this very competitive market: quality take-away tea. Traditionally, tea to take away is made with a tea bag, and tea bag tea, though it can be good, can never compare in terms of taste and quality with leaf tea. This became their biggest problem: how to serve leaf tea to take away. Current tea bags are designed to carry tea dust not leaves so these were ruled out. After much experimentation, the Whittard's team devised their own custom-made tea bags: tiny, hand- made, hand-tied, muslin sacks which contain exactly the correct amount of tea for one cup.

Although Whittard's t-bar is clearly targeted at the young professionals who have developed a taste for custom-made everything (from the deluxe sandwich through to the coffee which comes with just so much milk, steamed in exactly this way), it has been careful not to alienate its core customer - the person who regularly buys his or her tea leaves (or coffee beans), from them, and is not interested in paying a premium for a "fashionable" drink. Consequently, despite the labour intensive tea bags, prices are reasonable: there is even a bottomless cup of tea or coffee which costs only pounds 1 and can be replenished indefinitely.

In keeping with Simon's desire to make tea "sexy", the look of the t- bar is contemporary rather than nostalgic (Whittard's has consciously rejected the front parlour feel of the traditional tea shop, adopting instead the approach taken by the likes of The Seattle Coffee Company), there is a brushed steel counter, blue mosaic tiles and gallery-white walls. A steel pillar with illuminated statements greets customers with the time of day - wake-up, elevenses, out to lunch and happy hour - and the music is selected to match the mood of these moments: buzzy in the morning to get those nine-to-fivers in the mood, and laid back music for customers lucky enough to be able to indulge in a relaxed mid-morning tea break.

Although primarily a take-away venture, there is an eating and drinking area with pale beach benches and chairs, and downstairs there is a vast chill-out room complete with private cubby holes (once coal cellars) which protrude beneath the pavement. Tea will be served either by the pot, cup or rice bowl, rather as you might take it in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant. However, the way in which you take your tea is not dictated by the staff. Giles believes that everyone has his or her favourite way to take tea, and while he may instinctively recoil at the idea of adulterating his Darjeeling or Mango Indica with milk, he knows that around 80 per cent of his customers regularly do just that.

"Customers are most welcome to put milk in their Monkey Picked or Jasmine Pearl, but it will look very wishy-washy, and to me it is like putting a blanket over the flavour. I can understand adding milk to the black teas which are more taniny - the milk knocks this back a little, but it is a very personal thing." To this end there is a self service counter with milk, sugar and water.

Although Giles is passionate about tea, he isn't a snob, and he doesn't want to impose his tea-drinking habits on anyone; rather he'd simply like to reawaken the public's interest in the drink. "Tea is an important English drink, but very much confined to being `that brown stuff you make at home from a bag' in most people's minds." Which brings us back to that lengthy menu of teas. Will people really be interested in trying out so many different, though to the uninitiated, similar-tasting teas?

Giles doesn't see too great a problem ahead and points out that it has all been done before, first with wine ("In the Sixties we only drank Blue Nun and Mateus Rose"), olive oil, Belgian beers, and of course coffee. He believes that not only have we become more adventurous but also confident enough to be more selective. "We have all these different olive oils, and even breads these days. We won't be fighting the `strong brown' drinkers, just introducing other choices."

And of those choices, there are several I can recommend, having been treated to a mini-tea tasting of 11 of the 45 on offer. We started with a Darjeeling from The Margaret's Hope Estate and, having tried it before with milk, it was clear that to appreciate this tea it is wise to take Giles' advice and avoid the milk - delicate Darjeeling with milk looks like paint water and tastes pointless. The same Darjeeling without milk is more akin to a herbal tea, and perhaps more refreshing or uplifting because it also delivers a caffeine boost.

Jasmine Pearl, which is so named because once the leaves have been picked they are rolled into little "pearls" which unfurl prettily at the bottom of your cup, is as delicate as the Darjeeling, needs no milk, and has an incredibly intense perfume. Monkey Picked tea grows wild along rocky ledges in Fujian Province in China, and was once picked only by trained monkeys, hence its name. I also like a Kenyan tea, which I tried without milk so I could see its lovely coppery colour, but I think normally I would want to drink it with milk. And finally, if you like light herbal- style teas you cannot go wrong with the Peach green tea, which is soft and aromatic.

Comparing the teas was interesting and fun, and by the end I could see that Giles' dream of groups of friends ordering several different pots of tea to share and compare may not be so far fetched. Tea may yet have a long way to go in order to catch up with coffee in the glamour stakes, but Whittard's t-bar will certainly give its profile a welcome boost.

The t-bar is at 72 Baker Street, London W1 (0171-224 1165)