Text and Photos by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Greater Phoenix is not usually associated with tea, but the capital of Arizona is quickly being infused with a tea culture that has no rival in the Southwest. That tea attitude should come as no surprise because for years, literally, the writing has been on the wall.
Nestled in the foothills of Scottsdale's McDowell Mountains lies Taliesin West, the sprawling 600-acre desert complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1937, Wright purchased a piece of that dessert and set about building the campus, which served as his home, studio, and teaching center until his death at the age of 91.
The buildings and the landscape of Taliesin West exist in harmony—form and color, beauty and grace, nature and science are all blended. This was a concept Wright learned from The Book of Tea, written by Okakura Kakuzo in 1906. His favorite quote from that classic text is etched in the wall of the campus's auditorium: "The reality of the building does not exist in the roof and walls but in the space within to be lived."
2400 E. Missouri Avenue (Phoenix)
It's a short drive from Taliesen West to the only existing hotel in the world with a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced design, the Arizona Biltmore. "The Jewel of the Desert" resort was designed in 1929 by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's. Unique to the property are the Biltmore Sprites, slender statues of ethereal spirits conceived in 1914 for a project Wright was working on in Chicago. Six of the disarming creations are strategically placed throughout the gardens, bringing an aura of peace and tranquility to the historic resort. The famous Biltmore swimming pool was one of Marilyn Monroe's favorite hangouts, and Irving Berlin penned White Christmas while sitting poolside.
A white Christmas in Phoenix is a rarity, so guests flock to see the elaborately decorated lobbies filled with two-story Christmas trees and a dazzling display of gingerbread houses. And a reservation for afternoon tea at the Arizona Biltmore is the beginning of many happy memories for Phoenix families. Eggnog Brûlée and White Chocolate Peppermint Scones are some of the delectable treats young revelers can expect.
Tea Court at the Phoenician
6000 E. Camelback Road (Scottsdale)
480-423-2530; the phoenician.com
In 1985, Charles Keating had a vision to combine the richness of traditional European elements with the kaleidoscope of color and intriguing style of the Southwest. To bring his vision to life, Keating purchased the land at the base of Scottsdale's Camelback Mountain— the most recognizable location in the valley— which provides dramatic views of the city skyline. Sparing no expense, he constructed The Phoenician (a Five-Diamond resort) and filled it with a $25 million dollar art collection, Italian marble, and 11 Steinway grand pianos.
But you don’t have to be king to visit this palatial retreat. The Grand Royal Tea in the Tea Court, with its views of the 2-acre cactus garden, can be quite satisfying for all the senses. A seemingly unending array of perfectly made tea sandwiches, scones, and a tray of too-beautiful-to-eat French pastries just seem to make an afternoon all the more enjoyable. It’s no wonder guests often lose track of time in this retreat.
English Rose Tea Room
201 Easy Street #103 (Carefree)
What better location for a tearoom than a town named Carefree? And to top it off, the owner of this town’s leading tea establishment is an authentic English rose. Jo Gemmill was born in rural Hampshire County in England. Her grandfather was a royal guardsman at Buckingham Palace, one of those red-coated guards with the tall fuzzy hats who stand in a box all day to the delight of American tourists. Twinings tea and clotted cream still flowed in her veins when she later moved to Arizona. Opening a tearoom had always been her dream. So in 2002, Jo did the logical thing and opened one in Carefree. She christened it the English Rose.
This tearoom is more English than England itself. It is an Anglophile’s dream filled with shabby chic collectibles, romantic Victorian kitsch, and eclectic English antiques. It’s not the place to be in you have a fear of tiaras and frilly hats. But it’s definitely your kind of place if you want to have fun! You can even have your picture taken with a cardboard cutout of the Queen before you leave the accompanying gift shop.
In Arizona, it is the obvious place to enjoy a carefree afternoon tea. The scones are huge and are served with real Devonshire cream, the sandwiches are delicious, and the selection of tea is never ending. Jo even offers beans on toast and a ploughman’s lunch for folks who can’t wait for their next trip to the British Isles.
15414 N. 7th Street #8 (Phoenix)
Dry-tea shops are popping up across America, and one of the best is in a strip mall on the outskirts of Phoenix. Souvia’s owner is Kerstin Wingert, a true tea disciple. She and her husband, Bret, honed their tea-drinking skills while living as expatriates in Japan and turned their passion into a profession when they launched Souvia in 2004. The unique name loosely translates to “way of the soul.”
Their concept is much like that of a wine store in which customer interaction is essential. The Wingerts demystify exotic teas, teach how to brew each tea, and match teas to special occasions or lifestyles. Lifelong students of tea, they became certified tea specialists through Specialty Tea Institute. They are eager to share that knowledge, and both are often featured in magazines and on local television programs touting tea’s attributes.
Souvia’s selection of more than 150 loose teas comes from all over the world. The store also features a tea-sampling area, giftware, and a few tables and chairs for customers to try tea before they buy. A steady stream of devoted patrons flows through the door throughout the day, an indication that the Wingerts’ passion is catching on in Phoenix.
The Urban Tea Loft
11 W. Boston Street, Suite 2 (historic downtown Chandler)
America’s tea culture is taking on a more relaxed and unpretentious attitude these days. One of the leaders of that movement is the hip new Urban Tea Loft in downtown Chandler, just south of Phoenix. Think of this bright, shiny tea mecca as the Cheers of tearooms. It’s a tea café/tea bar where “everybody knows your name.”
Owners Glynis and Eric Legrand created The Urban Tea Loft in 2007. “No lace, no doilies, no pinks,” says Glynis. “We really wanted a place that was gender neutral, where everyone would feel at home.”
Initially, the design included a retail tea shop primarily for selling loose teas, tea accessories, and related products for offering light fare such as soups, salads, sandwiches, and desserts. Plans soon grew to include a full bar, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tea is creatively incorporated into cuisine by cooking with tea and tea oils, marinating some meats in tea, and using tea as a rub. The Legrands, certified by the Specialty Tea Institute, regularly host tea tastings and have become known for their “teatinis,” martinis infused with tea.
What prompted Glynis’s passion for tea? “I’m a breast-cancer survivor,” she proudly proclaims. “I asked my oncologist what I could do to not have a recurrence, and he told me to drink more green tea.” Now she is a dedicated tea spirit on a mission.
Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix
1125 N. 3rd Avenue (Phoenix)
Frank Lloyd Wright would be pleased to know that Phoenix now has an authentic Japanese garden, thanks to its Sister Cities partnership with Himenji, Japan. The Japanese Friendship Garden named, Ro Ho En, consists of a 3 1/2 acre Japanese stroll garden with tea garden and teahouse. This serene setting features flowing streams, waterfalls, footbridges, lanterns, and more than 50 varieties of plants. One of the main attractions is the Japanese teahouse.
Japan’s influence on Wright can be traced back to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where, as a young architect, he saw his first Japanese teahouse and immediately began incorporating the Japanese art aesthetic into his designs. After touring Taliesen and all the great tea places in the Phoenix area, it seems fitting to end the pilgrimage at the Japanese Friendship Garden, where one can lift a bowl of sencha to Wright. Tea, art, nature, and tranquility all combine in this mystical oasis.
For a slide show of photos, click here.