Text by Bruce Richardson (elmwoodinn.com)
Photography by Bruce Richardson and Sarah Swihart
When it comes to tea in America, there’s no place hotter than the Bay Area of San Francisco. Author Jennifer Sauer certainly agrees with this pronouncement. A professional photographer and an aspiring student of tea, she chronicled nearly every tea venue in the area for her book, The Way of Tea. She claims that San Francisco, with its myriad tearooms and tea shops, is “home to the world’s most eclectic tea party.” Mixed with the area's rich history, shopping venues, and scenic architecture, theses cities offer a combination of time-honored, as well as revolutionary, tearooms.
Tea’s prolific growth is deeply planted in the fertile Bay Area and nurtured by its ethnic diversity. This is the center of the current tea renaissance and home to some of the most profoundly knowledgeable tea experts on the planet including Roy Fong, James Norwood Pratt, and Alice Cravens.
San Franciscans may not realize what an extraordinary wealth of tea-drinking opportunities they have at their doorstep. With its multicultural neighborhoods, diverse shops, and ethnic restaurants, this blended metropolis offers unique tea experience after unique tea experience. It remains true, as Norwood Pratt has written, “A love of tea inevitably engenders friendships around the world, and anyone writing a book about tea is wise to live in San Francisco, where friends from around the world may be discovered living next door.”
This is a great walking city—if you don’t mind a few hills—but that’s why they have cable cars. Put on your walking shoes, buy your cable-car ticket, and explore this tea-lover’s paradise.
The Fairmont Hotel
950 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
415-772-5000 • fairmont.com/sanfrancisco
With a panoramic view of the city and the bay from high atop Nob Hill, the grand Fairmont San Francisco has been the place to see and be seen for over a century. You may remember it as the setting for the 1983 television series Hotel and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo. The opulent Laurel Court, with its marble columns, domed ceiling, and mural-covered walls, serves as the centerpiece of the hotel and is home to San Francisco’s longest-running afternoon tea.
The Fairmont Afternoon Tea includes all the delightful creations you expect at a great hotel tea: Smoked Salmon and Chive Cream Cheese Sandwiches, Dungeness Crab and Mango Salad on a Corn Muffin, Coconut Curry Chicken on a Mini Herb Roll, Cucumber and Sonoma Goat Cheese with Sun-dried Tomato, Tapenade on Black Walnut Bread, Scones with real Devonshire Cream and Lemon Curd, and plentiful pastries handcrafted each day by the hotel pastry chefs. Be sure to order a pot of the signature Fairmont Blend Tea.
After so much glorious food and drink, I like to walk across Huntington Park to Grace Cathedral. Be sure to admire the impressive front doors, exact replicas of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s masterpiece doors at the entrance to the ancient Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence, Italy.
Crown & Crumpet
207 Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point
San Francisco, CA 94109
415-771-4252 • crownandcrumpet.com
When you fancy a little taste of England and a spot of tea, save yourself a trip across the pond, and venture over to the Crown & Crumpet—a classic, traditional English tea salon nestled in the heart of Ghirardelli Square.
San Francisco resident Amy Dean met her future husband, Christopher, in 1994 at a dinner party in London. Their mutual love for—make that obsession with—tea, antiques, travel, and shopping drew them together instantly. After tying the knot at a lavish afternoon tea-party ceremony in England, the newlyweds traveled back to Amy’s hometown, where they combined all their passions into their vocation by creating a tea wonderland named Crown & Crumpet. The very clever interior is an explosion of pink with a mix of Laura Ashley and a dash of retro décor.
This full-service tearoom offers breakfast, light lunch, and afternoon-tea service daily and even dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. Their signature Tea for Two begins with a selection of tea sandwiches, continues with warm scones and buttery crumpets served with a selection of clotted cream, jam, and lemon curd, and ends with desserts that change day to day. As all courses are served at the same time, I recommend eating the crumpets and scones first so you can enjoy them at their best—warm from the oven. And, did I mention there are 38 different tea blends to choose from?
Be sure to wander through the gift shop before exploring the rest of Ghirardelli Square. Originally home of the famous Ghirardelli chocolate factory, this complex is now home to unique shops and restaurants with all the flavor of old San Francisco.
Samovar Tea Lounge
297 Page Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415-861-0303 • samovarlife.com
730 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
498 Sanchez Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Not all tea presentations are in English settings. This style sometimes gives way to what some call “California nouveau,” a tea experience that centers more on the leaf and less on cliché. Samovar Tea Lounge is a prime example of how tea is putting on a new face in America by combining the best of several tea and dining cultures.
At the original location straddling the Mission and Castro districts, you find a mix of young professionals, college students, and neighborhood regulars who drop by every day to enjoy a pot of tea and a pastry or a light meal. (Actor Leonardo DiCaprio came by for tea while I was photographing.)
As is true of any outstanding teahouse, the emphasis here is on the tea. From aged, earthy puehr to flowery Earl Grey, there is a tea on the menu for every palate. Each is brewed and served according to tradition.
Nowhere else will you see a guest enjoying a bento box accompanied by a bowl of green gyokuro tea sitting next to a diner drinking a pot of lapsang souchong and nibbling away at a three-tiered stand of English afternoon tea sweets and savories. The popularity of this hospitable tearoom has spawned two additional locations, including a modern glass-enclosed tearoom just steps from the Moscone Convention Center.
1780 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
510-524-2832 • teance.com
Across the Bay Bridge, tea is hotter than ever in Berkeley, thanks in large part to Winnie Yu. Winnie’s passion for tea began at a young age in Hong Kong. She developed a taste for a wide range of teas from green to black. After moving to the United States, she found it difficult to purchase quality unblended teas. She decided to import the teas herself.
Winnie shares her tea finds and dispenses tea-brewing advice at Teance, her tea bar and store in one of Berkeley’s most popular retail areas. Like the captain of a ship, Winnie commands this tea emporium from the center of a sleek concrete and copper gaiwan-shaped tea bar where she steeps and pours winter-picked oolong tea.
Or, she might offer a floral Formosa Baochong oolong or a rare Lu Shan Clouds and Mist green tea. If you see something on the retail shelf that intrigues you, Winnie will steep it. Taking a cue from the vineyards to the north of San Francisco Bay, she offers tasting flights of tea, ranging from $5 for a single tea to $15 for three or four teas. With temptations like this, few customers leave empty-handed.
The English Rose
163 W. Neal Street
Pleasanton, CA 94566
925-462-6233 • theenglishrose-pleasanton.com
All this San Francisco tea madness has spilled over into the nearby town of Pleasanton, only 45 minutes to the southeast via freeway or BART train. This picturesque village, with its lively mix of downtown stores and restaurants housed in historic buildings, is just the place you want to explore on a sunny California weekend. And no place could be more inviting on a Saturday afternoon than Lisa Binzoni’s English Rose Tea Room.
A longtime local resident, Lisa completed TEA 101 training in 2004 and soon set about creating her tea sanctuary that offers more than 40 teas and a variety of tea meals to eager central and northern California customers. Seated in this oasis of tea, customers are treated to an unending array of beautifully crafted foods and very attentive service.
For a slide show of images, click here.
Bruce Richardson is author of The Great Tea Rooms of America (Benjamin Press, 2008).