Mark and Andrea Newell met while both were performing on the UK burlesque circuit. Outside of performance neither had much business experience and both had worked a number of unsatisfying jobs. What they did have was a shared love of tea, community, and an attraction to the sensory enjoyment of the two.
When the Scotland natives moved from the UK to Toronto two years ago and began working on a tea café, they brought some of their stage flair and a little subversive magic to the build-out. Bampot Bohemian House of Tea and Board Games, which opened in Toronto in March, is a testament to the shared passions of the husband-and-wife team. From the shop’s colorful, exotic interior—decorated with heavily paisley pillows, saffron and vermillion paint, sheer drapes, and vintage furniture—to a long list of uncommon teas, regular live music, a hand-picked library of games, a menu of global foods, and tea-flavored hookah, Bampot offers an environment that is at once cozy, worldly, and entertaining—attributes the couple says few Toronto hang-outs can claim.
“What we really wanted was to create a sort of ‘living room’ for the city, where people could come and feel right at home,” says Andrea. They put Bohemian in the name, created ample, pillowy floor seating, and hung warm lighting to set a particular scene. Bohemia isn’t just an aesthetic touchstone, it was the place the Newells fell for tea. They drew inspiration from their tea tours around Prague while designing Bampot, placing it in the Czech teahouse tradition, a sanctuary of culture away from the average crowded, laptop-filled café.
They tell the story of that tradition on their website. A group of tea lovers in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia illegally imported teas, and after the non-violent Velvet Revolution of 1989, went on to open teashops across Prague. Today tea is a major industry for the Czech Republic with more than 300 teahouses across the country. (Check out page fifty-eight to see one of the newest.) Andrea and Mark sought to replicate the magic they felt in those cafés with Bampot. Ambience aside, Andrea attributes much of its success to an “unhurried” environment where lounging and lingering are encouraged.
The goal was more than relaxation. Honoring its European source, Bampot’s also seeks to foster community. The teahouse, nestled in a cottage near the University of Toronto in the city’s Harbord Village neighborhood, was intended to be a place of culture and conversation, incorporating regularly changing art from local artists, communal seating, and, yes, games.
“The peaceful feeling that accompanies a pot of good tea really does pair well with the friendly sense of community that a board game with friends fosters,” says Andrea. The fact that Bampot is housed in an actual house helps create a living room-vibe conducive to regular gaming. Wanting the concept to flourish, the Newell’s took great care in choosing games. Andrea makes a point of admitting that Bampot doesn’t have the most games in town. Choosing quality over quantity, she and Mark picked those they considered the most exciting and likely to be used, settling on a specific 150, organized by genre: casual, strategy, party, abstract, and thematic. These include classics like cribbage and Risk and geeky-fun fare like Settlers of Catan and Arkham Horror. Game rentals cost five dollars for an unlimited number of games or three dollars with a meal purchase.
Teas are also chosen with care, with a varied selection of black, green, oolong, and white teas from around the world. Blends crafted in house are popular, as is an extensive list of herbal and fruit tisanes with bright, vibrant profiles. Mate gourds, Japanese shibori-dashi teapots, and iced teas round out the offerings. Foods include Mediterranean fare, French-Canadian classics, hearty soups, salads, full meals, and rich Middle Eastern desserts like baklava, sahlep, and halva. Mark’s background in culinary arts was a boon to the creation of a menu of interesting, satisfying, and affordable tastes. All of the food is vegetarian, much of it vegan, and there are lots of gluten-free options available.
Tobacco-less, tea leaf-based shisha, or “tea-sha,” is available to burn in ornate hookahs, offering a smooth, flavorful smoke to share with friends, perhaps while enjoying live entertainment. With occasional acoustic performances and an open mic on the first and third Sundays of every month, the couple is always looking for more performers, and hopes to expand to music a few nights a week.
Though Bampot offers warmth and creature comforts, there is something edgy to it, too. Perhaps it’s the indoor hookah or the creative vegan soups. With more teahouses springing up across the world, and new café styles emerging, Bampot may have discovered the secret: a space rooted in tradition, balanced with modern appetites, with little chance of boredom. Admittedly, it sounds more fun than the average living room.
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.