The Big Apple is a beacon for the world, providing innovative concepts in fashion, architecture, fine dining, finance—and tea. Over the past few years, tea in the city has taken on new forms, from standalone retail shops to back-alley tearooms providing specialized experiences. With tea consumption in the United States strongly on the rise, these cafés are fueling international interest by helping consumers taste the world of specialty tea in a contemporary light.
Manhattan’s tearooms are very different from one another, but what they all share in common are three key factors:
First and foremost, they focus on “pure” teas—no blends.
Second, the café owners make it a point to personally source the teas.
Third, the cafés specialize in the service and presentation of tea in ways that satisfy the expectation of a serious tea drinker, while also making tea accessible to those intrigued by tea’s charms. It’s not easy to strike this balance, but these cafés excel at it.
163 West 10th Street
Opened in the fall of 2015 by the husband-and-wife team of Frederico Ribeiro and Elena Liao—he makes the food, she sources the tea—Té Company’s flagship tearoom is located on the ground floor of a small apartment building in the West Village.
On any given afternoon, Té attracts people from Manhattan’s top industries—fashion, real estate, food, and finance. Some are here to catch up with friends, while others hold business meetings or just enjoy time alone to read. But the real reason everyone is here is to drink the exceptionally rare Taiwanese teas.
Taiwan makes up less than one-half of one percent of the world’s tea production, and most is consumed domestically. According to Liao, Taiwan’s first tea makers came from China’s Fujian province, renowned to this day for its oolong teas. “By establishing personal connections with farmers and families in Taiwan, we seek to bring their stories and teas alive,” Liao says.
Té succeeds in doing so by complementing tea with an intricate and ever-changing food menu of colorful salads, tasty snacks, and sweet treats. Ribeiro, whose fine-dining background includes stints at El Bulli and Per Se, is perhaps best-known for his delicate pineapple linzer cookies, inspired by Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Pineapple jam is sandwiched between two discs of hazelnut shortbread then finished with lime zest and sea salt.
247 Elizabeth St.
Over in Soho, Theresa Liao runs T Shop, a hidden tea café tucked behind a psychic. Because the tea room is hidden from street view, with just slips of natural light here and there, the space feels like a cozy embrace. . . Although you won’t find comfort food on the menu here, as Liao doesn’t want different scents and smells interfering with the teas. She sources a wide range of black, green, oolong, pu-erh, and white teas from Taiwan, China, and Korea, and the occasional herb or flower that she finds on sourcing travels.
T Shop is unique with hours of operation extending to 9 p.m. “It’s difficult to find an evening spot, even in a city as varied as New York City, where one can simply sit and drink tea in the company of friends or a good book. Most late-night spots focus on alcoholic drinking, and to have a space where you can linger with a pot of tea is something quite special,” Liao says.
Another twist is the different tea experiences T Shop offers, depending on your mood and company. T Shop is separated into two sections: tables for small groups of two to four, and a bar area, ideal for visitors who want the focus of their visit to be about the tea itself. Most days Liao can be found sitting behind the bar offering steep after steep of gaiwan. She is always happy to discuss and chat about tea and educate guests.
As a way to build community, T Shops hosts “Tea Experiences” throughout the week. Monday nights are “Tea Making Mondays” where attendees all brew the same tea with their own equipment. This is so that people can learn how tea taste varies greatly depending on the brewing vessel. It also allows people to taste the same tea brewed in different ways, something you wouldn’t have the opportunity to easily do at home. T Shop is also known for “Cha Chat” nights where a member of the tea community (either someone also in the tea business, or a passionate tea lover/loyal customer) leads an evening of tea drinking and conversation.
123 East 7th Street
Located in the East Village, Tea Drunk is owned by Shunan Teng, who prides herself on sourcing the world’s most prized loose leaf teas—and all teas come strictly from China. Every spring, Teng heads to the deepest mountains in China to eat, sleep, and work alongside heritage farmers.
“Every tea in our selection is harvested for only 10 to 15 days a year from renowned tea mountains that were hailed by emperors and artists alike,” Teng says.
In Chinese culture, the term “drunk” doesn’t have a negative connotation. Instead, it is a romantic expression used to describe one’s indulgence in true passion. “For example, a poet would describe himself as being ‘drunk’ on starlight, the gaze of a lover, or the intense beauty of the sun setting over a mountain range,” Teng notes.
Center stage in the Tea Drunk tea room is a large bar where guests can pull up a seat and taste for hours on end. The menu is wide and extensive, diving deep into each tea category, making Tea Drunk a fun place for tea novices to learn, and also a place where aficionados can have a field day.
Take, for example, Biluochun—the renowned green tea from the Dongting mountain region near Lake Tai, Jiangsu, China. Also known as Pi Lo Chun, Biluochun has a fruity taste and floral aroma. Its name literally means
“Green Snail Spring.” Most tea shops won’t have even one Biluochun on the menu, and yet Tea Drunk has four different kinds! They vary by year harvested (2015 through 2017) and season (early spring or late spring).
Teng has also made a big push with tea education by collaborating with high-profile businesses not typically associated with tea. In the summer of 2017, for instance, she ran a tea pop-up at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened tea to a completely new audience.
Setsugekka by Tea-Whisk
74 East 7th Street
One block west of Tea Drunk is Setsugekka by Tea-Whisk, owned by teamaster Souheki Mori and her husband.
Created primarily as a space to host tea education classes, Setsugekka offers seating for five around a tiny tea bar, and they also serve a good number of drinks to go.
Drop-in visitors will feel as if they’ve stumbled upon a rare gem. This Japanese teahouse is authentic in quality and preparation, and yet it makes the act of ordering and drinking modern and approachable for people passing through on their way to or from the East Village.
Matcha serves as the base for every drink on the menu, whether served in house or to go, ranging from almond milk matcha lattes, “matcha-ppuchino,” and their popular matcha affogatos made with koicha (thick matcha). If time permits, visitors are encouraged to opt for the matcha tasting flight.
Finding a balance between having a full kitchen and offering no food, Setsugekka settles on a middle ground by outsourcing tea sweets from Rin, who is well-known for producing mochi desserts for Japanese restaurants around the city.