Tea has been the new wine for a while now, and in San Francisco you’ll find it served in a kaleidoscope of styles ranging from a classic English afternoon tea in an upscale hotel to a tasting of exotic, and sometimes very expensive, teas in Chinatown. These sipping spots are situated all around the town and across the tea spectrum. So lift your pinkie and your cup and drink a toast to this venerable afternoon tradition.
A casual but fussy English-style tearoom
Located in the quiet Noe Valley neighborhood and reachable from downtown via the city’s J streetcar, Lovejoy’s Tea Room satisfies the longing for a simple-yet-traditional afternoon tea. Customers tend to arrive dressed up, and many don fancy hats. The china is a lovely collection of vintage mix-matched pieces, tables are covered with lace and high tea arrives on a two-tiered caddy laden with sandwich triangles, salad and hockey-puck-sized scones with Devon cream and preserves. To cut down on caffeine in the afternoon, try sharing tea pots, one with a delightful caffeinated black vanilla with lavender, for example, and the other with a fragrant decaf Lady Grey with apricot.
A Chinatown tea bar
Take a break and have a seat at the long bar in the Vital Tea Leaf tea shop to sample some of their revitalizing goods. You’ll learn about how tea can detoxify your body and more, and you can choose from many unusual tea styles to take home; perhaps you’ll select some pu-erh tea (pronounced “poo air”), a post-fermented black tea from China’s Yunnan province.
An exotic Asian tearoom
Tucked away in the popular Ferry Building, the exotic Imperial Tea Court serves some of the world’s most acclaimed, and expensive, teas. Relax at a lovely rosewood table while watching your tea order prepared before you. If you like, the leaves are available for purchase from shelves of tins, as are an assortment of tea accouterments. You can also stay for a lunch of dim sum or spicy hand-pulled noodles.
Afternoon tea in a downtown department store
When you’ve shopped Union Square ‘til you want todrop, head to the fourth floor of Neiman Marcus for a traditional afternoon tea overlooking the building’s gorgeous 1909 stained-glass-domed rotunda. Some half-moon booths and tables also look out to Union Square. Each tea drinker here gets a small personal teapot with the leaves brewing in a strainer in the top. Try the lovely Jardin Bleu blend with both Indian and Chinese leaves flavored with rhubarb and wild strawberry and accented with blue cornflower petals. Service ware china is plain white. In addition to tiny finger sandwiches, a cylindrical prociutto-wrapped fig and tarts of chocolate and red velvet, were were given a petite cup of chicken consume and a popover fresh from the oven with strawberry butter. Ahhh! You’re revived, refreshed, and ready to shop some more!
Updated traditional afternoon tea
Head downtown to the elegant Garden Court in the historic Palace Hotel for a spectacular afternoon tea. This room features a 70,000-plus-pane stained-glass dome worth more than $7 million and is the only room on the National Register of Historic Places. Tea is served only on Saturdays. Though elegant, this updated service lacks chintz and tablecloths, although guests still get fussy—though more gourmet—finger sandwiches (a Black Forest ham on focaccia is made with artisan cheese and lavender mustard aïoli) and essentials such as Devonshire cream, lemon curd, and loose-leaf tea (try the decaf Earl Grey!). A classical harpist provides background ambiance.
Tea lunches from around the world
Near the newly reopened SFMOMA and overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens, the Samovar Tea Lounge presents cultural tea service meals from around the world. Mint tea is served with a Moorish meal of veggie kebabs, mint salad, edamame hummus, roasted eggplant spreads, and chevre-stuffed dates. For a smaller snack, pair the housemade Masala chai with a cherry-oat scone or smoked wild-salmon quiche.
Japanese Tea Garden teahouse
Do allow time to visit the spectacular Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park. Climb the drum bridge and the steep steps up to a miniature red pagoda, and look for the undulating dragon hedge and the oldest dwarf black pine in the world. Then relax for a while at the tea house, where service is Japanese-style and servers wear kimonos. Even though it is overpriced, it always feels really good to sit down on the teeny stools and look out over the garden and koi pond while sipping some familiar jasmine green tea—or perhaps a more unusual and expensive matcha powdered green tea—and munching on edamame soy beans, rice crackers or Asian cookies (the fortune cookie had its world premiere here in 1914).