New York has clearly benefited from the third-wave coffee boom — it’s hard to walk two blocks without finding amazing lattes, for example — and now, the specialty-tea movement is gaining momentum. A few businesses that started by selling their tea to luxury restaurants (Té Company, Kettl) have recently opened brick-and-mortar spaces, where you can taste their niche offerings, find peace and comfort away from the hustle and bustle of New York, and maybe learn a thing or two, as well. At its best, sitting down for tea can feel like a luxurious (yet affordable) escape, and these are the places in New York that get it right.
2. Tea & Sympathy
108 Greenwich Ave., nr. 13th St.; 212-989 -9735
Considering this British restaurant and adjoining takeout tea shop opened in 1991, it’s amazing that it’s retained its charm without succumbing to modern trends. Heinz baked beans are still on the menu! There’s so much going on here — towering coronation-chicken sandwiches, fluffy scones with clotted cream, Queen Elizabeth tchotchkes, floral tablecloths, Alice in Wonderland teapots — that it’s easy to overlook the actual tea itself. You can order a pot of PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea, of course, but there are also lovely loose teas — standouts include the rose-petal, vanilla, and chamomile-lavender. This isn’t fancy, pretentious tea; it’s delicious and comforting (especially with milk and honey), not to mention affordable. Afternoon tea for one costs $35, and you can also order pots à la carte. Time slows down here, making it truly feel like you’ve stepped inside a fairy tale.
3. NIKAI by Kettl
150 Ainslie St., nr. Lorimer St., second fl., Williamsburg; no phone
Directly above the Japanese breakfast haven that’s Okonomi, there’s a tiny, quiet studio where some of Japan’s best teas are sold. You’ll find Kettl’s founder, Zach Mangan, along with a wooden table, handmade ceramics for sale, and a built-in stove — where he’ll brew you soba cha (buckwheat tea that’s naturally sweet), competition-grade gyokuro (a shaded green tea that’s even a rarity in Japan), and four kinds of matcha. Mangan worked for years to form relationships with Japanese tea farmers — as the most coveted teas rarely leave the country — which is why you’ll find Kettl tea at so many top restaurants, including Per Se, Mission Chinese Food, and Sqirl. The teas are expensive ($25 to $42 for 20 grams of different matchas, $24 for 200 grams of that soba cha, and at least $15 for 100 grams of sencha), but the relaxed feel of the intimate space, and Mangan’s casual, friendly demeanor, make this advanced tea feel easy and accessible.
125 E. 39th St., nr. Lexington Ave.; 212-370-0609
This three-centuries-old Japanese tea company only has three locations in the world: Kyoto, Tokyo, and New York. There’s no place to sit — it’s a small but elegant to-go counter surrounded by ceramics and take-home tea boxes for sale — but it’s a dreamy place to linger, learn, and feel totally immersed in Japanese culture. (The expertise of the staff is at the level of the Kyoto flagship.) Matcha is the focus here — start with the thick koicha variety ($5.75), which is a great way to taste matcha in its purest, vegetal form; then graduate to the sweetened matcha latte, which is one of the few in town that isn’t too sugary. It’s meditative to watch the staff heat water in an iron kettle, and then peacefully whisk the matcha. And if you ask, they’ll happily let you sample the rarer matchas they have for sale in bulk (like the kuon, which is exclusive to the New York location and retails for $42 for 20 grams). Think of it this way; a trip here is the closest you’ll come to feeling like you’re in Japan.
5. Cha-An Teahouse
230 E. 9th St., nr. Second Ave., second fl.; 212-228-8030
On the second floor of a bustling East Village block, you’ll find a haven dedicated to Japanese tea and home-style cooking. There’s plenty of matcha and sencha, of course, but Cha-An also sources teas from all over the world (black teas from India, oolongs from Taiwan). You’re best off sticking to the green teas — the uji kabusecha green tea ($7), roasted genmaicha ($7), or classic matcha ($12) — which pair nicely with Cha-An’s excellent desserts (black-sesame crème brûlée, mochi with hojicha ice cream). It’s quiet here during the day, but it’s also a perfect place to meet a friend at night, if you’re looking for an alternative to a bar.
If it’s a matcha latte you’re after, Chalait, with locations in NoMad and Chelsea Market, is the place. Yes, they have some menu items that purists might scoff at, like a matcha smoothie bowl, and a matcha hot chocolate, but they also use high-quality matcha and offer several kinds of milk, including housemade almond-cashew milk.
96 St. Marks Pl., nr. First Avenue; 212-477-7334
Housed in a basement at an iconic East Village address, Physical Graffitea is really more of a neighborhood spot than a destination tearoom, but it does a great job. It’s a cute and colorful space with a friendly staff and R&B music playing, and the massive list includes a little bit of everything — including yerba maté, medicinal herbal blends, and milky chai lattes — complete with helpful descriptions. Almost all cups cost under $10, and they pair nicely with housemade matcha and halva cookies.
123 E. 7th St., nr, Ave. A; 917-573-9936
If you’re looking for a serious tea experience, this traditional Chinese tearoom is the place. The staff isn’t very welcoming — dismissive if you dare to ask for a cup — but the menu is impressive, and includes helpful descriptions like, “toastily warm with edgy floral finnish” and “salty sweet like morning dew.” Pots start at $15, tastings range from $27 to $79, and you’ll receive a beautiful (yet slightly uncomfortable) presentation, complete with your choice of a “tea pet.” Overall, it’s an austere but educational experience.
247 Elizabeth St., nr. Houston St.; 646-726-4086
This gem is hidden on Elizabeth Street; there’s barely any signage, and you have to walk through a corridor to access what looks like a small studio apartment. The pricing scheme matches the shabby-chic feel and the wooden stools; you can order a “cuppa tea” for $5, a pot for $20, or an appointment-only “tea journey” for $50. The options are well-curated — a few Taiwanese oolongs, black teas, one pu-erh, one white, one Japanese green — and they’re mostly mild and earthy. There’s even one snack — a classic, prepackaged Taiwanese pineapple cake.