The cup is a tiny, delicate shell of white porcelain. And the vessel is not handed over with the usual thanks-have-a-great-day coffee-shop send-off. Rather, it is presented -- in quiet reverence, placed on a small bamboo plank and offered as though it were a precious jewel on a velvet pillow.
Seated on a tall chair at the sleek, circular concrete bar at Berkeley's Teance tea salon, I accept the cup, cradling it with both hands for fear it will slip through my fingers. Steam floats above the pale amber liquid, carrying the subtle sage scent of Mount Olympus tea, and "bartender" Zac Reynolds tells me it is incredibly high in antioxidants and the favored national herbal medicine of Greece.
Easy jazz plays in the background. Orange and white koi meander around their small pond, carved into the middle of the floor. I sip. Pause. Ponder. Pour some more. And I can at least begin to imagine inner peace.
The appeal of such an expansive tea-savoring experience has never been stronger in the Bay Area, as evidenced by the growing number of modern tea rooms, salons and lounges offering more than a crumpet on the side -- an opportunity to explore the history, origins and distinctive qualities of hundreds of varieties from around the globe.
Oh, we love our coffee, but we're also totally into tea.
"From traveling around the country, I've found no other area that has the kind of tea culture we do here in the Bay Area," says Winnie Yu, co-owner of Teance. "Maybe it's because of the appreciation of things that are fresh, gourmet, seasonal, but people here are really keyed into what a good product -- a good beverage -- is all about."
And because we like to think globally yet drink locally, here are a few spots to savor the tea experience:
More than 100 varieties from key tea-producing nations such as China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka are available at Teance amid the calming atmosphere of bamboo cabinets and subtle skylights, created by local architectural firm Chen Design. You can walk right in and order a pot at the tea bar, take classes on brewing and enjoying tea or reserve a spot for service in the upstairs tea room.
1780 Fourth Street, Berkeley; 510-524-2832, www.teance.com
Katia's Russian Tea Room
Owner Katia Troosh herself oversees the kitchen in this Inner Richmond spot, concocting authentic Russian comfort food such as borscht and blini. The tea room offers afternoon tea service in the Russian tradition, using an ornate metal samovar and serving tea in podstakanniki, tea glasses in silver holders. Tea service is available by reservation and for groups only. Casual tea service is available during regular lunch or dinner hours, as space permits.
600 Fifth Ave., San Francisco; 415-668-9292, www.katias.com
Satori Tea Co.'s Tea Atelier
In this airy, eclectic shop you'll find a selection of more than 70 fine, artisan full-leaf teas handcrafted and blended in small batches. Satori's offers sit-down traditional tea services and stocks a full collection of premium teas for purchase. Afternoon teas feature a quintessentially English lineup of treats, from crumpets and finger sandwiches to cream scones and petit fours. Sit at tables by a shocking pink wall, or in comfy chairs with zebra-fabric pillows. 37 N. San Pedro St., San Jose; 408-292-1502, www.satoriteausa.com
Samovar Tea Lounge
Encouraging people to "turn off your phone and take a breath," each of Samovar's three San Francisco locations offers a modern take on tea time with tea services from Japan, China, India, Russia, England and Morocco. Zen Valley features a roaring fireplace, long communal table and several nooks for savoring your tea or meal. The Castro/Mission spot offers private tea classes on tea history, brewing techniques and tasting tips.
Locations: Yerba Buena Gardens, 730 Howard St., 415-227-9400; Zen Valley (just outside Hayes Valley), 297 Page St., 415-861-0303; Castro/Mission, 498 Sanchez St., 415-626-4700; www. samovarlife.com.
Red Blossom Tea Co.
This tea shop began as a neighborhood apothecary in San Francisco's Chinatown more than 25 years ago. Still family owned, this shop sells more than 100 varieties -- and while they don't serve tea here, it's one of the best places to taste and learn. There are two tea demonstration tables, books on tea, teapots, cups and accessories and an extremely knowledgeable staff. You can make a reservation to taste a flight of teas for a fee.
831 Grant Ave., San Francisco; 415-395-0868, www.redblossomtea.com
Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden was established in 1894 as a Japanese village showcase for the California Midwinter International Exposition. Today, it is considered the oldest public Japanese garden in all of the United States. During the winter months, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the tea house is not available, but you can still buy a cup of tea and meander around 5 acres of stone paths and arched footbridges to gaze at the koi ponds, stone lanterns and beautiful grounds. Bring cash -- the tea house and gift shop do not accept credit cards.
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; 415-752-4227
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