Sunday, March 1, 2009

Seattle Teahouses: Tea in Coffee Central

What comes to mind when you think of Seattle in the winter? Maybe rain, gray skies, and coffee?

For years tea drinkers in the Northwest have had to suffer many indignities. Like going to an outdoor concert on a chilly evening and finding the only hot drink available is coffee, without even a Lipton’s tea bag in sight. Or asking about the tea selection in a nice restaurant after dinner and always getting the standard reply: black, peppermint, and chamomile (yawn). And the many coffee houses that don’t provide lemon slices to go with tea; I kvetch, “Would you serve coffee without offering cream and sugar?”

But the city that spawned Starbucks has a growing new teahouse scene. Even a former Tully’s coffee shop on Queen Anne Hill was recently replaced by the Teacup.

Four Favorites
Kuan Yin Teahouse in Wallingford paved the way for the new crop of teahouses. Kuan Yin opened almost 20 years ago and still serves pots of exotic teas from around the world in a quasi-Asian/funky old hippie setting. When it was the only teahouse in north Seattle, I used to hang out there to write in my journal while nursing a pot of Wu Wei or World Peace, two floral herbal tea blends. Kuan Yin is still going strong and now offers tea tastings and other special tea-focused events. When I stopped by there last week it was packed. Didn’t used to be…hmmm. I see a trend growing.

The unofficial tea of my writing group is Evening in Missoula from the Teacup. Now in a larger space on a busy corner atop Queen Anne Hill, the Teacup is a sunny, soothing spot to sit and sip. Like many of the teahouses, they sell interesting teapots and other accoutrements along with a selection of high-quality teas from around the world.

My favorite spot to relax over tea in Ballard now is Miro near the north end of historic Ballard Avenue just a block south of Market Street. A couple friends and I usually meet there on Sunday mornings to catch up over tea.

Miro offers close to 200 varieties of mostly organically grown, fair trade teas. Their selection ranges from blacks, botanicals, chai, greens, whites, oolongs, and roiboos teas, with names like Super Monkey, Midnight Blue, and Margaret’s Hope, the first autumn flush of Darjeeling. Several pots of teas for tasting are always lined up near the back counter. And their food and confections are wonderful, not just an afterthought to the exquisite teas. Sometimes I indulge in a handcrafted chocolate truffle made by Cocoa Chai Chocolates, from Seattle artisan chocolatier Ivy Chan. My friends Shari and Maya go for their buttery, sweet lemon drop crepe. Miro's apple/provolone/greens sandwich is so good I’ve tried to recreate it at home with middling success.

Although I don’t often get to the historic Panama Hotel teahouse in Seattle’s International District, I love going there for a fragrant pot of Japanese genmaicha green. This quiet, charming oasis just south of downtown is a long, narrow space lined with exposed brick walls. Besides fine teas, hot cocoas, and coffee, at the counter they also sell locally made cookies, pastries, and manju, a traditional Japanese steamed cake. Good, authentic manju is hard to find in the U.S., and the barista tells me only one Japanese woman in Seattle makes this style.

This restored space lies above the only intact Japanese bathhouse from the first wave of Japanese-born immigrants to the Northwest. Historical black and white photographs line the walls with images of the neighborhood before World War II. Everything changed during the war for the Japanese-American families and merchants here on the West Coast, when they were shipped off to internment camps.

A Few More Good Spots
For years Queen Mary’s, a cozy outpost tucked into a charming brick building just north of University Village, has been offering proper English tea. I don’t get over to that part of town often anymore, but a while back I indulged on afternoon tea with a girlfriend. I felt like I was in an exclusive Victorian English parlor, surrounded by rich Liberty print curtains and crimson walls. Besides the fine black tea, the services comes with tasty little sandwiches, cakes, and scones.

I recently stopped by VitaL-Leaf Tea at the north end of the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. VitaL-Leaf serves tea gong fu style, allowing patrons to taste before they purchase. Chinese-born owners Winny and her husband Ben tell me their cousin started VitaL-Leaf in San Francisco, and they decided to bring the show north to Seattle. I have some lovely jasmine pearl tea at home now. You can also buy Yixing clay teapot sets there.

I've heard from a couple sources that Remedy Tea on 15th Avenue on Capitol Hill is worth a stop. And of course you should go visit Zendog Studio Teahouse for gong fu tea in northern Ballard, as I wrote about on February 15 here on Pacific Northwest Seasons.

Go drink tea!


Barry said...

Go drink tea, indeed!

Following Linji's advice, I'm drinking a cup of wenshan baozhong from Tao of Tea in Portland. This company has a great range of very wonderful teas available online.

And next you (or me) go to Portland, check out their teashop:

Thanks for the listing of great places to drink tea, Jill. I don't get out enough...

Linds said...

thank you for pointing out that many of us in Seattle do prefer tea to coffee! As a recent convert from coffee to tea I have fallen in love with the Earl Grey Creme from the TeaCup on QA. (with a dash of nonfat milk of course.) The service is always wonderful and I have many stamps on my frequent buyer card. Plus TeaCup is a great place to work from with free wifi!

Patti said...

Fantastic writing all around Jill. Also fantastic tips. Keep writing and go for the book.

I suggest including a sacred spaces in the northwest section which could mean outdoor places and those quiter corners of this city including some bookstores, gardenn, p-patches and perhaps retreats.

You have an incredible writer's voice. Keep posting and be sure and send this link to all of those neighborhood blogs out there to build up your audience : )))
- Patti

Brenna said...

Hi Jill,

I love this post! I actually recently wrote a post similar to this for Seattle Eater, and cover a different teahouse in the seattle once a month on my own blog. On that note, I was wondering if you would be interested in a guest post. I have a couple of ideas that I think would be a great fit, but I couldn’t manage to find your email on your site. If you could get a hold of me at brenna (dot) ciummo (at) seattlecoffeegear (dot) com, I would greatly appreciate it!