Find a Chicago tea shop
One long wall of this narrow State Street storefront is taken up almost entirely by a substantial selection of pre-packaged teas; the other, by a blond wood counter behind which eager staff stand by, ready to brew up complimentary samples of any offerings that pique your interest. Perhaps it’s all the identical packaging or just the general glossiness of the space, but Adagio—predominantly an online retailer whose sole brick and mortar presence is here in Chicago—gives off a faintly corporate vibe. Yet its free and frequent tasting events exploring the world’s tea regions (“Passport to South Africa,” “Passport to India” and so on), plus the fact that its products are available in both loose-leaf and bagged formats, make the shop a great entry point for tea newbies.
Everything about this East Lakeview spot is inviting, from the aroma that rises from the squat wooden coffee barrels to the creaking floors to the colorful hand-labeled tea jars that stand in charmingly cluttered arrangements on shelves and countertops. Don’t let the laid-back atmosphere fool you, though; doing its thing since 1975, Coffee & Tea Exchange knows its tea, offering up interesting herbals like milk thistle and refreshing blends like blood orange black. Bonus: The teas here can be purchased in small quantities, a good way to audition pricier varieties before committing.
An encounter with Sam, the Palestinian owner of this nearly 30-year-old Lakeview shop, is a reminder that tea is a social drink. Sam’s a card who seems to truly delight in unhurried chats with his customers; linger near his 60-plus teas (some of which he blends himself) and you’ll soon discover he’s equally enthusiastic about pairing those customers with their ideal brew, asking questions and presenting scoops of loose leaves for smelling until he’s homed in on just the right selection.
With its deep red graphic wallpaper, mahogany furnishings and chevron flooring, this Highland Park tea shop-meets-art-and-performance-space owned by Billy Corgan (yep, that Billy Corgan) conjures up deco-era Shanghai. It’s a dramatic style that complements the shop’s curated selection of bold teas, like oak barrel-aged keemun and orchid-infused oolong. With many varieties selling for upwards of $30 per bag, Zuzu’s isn’t cheap. But we’re not talking Lipton’s here; rather, Corgan works with the experts at Rare Tea Cellar to offer super high-quality products, some of them unique to his shop.
Its airy new space on Southport may center around a jolly posh dining area, but Spencer’s remains one of the best places in Chicago to stock up on all the fixings for a proper British tea, from everyday sippers like PG Tips to fancier brands like Darville’s, plus requisite accompaniments like lemon curd, ginger biscuits and marmalade. Short on dainty China? Spencer’s also offers an in-house afternoon tea service replete with scones, adorable finger sandwiches and, of course, steaming cups of the good stuff.
The card catalog-esque drawers in which TeaGschwender (a Gold Coast franchise of a popular German firm) keeps its high-end teas might put you in mind of a library, but there’s no need to keep quiet here. Get the well-informed employees talking and you’ll likely learn a thing or two. (On a recent visit, we got a quick primer on tea-world vocab like first flush and second flush.) Armed with your new knowledge, you’ll be ready to navigate the shop’s vast selection of traditional and herbal teas.