Though fancypants coffee (read: organic, fair trade, artisan roasted) gets all the glory in SF, this city is equally steeped in fine teas. From traditional, deftly-spiced chai—hold the syrup, please—to unusual leaves imported from the Far East, local tea purveyors have a blend for every taste.
SF’s top tea houses
This is not your typical tea house. In place of antique teapots, you'll find scientific, tablet-controlled glass crucibles that steep tea to the ideal temperature and strength. The white, gallery-like space by Arcanum Architecture is stark and sleek, sparingly accented with raw wood and concrete detailing. The bar offers an array of direct-import teas, including matcha and herbal blends, but the specialty here is the chai, brewed in a copper urn and served in weighty porcelain teacups by Oakland ceramicist Atelier Dion. Whatever you get, pair your blend with a sweet or savory scone.
In this eclectic English tea den, the coat rack is strewn with jaunty hats, lace and floral fabrics brighten the tables and the shelves are stacked with mismatched patterned china. In addition to dozens of black, green, white and herbal teas, the spot offers 17 kinds of tea sandwiches, from classic cucumber to salmon mousse. Scones and crumpets are served alongside all the fixings, including Devon cream, lemon curd and preserves. Afterwards, head across the street to Lovejoy's Attic, where you'll find a trove of vintage teacups for sale.
This family-owned teahouse is a Chinatown standby, serving rare teas from China and Taiwan. Each year, the owners take a sourcing trip through the provinces, collecting new varieties of black, white, herbal, flowering and rare teas, such as an aged orchid from the Guangdong Province. The narrow store includes two small tables for tastings, where the knowledgeable staff holds forth on the loose leaves' origin, harvest and preparation. The teas are carefully brewed in clear glass pots—a beautiful touch when sampling one of the shop's flowering teas, which bloom when infused in hot water.
Tal-Y-Tara peddles the unlikely combination of fine tea and equestrian get-ups. Up front you'll find horse tack, polo apparel and English riding gear. In back, you can sip from a list of 50 teas alongside black and white polo photos, towering wooden armoires and weathered saddles. The teas come in black, red, green, fruit, herbal and white varieties, accompanied by six types of sandwiches (all of which are served on the shop's signature dark "motorloaf" bread, a turn-of-the-century English recipe with a semi-sweet flavor). The sweets include unusual treats like English trifle layer pound cake and Dutch licorice chews.
A stark contrast to its minimalist sister store in the Mission, Samovar's light-flooded Castro lounge encourages lingering, decked with colorful, comfy pillows, scarlet curtains and carved wooden tables. The most coveted spot is the raised table in the corner, where diners perch on pillows with their feet dangling into the floor. Black, oolong, green, herbal and pu-erh (aged) teas line the bar in silver canisters. For those craving something more substantial than finger foods, the tea services here span Japanese, English, Russian and Moorish tastes, ranging from smoked salmon and seaweed salad to grilled halloumi cheese and edamame hummus.
A Victorian-adorned spot fit for wannabe Brits, this kitschy café feels torn from a former era. Dated photographs are displayed against pastel mint wallpaper and vintage glass vessels line the shelves. Fittingly, Dartealing's tea services are named after English neighborhoods: Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge. Choose from 40 varieties of loose leaves, which can be paired with fare that’s either sweet (toasted tea breads topped with rum butter) or savory (Welsch rarebit cheddar melt).
Situated in the center of one of the oldest Japanese gardens in the country, this open-air tea room attracts tourists and locals alike. The zen garden is dotted with koi ponds, waterfalls, bamboo and maple trees, and the dining area overlooks the south pond and the stately five-story red pagoda. The small assortment of Japanese teas includes Sencha, a green tea; HojiCha, which is roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal; Genmaicha, a green tea with toasted brown rice; jasmine and matcha. The pots can be accompanied by traditional Japanese treats like red bean pastries and sweet rice cakes (kuzumochi).
This Inner Richmond shop is packed with over 150 varieties of tea, including jasmine, white, green oolong, black and pu-erh varietals. Owner Haymen Da Luz is both a tea lover and a consummate showman, performing free tastings that touch on history, health benefits, harvesting practices and rituals. The big finish—the Blue People oolong tea—is purported to be the most intense-tasting tea of the bunch. Any tea can be sampled, and Haymen (aka "the Tea Man") offers notes as one would with a fine wine. Each canister is affixed with a picture and a silly or witty description of the rare leaves within.
Far Leaves is a serene retreat on a busy stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, where vines wind along the concrete walls and low-lit lanterns and colorful tapestries hang overhead. Each table has its own hot water boiler, so you can nurse a pot without being left with lukewarm dregs. The expertly sourced teas include white, green, oolong, black and pu-ehr flavors, as well as original Far Leaves blends. (Mind Focus, a heady mixture of roots, legumes and herbs, is a favorite among Berkeley students.) Far Leaves teas are also served in a smattering of Bay Area restaurants and cafes, including Quince, Pizzaiolo, and Terzo.
After serving as a partner and buyer at Red Blossom for years, Peter Luong opened his own tea room in 2014. The space is a modernist design geek's dream, awash in white, concrete and wood. Tastings happen at a long wooden table, where Luong delves into each tea type's history, origin, and preparation. He takes tea pilgrimages across southern China and Taiwan to hand-pick new offerings each season. Opposite the teas, you'll find a gorgeous assortment of ceramics from his travels, including a small collection of one-of-a-kind wood-fired pieces by Taiwanese artisans.