Morning or Afternoon, There’s a Kettle Brewing
WEEKEND IN NEW YORK | MANHATTAN TEAHOUSES
By SETH KUGEL
Published: March 23, 2008
HOW versatile is tea? It can evoke anything from stuffy formality to cozy comfort.
Chinese teenagers slurp it, as do British royals, although they’d probably prefer a more refined description. It goes well with cucumber sandwiches, barbecued pork or vegetarian dumplings. It can be hot, it can be cold, it can be green, it can be black. It doesn’t even have to be made from the tea plant: just about any dried flowers, fruits or leaves will do.
Unlike coffee, which plays a largely functional role in society (in that it gets society to function), tea is mostly about relaxing. In fact, the only reasonable objection people can have to tea, is that they don’t like tea.
If you have any of those suspicious characters traveling with you when you visit New York, drop them off at Starbucks (conveniently situated one block north, south, east and west of your hotel) and sample a few of the dozens of vastly different corners of Manhattan that devote themselves largely if not exclusively to tea.
Any attempt to list the best tea spots in Manhattan is bound to cause a tempest in a you-know-what, so consider this column merely a sampling of the island’s tea extremes; for more options go to shockingly thorough Web sites like www.teamap.com andwww.teaguide.net, apparently run by people who have way too much teatime on their hands.
Even among places with European-style afternoon tea, there are sharp contrasts. On the cozy end of the spectrum is Tea & Sympathy, a little restaurant tucked in beside its little West Village tea and goodies shop, and fitting only 10 tables. (Scratch that, there are 10 tables, but they don’t really fit.)
Though monarchs past and present stare down at you from the walls, the atmosphere is more warm than regal. The $30 tea service brings a vast selection of teas from English Breakfast to Lapsang souchong to chamomile lavender, along with substantial finger sandwiches, hearty scones and big chunks of cake.
You don’t have to actually drink your tea on the spot, of course; there are plenty of shops to buy loose tea, and they range from elegant (like Ito En on Madison Avenue at 69th Street) to tiny and old fashioned (like McNulty’s in Greenwich Village).
Enter McNulty’s, and you face a sea of glass jars in a tiny old tin-plate-roofed space, each filled with something delicious-sounding and -looking, from yerba mate to peach to flowery orange pekoe to chamomile. Do be aware, however, that no matter how long you brew their tea at home, scones and cupcakes will not magically appear at its side.