Autumn is the perfect time of year to snuggle up in a tea shop with a thick book or a few friends. After the sweaty slog of summer in New York City, the crisp weather sends a crackle of energy through the streets. The cooler it gets outside, the cozier it gets inside.
In our previous post on Taiwan, StraitsJourneys expert Dave Lim, who won the 2017 Singapore Tea Masters Cup, described tea as “not merely a drink but an art form.” Like most art, there are various interpretations and expressions, but New York City is such a microcosm of cultures that no matter how artful or straightforward you like your tea, you’re sure to find something that suits your tastes.
Harney & Sons SoHo (433 Broome St, NY 10013)
It’s hard to overstate the quality of Harney & Sons teas. Nearly 35 years ago, inn proprietor John Harney began blending teas for his guests, a passion that evolved into a company run with his two sons. Today they offer more than 300 blends, a far cry from their original six, but they still source, blend, and package their products from start to finish.
I cannot visit NYC without stopping into Harney & Sons to try new teas at the tasting bar, restock my supply of White Peach and have lunch at the cafe. The fare is simple but expertly made with excellent French ingredients. Tea connoisseurs will be in heaven, but newbies will also find the shop welcoming rather than overwhelming. Despite the staff’s deep knowledge, they don’t have a smidge of snobbery.
Tea to Try: Cranberry Autumn, a full-bodied black tea blended with cranberry and orange flavors. Perfect for the season but delicious year round.
Cha-An Teahouse (230 East 9th St, NY 10003)
Another long-time favorite of mine, this quietly elegant Japanese tea house is nearly 15 years old, notable in the ever-changing streets of the Village. Established by Japanese restaurateur Bon Yagi, the modest space was designed around the concept of omotenashi (a term for wholehearted hospitality), with wooden tables, tatami benches, washi-paper lamps and seasonal floral decorations.
Among Cha-An’s customers are always Japanese expats seeking a taste of home in the tea brewed with care and the mochi desserts, but the atmosphere isn’t exclusive. There are teas from all over the world, as well as cocktails and Western-fusion delicacies, so those unfamiliar with typical Japanese fare won’t be stranded. Cha-An also hosts a series of food and culture workshops for those looking to learn more.
Tea to Try: Yenzen Silver Needle, a velvety white tea with delicate notes of buttery almond. Pairs well with the black sesame creme brûlée (pictured above).
The Plaza Hotel (768 5th Ave, NY 10019)
Tea is worth splurging on once in a while, especially at The Palm Court at the Plaza, which boasts over a century of opulent high tea services. Perched on the edge of Central Park, teatime at the Plaza is appropriately decadent and is often described as the quintessential New York afternoon tea experience. While unlikely to become a regular haunt for me, it was glittering and fun to do it once.
Beneath the soaring stained glass ceiling, guests choose between The New Yorker Tea or The Champagne Tea (there’s an Eloise tea service for children) and select an accompanying tea from a highly curated list, which includes some of the world’s most renowned brews. The hazelnut chocolate cake and petite lemon cheesecake were the highlights of the finger foods for me.
Tea to Try: Tie Guan Yin Imperial, an oolong from China that manages to be rich yet delicate in flavor.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.
All photos are owned by StraitsJourneys.