As any regular reader knows, I love tea. I drink it almost every single day, and when I’m with my friends it is the activity I look forward to the most. In some ways that sounds dumb, but to me tea isn’t just about some hot leaf water, but it’s about creating the space and environment for conversation and connection. And what are friends for, if not for those things?
When I travel, before I search for restaurants or activities, I search for teahouses. Most cities have no teahouses, because they are terrifically difficult businesses to run profitably. China is the exception, where it seems like every city or town has excellent teahouses.
To me a good teahouse is one with great tea, a great environment, and great people. I rarely get to know the people at restaurants or other businesses, but I always seem to get to know the people who run or work at teahouses. I’m not sure if it’s because it takes a certain type of person to be involved in a teahouse, and that person tends to be warm and friendly, or if it’s the space that fosters the connection.
I’ve probably been to over a hundred teahouses across the world at this point, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites which stand out above the crowd.
Zhao Zhou, Budapest
Europe is generally a really bad place for tea. Many major cities have zero great teahouses, though a few have some. Budapest is a major outlier, though. The story is that in the 70s a place called The Red Lion opened up and turned the people on to tea. I visited the Red Lion and it was terrible, but at least it birthed many other great teahouses in the city.
The absolute créme de la créme is Zhao Zhou, which is probably my favorite teahouse in the world overall. The breadth and depth of their tea selection is incredible. I’ve had a few teas there that weren’t my favorite style (for example a dark roasted oolong), but I’ve never had one that wasn’t a great example of what it was. They specialize in Chinese teas, but even their Japanese teas are excellent. Phoenix Dancong teas are some of my favorites and they have several excellent ones. Their puerh selection is incredible.
Rather than choose my own teas there I usually just ask the owners what they recommend and I’ve never once been disappointed. Over the years I’ve come to know the two people who run it and have become friends with them, and they are truly some of the most warm and kind people I’ve ever met. Spending time with them is one of the things I most look forward to when I visit Budapest.
The space is also incredible. It’s beautifully designed and sits right next to the Danube river. On most days I’m in Budapest I spend at least 3-4 hours there drinking tea, hanging out with friends, or working on my laptop. Of all the places I spend time outside of my home, it’s among those where I feel most at home.
I like Zhao Zhou so much I’ve even tried to buy part of it, not to make money as it grows but because of the pride I’d feel to be associated with it.
Té Company, New York City
New York is a city that has a lot to do, but if I have time for only one activity in New York, I’m going to Té Company. I still remember visiting it for the first time and being absolutely amazed at what they were doing.
Oolong is a much less mainstream tea than green or black tea, and Taiwanese oolong is generally considered to be among the finest oolong tea. And here was this tiny tea shop that sold only (or at least primarily) Taiwanese oolong teas! I couldn’t believe the bravery of opening a tea shop in one of the most expensive cities that would only carry such a connoisseur focused tea. When I saw the relatively low prices, I figured that the tea may not actually be that good, and of course I was surprised when it was some of the best Taiwanese oolong I’ve ever had.
Té is run by a couple, Elena being a Taiwanese tea expert, and Frederico being an elite chef. He makes tea snacks that are the best I’ve ever had. The pineapple linzer cookies are sublime and a nice nod to traditional Taiwanese pineapple cakes.
The shop is small and sometimes full, but I’ll always wait for a table. Like Zhao Zhou it has a menu where everything is good so I usually just pick three random teas and share with a friend.
I also subscribe to their monthly tea subscription, since everything they have is good. (They used to have an annual one but I can’t find it now)
Yakumo Saryo, Tokyo
I don’t know the whole story, but there’s a Japanese designer named Shinchiro Ogata who has built five or so different tea / tea sweet shops around Tokyo. The most famous is probably Higashi-ya (and it would make a top ten list on its own), but in my opinion his absolute masterpiece is a place called Yakumo Saryo.
Yakuma Saryo has some of the very best Japanese teas I’ve ever had. The employees who prepare them are trained by actual Japanese tea masters. I got to know one of the employees there and when I found out she also studied Urasenke (traditional Japanese tea ceremony) I asked what level she was. I didn’t recognize her answer and when I looked it up later I discovered that she was such a high level that she was qualified to train teachers! I’d guess it takes 15-20 years of constant study to get to that level.
That sort of excellence is reflected everywhere in the Yakumo Saryo experience. The kitchen there also serves dinner and pre-covid was invitation only. You couldn’t even make a reservation. The teahouse is situated on a lot that is largely a tea garden, so every view is of trees and landscaping. A single pot of gyokuro would be prepared in a handmade pot and served in three different cups for different steepings to maximize the experience. Each of those cups would be handmade and excellent.
They have a service called Goshincha which is essentially their take on afternoon tea service, and it is probably the single best tea experience I’ve ever had. I avoided it for years because it was $75-80, which seemed like a lot. Once I tried it once I decided that it was a bargain. It’s four or five teas expertly prepared and paired with snacks like tea sweets, sushi, and homemade pickles. Unfortunately it’s become so popular that I usually can’t get a reservation for it anymore.
Those are my three favorite tea houses in the world, but there are so many more than deserve mentions. Samovar in San Francisco no longer exists, but it single-handedly gave me a love for tea and was also where I met literally 100% of my friend group in San Francisco (either directly at the shop or through people I met at the shop). It was a magical place, especially the Hayes Valley location.
All of the other Ogata places in Tokyo are great (Higashi-ya Ginza being a favorite). Ippodo in Tokyo is also very good. Marukyu-koyamaen in Kyoto is great. Wistaria in Taiwan would have probably made the list if I had been there a few more times. Formocha in Amsterdam and Song Tea in San Francisco are also top tier but aren’t really the type of teahouses where you can just walk in and sit and have tea. Level teahouse, Flying Bird, and 1000Tea in Budapest are all so good that I’d be raving about them if it weren’t for Zhao Zhou being even better.
While I’ve never been to a teahouse in China that was so amazing that it makes this list, the average random town in China will have a better teahouse than most countries have.
My dream is to some day own a teahouse so that I can create the sort of experience that I’ve benefited from in all of these amazing tea houses. Because I’ve made friends with a bunch of teahouse owners over the years I know how hard the business is, and how important things like online sales and restaurant sales are (and I wouldn’t prioritize those things), so I don’t think I could open one until I truly didn’t care if it lost money, which it probably would.
Photo is another small teahouse in a hotel in Kyoto. I’ve posted so many photos over the years of my favorites that I figured I’d show another one that I thought looked great. I’m in Vancouver today trying some new teahouses!