Radiance Tea House and Books in NYC

A lovely focal point

A lovely focal point

I was tooling around on my Tea4Friends Facebook page today and up popped a post that said that the Radiance Tea House is now listed in the 2013 Zagat as a highly ranked tea house in NYC.

Don't forget your tea!

Don’t forget your tea!

I spent a wonderful afternoon at Radiance during the Christmas holiday of 2008 – not long after the tea house opened.  My girlfriend and I stumbled on the place because we had gone to see Alvin Ailey (an amazing dance experience) across the street at the City Center.  It was such a lovely find.

An IBM reunion of sorts at the Radiance Tea House - Delightful

An IBM reunion of sorts at the Radiance Tea House – Delightful

That afternoon we had a reunion of sorts – all four of us had worked at IBM in the Time Life Building in the late 60′s. Here we were almost 40 years later sitting in a newly opened Chinese tea house in midtown Manhattan savoring the place, the tea, and the pleasure of a long leisurely conversation after so many years.

The layout of the tea house was perfect for the occasion – comfortable, open, warm and inviting.  We talked, lingered, enjoyed pots of a variety of teas, chatted with the manager and nibbled on Chinese treats.  There was something unusual about the place – an unhurried feeling as if we could just sit and talk into the night – which I think we did.

I purchased a lovely Chinese tea set (the one on the top left in this picture) and some tea, took several photos, and left knowing that I wanted to return again. 2008-12-29 16.02.22 So I was especially delighted to see the Facebook post earlier today.  In visiting their website, it is clear that they have gotten lots of well-deserved notice.  I look forward to visiting again on my next trip to NYC.  Congratulations Radiance Tea House and Books on joining the Zagat family.

Finally, a Visit to the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

For years, I’ve noticed that the Camellia Tea Room in historic Benicia, CA is mentioned time and again in various tea related publications.

Benicia itself is a lovely old town nestled on the north side of San Francisco Bay’s Carquinez Strait.  In 1853-1854, Benicia served as California’s third state capitol. (The first two capitols were San Jose and Vallejo.  In 1854 the state capitol moved to its permanent home in Sacramento.)  Benicia is dotted with antique shops making it a fun day trip for a browsing/shopping expedition.  If you are looking for a delightful place to enjoy tea or lunch, the Camellia Tea Room fills that bill and makes a satisfying addition to the day.

A view of the tea room and their teapots, tea sets, and loose tea to purchase as  a view of the tea room

A view of the tea room and their teapots, tea sets, and loose tea to purchase

The  family owned and operated Camellia Tea Room opened in 1995.  I liked this tea room as soon as I peered through the window and saw its decor, layout, and spaciousness.  The tables and chairs match, are well placed and not at all crowded – a very pleasant change from many of the places I have visited.  It’s comfortable, not at all stuffy – hitting just the right blend of fun and elegance.

Tea rooms, quite the rage in the first half of the 20th century, were one of the first entrepreneurial businesses that women pursued in the United States.   And although called a Tea Room, they often provided somewhat heartier meals such as sandwiches, salads, a few savory dishes, etc.  The Camellia Tea Room falls into that category.  While their traditional English tea is wonderful, you can also choose from a selection of luncheon soups, salads, and sandwiches if that is more to your liking.

Traditional Tea at the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

Traditional Tea at the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia, CA

I ordered the traditional three-tier English tea and was pleased to find Kenya tea on the menu which I ordered.  The tea was full bodied with a lovely aroma and the servers did a wonderful job of replenishing the pot with hot water so my tea was always hot – a strong personal preference.  The Camellia’s tea sandwiches were among the most interesting I have enjoyed anywhere – a wonderful crustini topped with hummus and an artichoke black olive tapenade, an equally delicious thinly sliced roast beef with a red pepper butter spread and a delightful cucumber sandwich, always my favorite.  (Whoever made the first cucumber sandwich was simply brilliant!)

A couple other points about the Camellia Tea Room.  If you call ahead, they will work to accommodate special food needs – specifically vegan, gluten-free, and/or dairy free.  On my visit, they were serving a vegan cauliflower soup, lightly curried, that was sublime. They consistently provide vegetarian options.

I have some regular tea places I take out of town visitors for a tea adventure – Tyme for Tea in Niles, Samovar in San Francisco and, now, the Camellia Tea Room in Benicia.  A fabulous addition to my local menu of places to take and savor tea.


Alice’s Tea Cup – a holiday visit

Over the holidays I got another chance to visit Alice’s Tea Cup (ATC) on 73rd and Columbus Ave in NYC.  ATC has been written up so much that it can be quite hard to get into with waits as long as 1-2 hours – especially during the holiday season.   Here’s a tip IMG_0594that one of the gals behind the counter gave me and it’s worth following.  Go for breakfast between 8 and 10 AM when you can usually be seated immediately.   Three of us arrived at 9 AM on a holiday weekend and after a very short wait were seated.  The Eggs Florentine were simply delicious – wonderfully poached on a bed of spinach accompanied with a small green salad with their house dressing (available to purchase).  I asked for my buttermilk scone on the side and was glad that I did as it allowed me to savor it slowing with no intruding flavors.

Mt. Everest Breakfast tea - so delightful.  Love the packaging with the handwritten instructions.

Mt. Everest Breakfast tea – so delightful. Love the packaging with the handwritten instructions.

I also tried and fell in love with their Mt. Everest Breakfast tea that is mildly smoked.  This is not a Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan but more like a heavy Darjeeling with a hint of smoke.  It was so delicious that I brought some back to California with me.  Love their packaging and hand written instructions on the label. Charming.

Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting.  This is from their Alice's Tea Cup cook book but the cake looks exactly like this.

Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting. This is from their Alice’s Tea Cup cook book but the cake looks exactly like this.  Exquisite.


And, once again,  I want to wax about their chocolate cake.  I bought a piece and ate it over several days. So many cakes are a disappointment that I seldom order a slice.  At ATC, their cakes are as beautiful to look at as they are to savor slowly.   Great to share or take home as I did.

Tea Rooms – Two to Celebrate and Enjoy

Visiting tea shops is one of my great pleasures – whether alone or with friends.  I try to find at least one in every town I visit and more in cities.  Early on, I wasn’t very picky but now, quite frankly, I want my time and my money to be spent in a terrific experience. Whether it’s basic or elegant there are a few things that are important to me.

The shop needs to be comfortable – the chairs, tables, and overall space all have to feel good.  I’m not interested in sitting with my friends for one to two hours and not being comfortable. I’ve been in ‘adorable’ places with wonderful antique furniture but have found myself feeling cramped and squished in, the tables too rickety. It’s fine, and even quite charming, to be shabby chic but if my table is not stable or my chair makes me feel like I’m not sure it will hold up, oh my, suddenly even a great cup of tea is not so great.

Please provide a good selection of tea, not just one, two, or three, but a good number to choose from. I may not be in the mood for English Breakfast or the establishment’s special blend.  A good selection of both caffeinated and decaffeinated is a must these days. And the tea needs to be hot, really hot, not just very warm.  Tea cozies are welcome if it’s a shared pot and we will be lingering over our food.

Speaking of food, it’s more fun if the food is interesting and even adventuresome. I love English afternoon style tea with tea sandwiches (please not all white bread), scones, and small tidbit desserts but to me, it’s even more delightful to find something different to savor with my hot tea. Alice’s Tea Cup in NYC does a wonderful job of serving hearty sandwiches and soups as well as the traditional 3-tier services.  I visit the one on West 73rd Street when in town.  It has a wonderful rambling feel with folks stopping in for lunch, snacks, traditional English tea, etc.  If you want a hearty dessert to share or to hoard, their cakes are beyond wonderful.  Yes it is a trendy place but the overall quality is well worth it.  For those of us who cannot get enough of a good thing, their cookbook is a delight – a great gift for a tea loving friend.

Harney & Sons has two wonderful tea rooms, one in Soho and one in Millerton, NY, about a 2 hour drive north of New York City.  While I love the Soho venue, the Millerton shop is so warm, intimate, and delightful.  I had the great pleasure of having tea and lunch with a childhood friend, my brother, and his wife at the Millerton tea room earlier this year.  It was my childhood friend’s Mom who introduced my family to Jackson of Piccadilly Earl Grey tea that started my long love affair with tea, making this an even more appropriate place to meet.  We talked for several hours, savoring the tea, the food, and the company.

The food at this shop is wonderful, I particularly like the smoked salmon with capers and cucumbers on baguette.  But more than that, it has everything I like, a tea shop to sample and buy tea, a tea bar to sit and savor, wonderful tea products and tea accoutrements to browse and buy, fabulous food, and a warm inviting staff.

Both of these shops represent the best characteristics of a good tea room for my taste – warm, comfortable, interesting food, great tea, good shopping and the freedom to relax and savor the moment.