Everyone whose ever been to San Francisco knows the city is an amazing place for restaurants and food. There’s iconic seafood from Fisherman’s Wharf, wine and an entire culture of fresh, gourmet dining to the north in the Napa and Sonoma regions. And, legendary Italian food is found in the North Beach part of the city. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with so many choices.
This may sound a little odd but I wanted to go to a place where the food plays a supporting role. I wanted an authentic, “all about tea” time.
I’m a tea drinker. Not coffee. Tea. Tea imbibers are often treated like the red-haired step-children of the beverage-sipping world. But I still love tea even if at times I’m regarded in restaurants with little more than a sneer. I wanted an experience where, for a change, I am appreciated for my love and joy of tea.
So, a few days before leaving on our trip I Googled “tea” and “San Francisco” just to see what might surface. That’s how I discovered Samovar Tea Lounge. I read through the website with a gusto bordering on lust. I had to check this place out. Samovar has four locations in the Bay area. We had lunch at the Yerba Buena Gardens location.
We walked over from our hotel and by the time we got close I thought there must be a mistake. We were in the convention center part of the city. A concrete, steel and glass neighborhood. Not welcoming. Certainly not the location I’d expect for a Zen, relaxed tea experience. A maintenance guy told us to take a non-descript service elevator up one level to get to Samovar. There were no signs – nothing. When we exited the elevator, a new world opened up.
A lovely, colorful garden, full of bright rows of flowers stretched out before us. We arrived at 2:00-ish on a Saturday afternoon. Every table except one (outdoors) was taken – so we filled it. This is one happening place – but a very different crowd from the tourist joints. It feels like it’s more San Franciscans who would prefer the crazy tourists stay at the Wharf, Union Square or on the cable cars.
I’m not crazy about this picture (right). My eyes look squinty (just removed my sunglasses), and, I need fresh lip gloss. But behind me you get a sense of the lush, blooms of color we experienced in the rooftop garden. It’s a gorgeous, unexpected, happy surprise in the middle of San Francisco. Note the high rise buildings jutting upward.
Samovar features numerous varieties of loose-leaf, organic teas. Each is served on a tray with a small pot of water and a different cup to match the variety of tea. They make a bit of a ceremony out of it, which I enjoyed. By the way, this level of quality doesn’t come cheap. Tea service ranged in price from $9 to $17 for the most exotic, rare blends. You are paying for a quality product in addition to the experience and the ambience.
Samovar prides itself on tea and they offer a selection of Tea Services that pair interesting foods with tea. Finger food mostly. There’s the British Service, the Russian Service, the Japanese Service and, well, you get the idea. There are short descriptions about the teas on the menu. I wanted a “tea experience” which included getting answers to my questions about tea. Unfortunately, our waitress was brusque and curtly replied several times, “Oh, you’ll like it. Trust me.” Not the nurturing, Zen event I sought.
Cherie ordered the Moroccan Service (pictured left) which was accompanied with the mint tea seen above, $22. It included skewers of grilled veggies and a Moroccan cheese called Halloumi. There was an eggplant dip, Greek yogurt and a spicy hummus with Ak-Mak crackers. Two dates filled with chevre (goat cheese) and a walnut half provided a sweet-tart-crunchy ending.
I got the Paleolithic Service (carb free) which came with green tea, $19. It featured Smoked Duck, Steamed Beets, Kale and Carrot Salad and a Sesame, vinaigrette-type dressing. Unusual pairings, but all quite tasty. The green tea was an extremely mild variety. Hey, if you’re gonna have an excellent adventure, try something new, right? Even if the help was lackluster, I liked eating healthy at a tea place rather than fat and carb-laden scones and watercress sandwiches.
Samovar’s website says, “Making people feel good, feel healthy and attain happiness is our bottom line. And, challenging as it is, seeing our guests beam with joy and express their heartfelt gratitude is worth all the effort.” I don’t know if our waitress was overly-rushed or simply having an off-day. I hope the owner takes that vision seriously. Customers should be able to get answers to questions without being brushed off. Once past her rushed demeanor – she improved and our tea with lunch became more relaxed and enjoyable.
Samovar Tea Lounge is an incredibly unique experience. Not unique in a weird, foreign way. But in an, “I can’t imagine so many fascinating teas enjoyed on a rooftop garden with healthy, tasty food kind of way.” It’s almost “tea nirvana” for someone like me. I wish we had more time to try another tea and perhaps share a dessert like the Fudge Brownie with Green Tea Mousse – but Fisherman’s Wharf beckoned. So much to fit into our three and a half day sojourn.
Throw away your expectations or attachments about how you feel food and tea should be. Samovar is about surrendering and releasing yourself to something very different.
Samovar Tea Lounge
730 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Note: Watch for the next post with my review of the Hilton at Union Square, our hotel.