Americans tend to have lukewarm feelings about tea. Ever since the Boston Tea Party, the drink simply hasn't gotten the respect it deserves. It's not unusual to walk into a midtown deli looking for a cup of coffee and be faced with an exhaustive selection of arabica and robusta beans and a choice of any number of macchiatos, lattes, and other steamed-milk concoctions. Ask for a tea, however, and chances are good that you'll be handed a cup of milky warm water with a Tetley string dangling out of it.
It's no accident that tea has been given a central place in so many other cultures. The world's most popular beverage fuels introspection, inducing a healthy, contemplative perspective. If coffee gives us the energy to go to work in the morning, tea prompts us to ask why we want to go in the first place, and whether there might be a more meaningful way to spend our time. We're not suggesting you quit your job and take up residence on an island off the coast of Thailand. But periodic retreats to the following tea havens are be well worth the time taken, if only to see what you've been missing.
FireBird Russian Restaurant
365 West 46th Street (212-586-0244)
Named for Stravinsky's ballet and decorated to resemble a Saint Petersburg mansion circa 1912, the Firebird has a royal feel to it. Settle into a richly upholstered sofa in the second-floor parlor and sip Prince Vladimir -- FireBird's specialty tea -- as a live harpist plays in the background. The tea, a strong black brew, is sweetened with Moldavian cherries for a pleasant, citrusy undertone. On our visit, my friend and I ordered the Zakuska selection ($22), a delicious array of appetizers -- including blini with mushrooms and sour cream. (Daily 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., plus Tuesday through Saturday 11:45 a.m to 3:30 p.m. The harpist plays Tuesday through Friday from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday from 7 to 10 p.m.)
Tea & Sympathy
108-110 Greenwich Avenue (212-989-9735)
An eclectic range of patrons (on my left sits a pair of struggling comics, to my right a couple of British nuns) sips from china cups as British waitresses emerge rosy-cheeked from the kitchen bearing finger sandwiches, cakes, and biscuits. The afternoon tea for one ($17.95) is huge and not for the waistline-obsessed: Since my visit, the scones, with raspberry jam and clotted cream, have appeared in my dreams. (Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street (212-889-0667)
The first floor of Danny Meyer's Indian-accented restaurant is a sparkling, upscale setting for afternoon tea. Waiters bear Indian oil lamps that have been converted into "tea caddies" containing Tabla's ten special blends ($3.75 each); they'll tell you which brews go best with each of the various desserts, breads, appetizers, and entrées. The Tibetan Tiger blend, with its hints of vanilla, complements the chocolate-banana samosa perfectly. (Monday through Thursday noon to 11 p.m., Friday till 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5:30 to 11 p.m.)
693 Fifth Avenue, near 54th Street (212-350-0180)
The next time you find yourself in need of a midtown escape hatch, retreat to this soothing, minimalist space in the basement of the Takashimaya department store. It offers more than 40 kinds of tea ($3.50), light lunches ($9.75-$15), and finger sandwiches on pressed rice -- imagine a cross between sushi and a sandwich -- including wasabi chicken salad, salmon, and cucumber ($6.50). Sen-Cha, a Japanese green tea, provides a bracing complement to the subtle taste of the Earl Grey ice cream. (Tea is served Monday through Saturday 3 to 6 p.m.)
55 Carmine Street (212-414-2815)
This Korean restaurant's teas are furnished by In Pursuit of Tea, a company that imports "true" teas. According to In Pursuit's co-owner Sebastian Beckwith, "true teas" are made with no added flavorings. Instead, the teas get their flavor from factors such as when the leaves were picked (apparently teas harvested in the morning taste different from those picked in the evening) and the length of time taken to dry them. I did find that the quality of the brews here surpassed that of any others I encountered on my tea-drinking odyssey. The Sea Anemone ($7) is a mild green tea served in a large cognac snifter; the leaves are tied at their stems, and when hot water is poured over them they explode into a ball that resembles an anemone under water. If you prefer black tea, Yunnan Gold from southern China ($5) has a balanced taste that nicely plays off the sweetness of the chocolate-clove cake ($7). (Monday through Friday noon to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 4:30 p.m. to midnight.)
51 Mott Street (212-766-9889)
On weeknights, the faux- mahogany tables at this bustling, Hong Kong-based chain fill up with neighborhood families looking for a taste of home. In addition to a variety of teas, snacks, and milk shakes in flavors you won't find anywhere else (coconut, honeydew), Saint's Alp serves frothy tea drinks called "milk teas" ($2.45-$3.85). Served over tapioca pearls, these colorful teas can be ordered hot or cold. I liked the taro-green-milk tea, a creamy purple concoction, while the coconut-black-milk tea over ice got a thumbs-up from my friend. We both enjoyed the novelty of the chewy tapioca pearls, which we slurped through giant straws provided for that purpose. (Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight.)
The Urasenke Chanoyu Center
153 East 69th Street (212-988-6161)
If you've ever been intrigued by traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, you might want to check out a course offered at the Urasenke center ($250 for ten lessons). Called "The Way of Tea," it examines the highly ritualized series of gestures and practices involved in this ancient ritual. The foundation also hosts monthly open houses during which you can participate in a tea ceremony. (The next open one is on March 22 at 5:30 p.m.; $15.) While the guiding principles -- harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity -- are Buddhist in nature, the ceremony itself is a kind of moving meditation open to people of all spiritual persuasions. In the words of one student, "It has taught me the beauty of silence and the value of living in the moment." Not to mention the simple pleasures of a well-brewed cup of tea.