Hot Stuff

Despite my heritage, I don’t consume gallons of tea on a daily basis (although my Russian pedigree shows up in my weakness for fine Japanese and British china :-)). There are three things that invariably make me reach for a tea cup: cold weather, (nasal) congestion, and company. The recent blustery weather activated the Russian spirit in me, and thus the old romance with tea was rekindled. It provided me with a perfect reason to revisit a few tea shops in my general neighborhood, – the greater Dupont Circle area.


Teaism was the location of my first DC lunch ever, when we moved to DC some 6 years ago; I suspect I will always have a special relationship with that place. According to their site, it was originally intended as “an alternative to the obfuscation, over-formalization, and xenophobia of traditional Asian and English tea houses”. Their belief is that drinking good-quality loose-leaf tea should not be a luxury, and that substance should always triumph over style. Their shtick food-wise is simple offerings from the cuisines of tea, such as bento boxes from Japan, curries from Thailand, and tandoor breads from India. The tea selection is pretty limited, with a few solid offerings in each category (tisane, green, oolong, black, white).

Teaism is fast and efficient: no frills, no pomp, no circumstance. You pick up your food and tea on a plastic tray when they call your number at the expo counter. It is cheap and tasty: for $15, you can get a full meal AND a pot of tea. And it feels very comfortable like an old shoe, and does not push one in scary directions, away from the cozy comfort zone.

My personal favorites are: ginger scones, tea-smoked salmon, tasty bento boxes featuring dishes like sweet potato salad, cucumber-ginger salad, etc. with Genmaicha or a nice oolong. The cute Asian garden upfront is an added benefit in nice weather.

All in all, I would call it a social venue and lunch place first, and tea shop second; a kind of a coffeeless coffee shop. It is a very casual and egalitarian place with a young vibe (I was easily the oldest person there :-)) that seems to be always crowded and buzzy, especially on the weekends. It is very DC.

Ching Ching Cha

The catchy, alliterative name has an explanation: CHA is the Chinese word for tea, and Ching Ching is the name of the founder. It is a traditional Chinese teahouse: a tranquil, lovely space with an authentic setting (beautiful rosewood tables and chairs, platform seating with fluffy cushions, etc). Ching Ching spends a few months each year visiting different tea regions of China, Taiwan and Japan, searching for new unique teas and teaware to bring back. It is a place steeped in tradition.

It is not a very appropriate lunch spot, unless you have a couple of hours to linger and enjoy the classic tea ritual; it feels much more otherworldly and eclectic than Teaism. Everything here is an accessory or afterthought to the tea; tea is the focal point, and the lengthy tea selection is further proof of that. Food offerings are reasonably limited; they are primarily light lunch Items. My personal explanation for that fact is that they don’t want you to come in very hungry, as you would be unable to focus properly on the tea. So, if you have a big appetite, come “primed”.

We enjoyed sitting in the shoe-free platform seating area where you can show off your freshly manicured toes, or cute socks, or alternatively, hide your feet under the table 🙂

The staff is very knowledgeable and passionate about tea, and is there to help you enjoy your tea the way it was intended, using the proper brewing and serving technique. It gives one a nice feeling of being initiated into the art of tea.

My personal favorites: five spice peanuts, marble tea egg (egg cooked with star anise, peppercorns, soy sauce, and tea leaves), Mongolian dumplings, and the coconut tart with any of the recommendations of the staff.This time, we decided on a beautiful Dong Ding Oolong served kung-fu style, and a Golden Blossom artisan flowering tea.

Ching Ching Cha is truly a House of Tea, not just another Georgetown lunch spot.












Tea Cellar at Park Hyatt

The Tea Cellar located next to Blue Duck Tavern at the Hyatt (at 24th and M street) features more than 50 rare and limited production, single-estate teas from remote regions of China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas.

The language on their website – “fine art of tea”, “exclusive and sophisticated”, “subtle nuances”, “gourmet teas”, “at the level of flavor and complexity of fine wines” can be considered off-putting by some, and a class marker by others. The actual experience is different from what one might expect: the place itself is more relaxed, and the staff – courteous and approachable. Of course, the prices for individual teas can be steep…

The slick, spacious modern interior (glass, stainless steel, natural wood) allows for a more intimate experience. The tea expert on duty is available to assist in the tea selection process.

There is a different tea drinking format available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm, for $30 per person: it is the traditional British afternoon tea, where tea selections can be enjoyed with the various sweet and savory finger foods, such as cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones, etc.

It is funny how much more comfortable and familiar a “Western” tea ceremony feels, regardless of how many Japanese and Chinese ceremonies you have attended before…

One easily forgets how much caffeine tea can have, and we arrived at the Tea Cellar already hopped-up on the Ching Ching Cha selections. Thus, we took it easy, and went the aromatic, mellow route with a magnolia oolong and a lemongrass/wild rose tisane…


As a result, we have got three very different aesthetics, three very different tea drinking experiences to choose from, within a mile radius. Next time, give quality loose-leaf tea a try, and discover the experience that works for you.