Restaurant Review: Imperial Tea Court

If you’ve been drinking Lipton your whole life, consider this your initiation to the world of tea. Easily one of the best tea places in the Bay Area, come find out why billions of people around the world have made tea their beverage of choice (the US is really more of a coffee country). Appreciate the culture, and have a perfectly paired bite to go along with (not the other way around :P).

The setting is fabulous. Even before you step into the shop, you take a nice stroll on a bending path through a Chinese tea garden, replete with babbling brook to calms your nerves. As you arrive, you start settling into a nice secluded feeling. The place really is set back away from the din of the street. Also notice the circular doorway; it’s a classical motif in Chinese tea garden architecture. The shop interior is beautifully decorated as well with thick wooden furniture, Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and fine tea sets (that are for sale) adorning the walls. Like a hip coffee shop, the place is setup for you to settle down for a while, soak up the sights and the smells while enjoying a few cups of tea, and maybe some food.

I’ve been here twice, once this evening, once a few years ago, before I moved out of town. It’s so great to be back. Tonight, I ordered tea house noodles, and Puerh Topaz tea. It came to $20 + $4 tip. $12 for the food, 8 for the tea. The noodles come in a hearty beef steef stew (there’s actually a choice of meats), deliciously tender, with a bit of spice, and sprinkled with green onion. I put a small dollop of chili sauce from the cup that they put out on all the tables. If you’re not into spicy foods, you can skip this part, but I highly recommend it.

Steeping your tea is done at the table. First, your waitress wets the leaves, and allows you to smell them, kind of like how you might be offered to smell the wine cork before being served at a fine restaurant. Tea is an aromatic experience, after all. She’ll also show you how to steep and pour your own tea. It’s a bit of a process, because you pour hot water from a kettle into a lidded cup containing the leaves. Once the tea is steeped, you pour into a second cup that you actually drink from, using the lid to keep the leaves from escaping. If you need more hot water, just pop open the kettle, and they’ll come around to refill it. As you can see, drinking is a bit of a ceremony; it’s all part of taking it slow and mellowing out.

A couple of times on my way home, I caught a faint but distinct whiff of tea. I’m not sure if it was on my breath or coming off my clothes, but it felt great. It was like the place was following me home, beckoning me to return, which I probably will :).

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