Oolong Has This Been Going On? The Last Tea Houses in Philadelphia

Rebecca Peters-Golden

by Rebecca Peters-Golden on October 24, 2013

Written by Rebecca Peters-Golden.
I’ve always been a coffee person—whether it’s downing a supercharged jolt of diner sludge at three in the morning or sipping a luscious café crème in Paris, I’ve always chosen the drama of coffee over the subtlety of tea. Sure, I’ll take a nice cup in the afternoon if you’re offering, but the ritual and variety of tea has never played a large role in my life.

Lately, though, I’ve been curious about what it is about tea that captivates so many. What better way, I thought, than to check out the tea shops that Philadelphia has to offer? When I first began poking around, I was surprised at the number of tea houses in the city. In the last year or so, though, nearly all of these have closed, and those that remain* have staked out very different clienteles.

tuocha tea, via goodfoodstories.com

tuocha tea at Random Tea Room


Random Tea Room & Curiosity Shop (713 N. 4th Street) is a cozy nook with a few tables and a pillowed window seat that invites lounging, a rotating art gallery on one wall (take a skull, leave a $5 bill when I was there), and a collection of odds and ends including tea pots, art, and an ancient-looking madeleine pan for sale on the other. In addition to all the tea standbys, Random Tea Room has a number of teas from around the world, and a willingness to help the uninitiated (like me) choose among them.

Random Tea Room, Philadelphia - via goodfoodstories.com
After I was offered a lot of helpful descriptions and a number of teas to sniff, I chose tuocha, a cooked variety of Pu-Erh, a Chinese tea that is fermented after being dried. It comes in small, paper-wrapped pods and must be rinsed before steeping to rid it of the residue from fermentation. It was served in a Yixiing pot, which is a small, unglazed clay pot. The unglazed clay absorbs the flavors of the tea, resulting in more complex flavors; repeated serving of tea in these pots eventually seasons them. The tea can be steeped several times and, I was told, aids digestion when drunk before or after eating.

Random Tea Room, Philadelphia - via goodfoodstories.com
Using a tea timer, my tuocha was steeped perfectly and served beautifully. While I was sipping, a client came in and explained to the woman behind the counter that he’d had a terrible flu for days. He described his symptoms and they both said together, “Cold Killa.” She took a tin from a hidden top shelf and told me that they have a number of secret brews. Their house-made chai has quite a reputation as well. All in all, whether you’re a tea aficionado or a novice like me, Random Tea Room is everything I imagined when I set off on my tea odyssey.

Cups & Chairs (701-3 S. 5th Street) occupies the other end of the spectrum. Where Random Tea Room is slow and, well, random, Cups & Chairs is a modern, airy café that looks like any contemporary coffee shop. They have a wide selection of teas, all of which can be ordered hot or iced, and a sample wall where you can sniff each tea before you make your selection. I ordered yerba mate, which was properly steeped according to a tea timer and served in a to-go cup. They have smoothies, pastries, and several food selections in addition to tea. There are two large indoor sitting areas and a small outdoor nook behind the shop in what I assume used to be the alley, which is where I sat. In general, the atmosphere was nothing special, but it was definitely a pleasant café, and the price was right.

Cups & Chairs, Philadelphia - via goodfoodstories.com

the sniffing station at Cups & Chairs


Finally, while those are the last tea shops standing, the ritual of high tea is alive and well for the Philadelphian who can afford it (spoiler alert: not me):

The prices for these afternoon teas range from $35 and $50, but for a special occasion, they look decadent and beautiful.

If you’d rather sip at home, Premium Steap (111 S. 18th Street) and House of Tea (720 S. 4th Street, just a block from Cups & Chairs) have you covered. Both sell premium loose leaf teas and all the necessary accouterments.

I may not be an immediate convert, and I’m sure I’ll never give up my coffee, but whether it’s stopping into Random Tea Room for a tea education on a sleepy afternoon or meeting friends dressed to the nines at the Mary Cassatt Tea Room, the rituals of choosing, brewing, and sipping tea have definitely begun to appeal.

*The third tea shop still operational is Whispering Leaves (4615 Woodland Ave.), but though I tried to go there twice during business hours, they weren’t open either time.

RPGRebecca is a writer living in Philadelphia. When not writing fiction and poetry, she blogs about young adult books at Crunchings & Munchings and copy edits at Hermes Editing. She likes bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and cheese. But mostly cheese.

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