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

Written and Photographed 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 www.www.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 www.www.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 www.www.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 www.www.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.

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  1. Printing for our next visit to Philly! I always liked hot tea, but it wasn’t until I lived in England that I truly understood the ritual. Part of it is that Americans tend not to brew it correctly, and so it tastes pretty lackluster unless you’re in a tea house specifically.

  2. Although I, too, am a coffee drinker, I’ve always found the ritual of afternoon tea (and the decadence of high tea) to be great fun. Thanks for the local suggestions, and for planting the idea to look for settings for the occasional indulgence in high tea when traveling. (And that $5 skull wall is awesome!)

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