Tea service in restaurants is appalling and it keeps me up at night
It was a damp, chilly, foggy summer night in San Francisco and I was having dinner with my husband at a fine dining restaurant, a newly opened neighborhood gem. Things were going pretty well, beautiful space, amazing food, thoughtful and friendly service. It couldn’t have been any more perfect until the dessert menu arrived. On a whim, I decided to order tea with my dessert, because the selection seemed promising. Big, big mistake, Anna, big mistake, sweetheart. When the tea was served, I wished the ground would swallow me up. In a dining room filled with thoughtful details and tasteful glassware and tableware, I was sitting there with a vintage Ghostbusters mug in front of me, something I would be holding if I were lounging on my couch in my pajamas. Was it a prank?? How could something like that fit into such a beautifully curated dining concept? Surprisingly, the tea itself was not even a grocery store tea bag, but a loose-leaf green tea, pre-measured and stuffed in a fillable paper sachet, which tells me that some effort went into it, into sourcing it and it seemed of decent quality, if only the water hadn’t come from the coffee machine at the temperature you need to pull an espresso shot or steam milk. So disappointing, so freaking disappointing. I could have walked away happy but no, that mug will haunt me forever.
I’m telling you this story because one of my most heartfelt desires is to see tea in restaurants on par with wine and not just an afterthought alongside the dessert menu, misunderstood and mistreated. I don’t want this post to be a rant, but someone has to do it, you know what they say, be the change you want to see in the world. I don’t want to shame anyone, that wouldn’t be fair, I just want to point out the things that I find extremely frustrating and offer some constructive criticism. When everything else is perfect and tea sucks, it makes the tea experience even more frustrating and infuriating, especially from the perspective of a tea lover.
The Ghostbusters mug is one of my top 3 worst tea experiences at restaurants. Wanna hear the other 2? Here they are, brace yourself.
Coastal getaway, super exclusive fine dining tasting menu. Everything is spectacular, the setting, the ingredients, the creativity. At the end, alongside dessert, there’s a tea menu. I see ceremonial matcha, which is extremely rare to find on a restaurant menu and I see that the matcha purveyor is a familiar brand, super high-quality and super high-end. The cherry on top? I got to pick the chawan from a selection of handmade matcha bowls handcrafted by a local artist. Now, just for a moment, put yourself in my shoes and imagine my expectations, they went through the roof, reaching unexpected heights. Well, the matcha was dark and tasteless, without any persistent foam. Probably the matcha-to-water ratio was off, the matcha had not been stored properly and was old and stale. Also the water temperature was too high but there was not even bitterness there, nothing. It could have been the most exquisite, elevated tableside matcha experience ever. You know, the magic formula is not over-promise and under-deliver, but under-promise and over-deliver.
Last but not least, another fine dining neighborhood gem. This time around, I didn’t wait until dessert to order tea, I ordered it upfront. The server told me that their selection included green, oolong and herbal tea. I ordered oolong. My tea came in a beautiful, handcrafted teapot and matching handcrafted mug but the real surprise was inside that gorgeous teapot. The oolong was in a lousy tea bag (not even a sachet) and artificially flavored! Yuck, yuck, yuck. What am I supposed to pair butterscotch-flavored oolong with? Fruit loops maybe, but definitely not my appetizer and main course. The smell was so disgustingly artificial, I had to send it back immediately. The only option left was the peppermint herbal tea (the green tea was flavored with pineapple and peach), so it was like choosing the lesser evil (I have nothing against peppermint herbal tea! But we’re talking about Camellia Sinensis tea here). Again, the meal was fantastic and the dining experience otherwise almost flawless. Why the lack of consistency with the selection of tea? Why??
I asked my followers on Instagram to share their tea horror stories at restaurants and I had a lot of responses and found a lot of solidarity from fellow tea lovers. The top complaints were improper tea brewing, including oversteeping because no strainer is provided, wrong water temperature especially with delicate teas, flavor residues from other beverages (mainly coffee), servers who were not knowledgeable about the tea selection, stained and chipped teaware or teaware that is not functional. I was glad I’m not the only one ...
I have to say, though, that I’ve also had some wonderful tea experiences at restaurants where there was amazing tea (at the top of the food menu) to match the amazing food and the tea was treated with great care and respect, brewed to perfection, served in beautiful and functional teaware. And I’d be glad to share these success stories too, maybe in a separate post, because they deserve it. My point is, it is possible to offer a great tea experience in a fine dining setting and tea has so much potential in terms of flavor that it is comparable to wine (minus the alcohol). If you’re not drinking alcoholic beverages with your dinner, what’s left? Probably a sugary mocktail or a variation of the ubiquitous ginger beer … or lemonade. Meh. Tea is the key. Make it high quality and present it in a consistent way to your dining concept and everyone will want to drink it. Hire a tea sommelier, make exciting pairing suggestions with food and people will swoon over it.
I want to be the change I want to see in the tea-in-fine-dining world. To my fellow tea lovers who feel the same frustration I want to say, let's make our voice heard, let’s raise awareness, let’s start a movement! We need a hashtag and your suggestions are welcome! Write them in the comments down below. Eventually, change will be inevitable. If you are a restaurateur and need help troubleshooting your tea service, reach out to me, I’d be glad to help.