High Tea for San Francisco Cheapskates

Sip like royalty for a pauper’s price

High tea means high fallutin’, high society and high heart rates, but that doesn’t mean you have to shell out high prices to enjoy a rich experience. When the clock rounds four, there are plenty of posh places where $30 or more is standard fare for proper high tea, such as the swanky lobbies of the Ritz-Carlton or Westin St. Francis. But if you relax that stiff upper lip for just a moment, you can find other exceptional places for a sumptuous afternoon tea outing that deliver freshly brewed elegance, and they won’t drain your less-than-regal bank account. And though we all love the classic butter sandwiches sans crust paired with a standard Earl Grey, the varieties of teas and nibbles available for the bargain infusion aficionado are sure to erect your pinky.

Lovejoy’s Tea Room
1351 Church Street, San Francisco
(415) 648-5895

Closed Monday and Tuesday
Situated in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, a visit to Lovejoy’s is more like sitting at grandma’s house than sitting in a grand hall. It’s downright cozy and clean, but not sterile, with its plush, worn sofas and chairs, drapes and cabinets stacked with the tea room’s famous collection of mismatched and slightly chipped real bone china cups and saucers. Grandma can be a bit senile at times – service tends to be slow and the tea sandwiches are plentiful, but clumsy. But that’s part of the charm of relaxing with standard British faire and a pot of English Breakfast, with the hot water refreshed as copiously as you require; and at under $15 for the whole affair, these portions that could pass for lunch will stretch that social security check far and wide.

Imperial Tea House
1411 Powell Street, San Francisco
(415) 788-6080 | Closed Tuesday

Sometimes you have to just do away with the pomp of British royalty. And no one knows that better than the Chinese. For a total change of pace in afternoon tea, try getting your caffeine and snack kick Asian style at this premier Chinatown locale. The amazing Asian tea selection is rivaled only by the outstanding collection of heavy clay and metal pots and dazzling cups designed to warm the whole hand with delicate matching lids. The housemade snack menu is small, but delicious – nosh on peanut cookies, jasmine tea-dusted pumpkin seeds and roasted tea almonds. They also offer classes on the finer appreciation of tea and tea traditions – yet another reason to steep in the ambiance of fine wood furniture, twittering birdcages and the mellow sound of warm water bathing leaf.

Samovar Tea Lounge
498 Sanchez Street, San Francisco
(415) 626-4700 | Open daily

The latest splash in the local tea business can be found in the busy Castro/Mission corridor. Here, tea freaks aren’t forced to choose a tea drinking ethnicity – rather, it’s a global collection and celebration of the international world of tea. Hands down, this is the premier tea menu in the city – an impressive array of the best in blacks, whites, greens, oolongs, herbals and puerh (aged tea with a distinct flavor and health benefits), including some vintage collections dating from the 1930s. Bonus bevies include a delicious house-made chai that blows away anything from a mix and a soothing, cooled iced matcha with a splash of ginger that is both traditional and timely. The snack menu also reflects the world’s eye view, featuring everything from a classic trio of delicate sandwiches to edamame and dainty rice dishes to organic fruit pies and house-made, tea-infused shortbread to-die-for. The ambience is sheer Asian-elegance with bamboo-covered walls, thatched flooring, and an elevated table for large parties with soft cushions. No shoes allowed. Stop by for DJs on Saturday night, knitting groups, or just for a great cuppa brew.

Lisa’s Tea Treasures
1875 Bascom Ave., #165, Campbell
(408) 371-7377 | Open daily

There may not be many tea house options south of San Francisco, but at least there’s Lisa’s Tea Treasures in Campbell, a classic Victorian-style tea house that specializes in the sacred ritual of afternoon tea. Most of Lisa’s menu options are broken up into, shall we call them, international tea events. For example, the Venetian’s Romance ($18.95) replicates an afternoon Italian tea experience – in addition to your choice of more than two dozen teas, you get a scone with Devonshire cream, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato sandwiches, pesto nut tea sandwiches, roasted garlic and cheese puffs and a selection from the plentiful dessert tray. To enjoy the flavors of French afternoon tea, try the Louis XIV’s Favorite ($18.95) – tea and a scone served with Parisian chicken croissant tea sandwich, Roquefort pecan tea sandwiches, brie en croute and your choice of desserts. Lisa’s is a dream destination for the tea purist. In fact, they even specialize in catering private tea parties for up to 25 guests.

Japanese Tea Room at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
(415) 581-3500 | Call for availability

Worth an honorable mention is this spot at the brand spankin’ new museum. The tearoom itself is a good example of the real deal, Japanese-style – tatami floor mats, an alcove for hanging scrolls, space for an electric-powered hot water well in the floor and a tiny kitchen instrumental in the tea ceremony – all designed by specialized craftspeople in Kyoto, shipped here, and reassembled for display. But just looking will not satiate the thirsty tea drinker, will it? That’s why every other month on Saturday afternoons, the museum invites a specialized tea master to lecture on the ancient tradition of the tea ceremony and, of course, dole out the most authentically-prepared Japanese tea and snacks you’ve tasted this side of Kansai. Not a bad deal for $15, including museum admission.