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SF Weekly’s Katy St. Clair Finds a Moment of Peace at Samovar Castro

sfweekly-com_logo_250x150Tea Party Politics at Samovar Tea Lounge

By Katy St. Clair

Sometimes it’s nice to see how the other half lives. And by the other half, I mean those folks who go out and enjoy themselves without imbibing liquor. You know, weirdos. I suppose many of them go to the movies or Starbucks or something. But a segment of the sober population seems to be partaking in this whole “tea lounge” phenomenon.

A tea lounge is like a bar but without the fun, as near as I can tell. No one drinks too many lapsang souchongs and goes home with the busboy, there is no such thing as “green-tea goggles,” and you don’t get a T-shirt for “drinking the wall of pekoe.” However, tea rooms and barrooms do have one thing in common — a busy toilet. I must’ve peed 12 times during my visit to Samovar Tea Lounge on 18th Street.

Tea drinkers, god bless ’em, are a precious sort. They take the time to smell the roses. Then they delicately steep the petals in mountain spring water from Ankara. Local tea drinkers create infusions of all of their favorite things — organics, ethnic diversity, detoxification, sustainability, and zero calories. The real question is: What the hell took these tea houses so long to show up in San Francisco?

Samovar is warm and inviting in a Zen kind of way, just what you would hope and expect from such an establishment. The waiters are mellow and nice, and bend down to meet you at eye level when you’re ordering to better channel the chi.

The tables are all set close to one another to further inspire unity, but also to ensure that I could hear every conversation around me, which was awesome. It was raining outside and I felt quite cozy.

I perused the menu and felt just as lost as I would if I were looking at a wine list. Did I want loose tea or bagged? Black or herbal? And those were just the basics. I could also choose region, zestiness, level of tranquillity, and number of yogi eunuchs used in brewing. Jesus, I just wanted iced tea. I ended up going with a chilled black variety. It came to me in a stout little glass pot on a tray, presented like a sacrament.

I was smack-dab betwixt two tables with barely room for my handbag and newspaper. To my left was a woman in her early 30s with a guy, both twiddling on their laptops. To my right were two retired women, seemingly old friends, sharing a pot and some salad. Their conversation was your general catch-up stuff, with some movie reviews thrown in and comparisons of Christmas lists. Not too juicy.

The couple on my left, though, was actually having a conversation about alcohol. I had intended on seeing how nondrinkers get their mojo workin’, and here were two right next to me. Neither of them drank, and they were kvetching about their lonely existences as teetotalers.
“Christmas parties are the worst,” the gal said. “If you don’t have a drink in your hand, everyone looks at you like you’re some sort of alien life form.”

“Yep,” the guy said. “I can take, like, a sip of champagne, but then I just carry the glass around. I don’t want to deal with that mad push to get fucked up.”
The conversation went down this path for a while, and then they invariably veered into territory that generally starts to piss me off. They began the litany of “Why do some people drink so much? I don’t need to drink that much.”

I wanted to interrupt with a big ol’ “Duuuhhhhh. Some people are alcoholics.” But I sat on my hands and just listened.

“I can get having a beer here and there, but c’mon,” she continued.

Why do such people annoy me? I suppose it’s the same as people who are born naturally thin and talk about how their body is a gift and they don’t understand how some people can just “let themselves go.”

“Yes,” her partner agreed. “My body is a temple.” (Reader, I can’t make this shit up!) “I don’t want to put poisons in it.” He sipped his tea. I almost barfed. Unfortunately, they started to notice my undue attention and began to shoot me “Excuse us?” looks. I smiled politely.

So, these two have to deal with people being judgmental about what drinks they do or do not put in their bodies, but they, in turn, judge people who put things in their bodies they don’t approve of, and I was judging them for that. What’s with all the judgment? Strange. Why is it such a big deal which liquids people want to ingest?

As the Samovar menu says, “Practice peace” and “Drink tea.” Well, peaceful is in the cup of the beholder, apparently. There are douchebags who drink tea, and douchebags who drink rye whiskey. Beverages are mere symptoms of far deeper problems.

Then there are two people who just want to enjoy a hot pot of English Breakfast and chat, like the women on my right.

A baby was crawling around the lounge, going up to tables with a big gummy smile. His mom was shadowing him, but he was on his own journey with his own agenda. He was rad. I finished my refreshment and began the long layering process of sweater, coat, and scarf. The uppity nondrinkers had moved on to other topics — getting a condo in Potrero Hill. I did, in fact, feel a bit peaceful, so I shut off my internal critic. Besides, who am I to judge? I pulled my hat down over my eyes and waddled out into the street, a woolen cocoon.

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