The Dreaded Box

Having been back to the US for about two weeks and having been forced to eat out since I’m not spending time at home, I am reminded by how most Americans view tea — they either come in bottles, iced, in bad teabag varieties, such as those Nestle 100% real tea bags, or they come in the Dreaded Box.

The Dreaded Box I’m talking about is, of course, the great wooden thing they bring to you in supposedly nice restaurants.  I think most of you who’ve eaten out in the US have probably seen it before.  They’re made of some sort of dark wood, maybe about 8 times 8 inches, sometimes with some writing on top, other times blank.  Inside is usually lined with some sort of blue velvet thing, and compartmentalized into (usually) 8 sections.  In these 8 sections, of course, are great delights such as Constant Comment, Orange Spice, English Teatime, or other great offerings from (usually) Bigelow or, horror of horrors, Celestial Seasoning (which is the same as Bigelow anyway).   80% of these are not even teas…. tisanes of various sorts with various artificial or less than artificial flavourings involved.  The packaging already looks bad, and the box is such a waste of the wood because, honestly, Bigelow needs to hire a brand manager and redo their image.

Once in a blue moon, you might have teabags from Harney, which is sadly a welcomed sight when given the alternatives.  When a restaurant actually serves loose leaf, it’s such a rare thing that I sometimes almost feel like jumping up and down.  Yes, some of you will tell me that you don’t order tea outside, and you’d rather drink their (often very good) coffee instead of the nasty “tea” they serve.  Others will say I should just bring my own.  But why is it so hard to find decent tea?  I don’t ask for much.  A good Assam or Keemun will do.  Those are pretty easy to find — just source from Peets or whatever, throw in an infuser and a pot, and let the customer do their own thing.  It’s really not that difficult, and is probably a lot less involved to make for a restaurant than a cappuccino.  I sometimes feel it’s rather ridiculous for, say, a great restaurant to serve up such awful tea.  There are sommeliers for wine, so where are the ones for tea?  My cousin is now working to redo a restaurant’s menu and winelist to make sure they go together.  I wonder if they do Bigelow.

Perhaps if we all start to demand better tea, places will take notice.  After all, I don’t think all places served good Italian or other styles of coffee 20 years ago.  Over time, people have asked for better, and when customers vote with their feet, vendors take notice.  Today I went to a hotel where they have, in the room, teas from Peets, and the room has an electric kettle, a pot, and an infuser, so you can make the tea easily in the room.  Nice touch, but this is Portland, where tea is more common than most of America.  Now if only that were standard.


Comments

The Dreaded Box — 8 Comments

  1. People don’t appreciate tea in this country. Hell, people don’t appreciate food in this country, either. They want a salad with tomatoes on it in the dead of winter, even if those tomatoes are going to be pale and gritty and ripened on a truck. People buy their freaking groceries in Walmart!

    That being said (and being the owner of one of the two places in my town you can get a pot of loose-leaf tea), preparing tea in a restaurant would require some special equipment, and I don’t see the demand for it being large enough for most places to outlay space and money to make proper tea (unless you specialize in it, like I do). Teapots with infusers are expensive, and chip and break easily in commercial dishwashers. You also need a water heater (and even the one I have, which is supposed to give me boiling hot water, is probably at closer to 205 degrees)…theoretically, you need several water heaters at different temperatures for the different types of tea (I get around that by adding a bit of cold water to the pot when brewing my greens and whites – not the best solution, but I can’t afford several thousand dollars in new equipment, and I’ve got nowhere to put it, anyway).

    The restaurant industry is extremely hard to profit at. Most restaurants make about 3 cents profit for every dollar they take in. Wine is very profitable…tea, not so much (I happen to serve both).  It’s too bad, but that’s life.

    And I have to say, I appreciate a choice of tisanes as well as teas. I can’t take caffeine after 5 pm, and decaf holds no joy for me, so I’m more likely to order peppermint or chamomile after my dinner.

  2. Yes, some of you will tell me that you don’t order tea outside, and you’d rather drink their (often very good) coffee instead of the nasty “tea” they serve. Others will say I should just bring my own.
    […]
    Perhaps if we all start to demand better tea, places will take notice.

    If we really want them to take notice, I think bringing our own tea and just using the restaurant as a source for (not so) hot water is more effective than asking what kind of teas they have and saying “Oh, well, then I’ll have coffee” on receipt of the bad news. Using your own leaves is so demonstrative! Seriously, I do it often, and I think they notice.

  3. Jess’s point about restaurant profitability, or lack thereof (and as a result realistic choices re: tea, wine, and other food items) is well taken, but:

    There is a point about lackluster tea service in even the finest restaurants that can be generalized. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to a huge of number of hardcore foodies, and a handful of pretty excellent restaurants. When I go into an establishment that is truly high-end the experience is, in perhaps an obvious way, a celebration of only the finest ingredients from start to finish. Fresh local (and seasonal!) greens. Fresh local, grass-fed meats. Fresh local, organic cheese. Etc. From start to finish, the message from the kitchen is: here is something truly exceptional that will transport you, or at the very least pleasure your senses. Ahem. As it were.

    But, I’ve found that even the restaurants that offer as described above – even those joints serve crappy tea. One restaurant that I can think of that is well-known and excellent serves … Mighty Leaf!?

    A few come to mind that actually take it up a notch. The Slanted Door – excellent Vietnamese fusion, celebrity owner, but fame frankly well deserved – serves Imperial Tea Court teas. And Chez Panisse in Berkeley for years has had a reputation for having a tea sommelier on staff. But these are rare. Tea is, like other items, a loss leader in restaurants. And yet, even when the entire package deal – first bite to last sip of dessert wine – is so important to these places, they still blow it with crappy tea. Boggles the mind.

    I also think loose-leaf tea is easier to make than coffee. And my hat goes off to you for serving loose-leaf.

    adrian

    LZ, check your email.

  4. I’d echo Adrian’s comments, and I was mostly talking about higher end restaurants where they’re supposedly serving you the finest from water (some use only bottled water) to coffee (illy’s, etc) and then give you some really low grade tea bag. That’s just…. unacceptable.

    I certainly understand that tea is not going to be a money maker. Although, I do wonder why it would cost a few thousand dollars for the right equipment? Unless you have a huge place, a few dozen pots that are $5 each, plus infuser, should only cost a few hundred. Water can be had by a few zojirushis if you want different temperature, and that is only a few hundred as well. 5L of water in one of those… and 5L makes a lot of tea, no?

    In the Boston area there’s a company that does a lot of food service business by selling loose leaves tea along with descriptions of the teas and the canisters, all at a reasonable price and reasonable quality. Quite a few places in Boston (especially Cambridge MA) use them, and I wish there were more of these sort of services that make better tea more accessible to everybody.

  5. Hello,

    We have a restaurant and I propose tea in place of wine with meals. It’s really interesting for me to work with teas and i hope to create the basis of a specialization “sommelier in teas”. I have to find and import my teas from Asia because you can’t find teas enought good (with acceptables prices) to drink with meals, in Europe (I suppose it’s the same in USA). Others problems: You can’t spent too much time and take lot of place on a table with teapots and others … I’ve take this last two years to find teas, accessories and technics of brewing how can be acceptable with productivity obligations (time/prices), support intensive use (materials), support to stay in water(teas). I suppose it’s not interresting at this time for my colleguas (they prefer to pay for a “sommelier in wine” and a good one it’s difficult to find and very expensive).

    If you have some questions :), I can try to explain (but my english is bad …)

    Anne

  6. In the Boston area there’s a company that does a lot of food service business by selling loose leaves tea along with descriptions of the teas and the canisters, all at a reasonable price and reasonable quality. Quite a few places in Boston (especially Cambridge MA) use them, and I wish there were more of these sort of services that make better tea more accessible to everybody.

    That’s what In Pursuit of Tea does in New York (they aren’t just a consumer web vendor.) We ate at Restaurant Daniel, a very good restaurant that uses IPOT, recently. The second-flush Darjeeling was tasty, and the server really had a clue about tea. Not that this is the norm at New York restaurants, of course…

  7. @lewperin – 

    I’ve been closely following this blog, finding it very informative. There is no such thing as loose tea in Mississippi although I live in Arkansas where there is lots but only at my house and a few of my friends. What do you mean by IPOT? Thanks, Eileen

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