The Castro: Samovar Tea Lounge

February 27, 2014
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By Jessica Goldman Foung - Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton

The corner of 18th and Sanchez was once home to an Internet café where customers plugged in and zoned out, or grabbed a cup of joe and hurried off. But when Jesse Jacobs took over, he one-eightied the coffee shop into a tea lounge, replacing jolts of energy with quiet pauses. “It was a statement about slowing down,” he says. “It was a testament to changing times.”

Amongst the pillowed benches and billowy interior, Samovar invites customers to steep, sniff and savor–actions which, Jacobs says, require patience but can bring about great calm. This pace, however, didn’t initially jibe with the community. “People were completely resistant to the idea,” he says. And while searching for a loan–Jacobs says he applied at 72 banks–for one reason or another, everyone turned him down.

On try number 72, though, Jacobs paused and poured the loan officer a cup of his Maiden’s Ecstasy Pu-erh tea. “Suddenly, he got the concept and I got my loan.” Customer by customer, Jacobs repeated the routine, serving tea in authentic ways. “People started realizing that they could go to the spa for $150,” he says. “Or they could sit and pay six bucks for a chai. It’s faster and cheaper, and the end result is the same.”

Today, Jacobs is delighted by the lounge’s popularity, but even more thrilled by the demographic of patrons it attracts. On any given day, he will see an old Chinese grandmother finding comfort in a familiar brew tea, sitting alongside a techy guy sipping the chai, next to the guy with the beard and tattoos drinking an English breakfast. It may no longer be an Internet cafe, but at 18th and Sanchez, all types are embracing tea to plug in to each other or zone out to their own thoughts. “Tea creates space to connect, and really focus,” he says. “And people are now willing to slow down.”

Neighborhood Picks:

“Rossi’s Deli near Market is old school,” he says, “and has an awesome turkey sandwich.”

The Neighborhood Needs:

Even though Jacobs pretty much keeps a vegetarian diet, one burger breaks him down. “Serpentine is one of the few places I’ll eat meat. It’s about the details and the homemade pickles. That’s what makes it special.”

Hop on MUNI:

For breakfast, Jesse hits Trouble Coffee and for dinner, his secret spot is Kappou Gomi in the Richmond. “The menu has flavors like you’ve never tasted and it’s very affordable.”

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