The Tea-Totaler Program

I was surprised by how easy it was to cut out alcohol out of my life. The hard part for me was saying goodbye to the social ritual of cocktails, happy hour, beer thirty, whatever pet name you want to call it. I was convinced that every social opportunity in Manhattan is inextricably linked with boozing and therefore to be avoided, so I holed up at home, lived vicariously through Sex and the City reruns and grieved big-time for my recently departed nightlife.

I complained about it to my friend Rachel, who had been sober for years. She was sympathetic but, I noticed, she was different from me. She seemed better somehow. As she furtively pulled out a plastic baggy of teas from her handbag and brewed her own blend right there in the restaurant, it was obvious Rachel subscribed to a new drug of choice: Tea. And it's not just a drink, but a lifestyle. She showed me the tea strainers and other paraphernalia she carried in her purse and confessed she'd been hanging out after hours at teahouses.

So I followed her lead and developed the teetotaler program: a non-drinker's guide on how to maintain an active nightlife while you wean yourself from the hard stuff. Alcoholics Anonymous it ain't. The program is packed loosely and is based on three principles:

  • The ritual of tea keeps the mind engaged, the anxious hands occupied, and the mouth busy.
  • Tea flavors and varieties, alone or combined, create a chemical experience (a buzz, if you will) that mimic drinking cocktails so closely you'll hardly notice you've quit; and
  • Modern tea houses are so steeped in atmosphere and social opportunity, you'll feel as if you got out, threw back a few, and had yourself a time.
  • The tea houses mentioned here are only a smattering of options and were chosen to demonstrate how and where to exercise the program, not to provide a survey of the best teahouses in Manhattan. The teahouses I'll mention resemble and replace bars and clubs, because I wanted to restore the drama to my far-too-dry nightlife. Teahouses in Manhattan ooze atmosphere, and at times it could drive you to drink. You may want to avoid places that set off old impulses to imbibe. If you feel most at home sipping Lipton tea at a roadside rest area, by all means go there. Just don't tell me about it.

    I hold the same rules for teahouses that I hold for bars. No nationwide chains, of course (Is there anything more depressing than Starbucks on a Friday night?). It's okay to pay a little extra when you buy the good stuff, because you also buy a night on the town. I prefer tea establishments that have a proven respect for the art of tea. I want to feel I'm going for the drink itself, not an afterthought to lunch or afternoon pastry. The formality of high tea is the antithesis of what us drinkers are looking for.

    The Tea Lounge, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is the perfect tea-totaling outing and complies with all of the aforementioned program guidelines. It's swanky. It's the spitting image of a bar or club, and it takes tea seriously. It's obvious the way the teas are lovingly packed in wood boxes under glass display cases that tea dominates the menu. I did spot a few bottles of beer and wine set off to the side as if they were inconsequential.

    The tea-sommeliers are smooth and accommodating, far more like bartenders than overworked and snippy java jockeys. I knew I was dealing with professionals here when I told them I wanted something mood altering and they didn't blink. In a flash, I was on an educated tour of the strong stuff, sniffing leaves and sampling lap sang souchongs.

    Chemically speaking, the Tea Lounge is a good place to start an evening of tea house hopping, hopped up on the caffeinated kick of black tea, such as the Empire Earl Grey and Tibetan Tiger. My personal preference is their greens, because green tea makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I am not sure why, perhaps it's the vaunted healing power of green tea. As I expected, I got a little schizzy after Tea Tasting the black teas, and needed a chamomile chaser. My usual beverages at the Tea Lounge are combinations of their ten different kinds of green teas, my favorite being Moroccan Mint with Gunpowder, straight up, on the rocks.

    When you forego the booze, you also deny yourself a crucial element of addiction that's not necessarily unhealthy: Ritual. The folks at the Tea Lounge serve your tea on a rough wood block with a halved coconut shell on the side (for leaves). My companions were irked by the double whammy of having to carry the wobbly wood blocks across the room and look cool doing it, but I feel the personalized tea tray is reassuring and gives you something to do while you unwind and take in the scene.

    Speaking of scenes, it should be clear by now that I wouldn't head out for a dry night on the town without assurance that the evening would be anything but dry. The Fall Café, across town on Smith Street, is the fast-food approach to mood-enhancing teas, but it also has prime real estate going for it. This exact spot in Carroll Gardens will become noticeably more trendy the moment you finish this sentence. It's like Nolita used to be a few years ago, with low-key boutiques and truly inspired galleries, before it was taken over by Disney or whatever corporation it was that zapped its charm.

    The Fall Café is my second stop of the evening. It's open until 9 pm most nights, so I go there for a quick shot of some medicinal concoction before I hit the door again. The Fall Café is roughed up and grungy, a dead ringer for an East Village bar. They play rock music, which is, of course, perfect for our purposes. The teas here are bagged but there's a wide variety to rev up, calm down, or balance out. Teas like Double Echinacea, Women's Energy, Men's Energy, line the walls like pharmaceuticals in a medicine cabinet. I get St. John's Wort to go (St. John's Wort is a psychological long-term investment, not a quick buzz. I recommend three large cups a day for the rest of your life). I smuggle it in with me to wherever I'm going next. If it's a bar or club, chances are they don't sell O'Douls, not in this drunken city of mine, so I have no qualms about marching by the doorman toting my tea.

    After the event - the rock show, opera, and bowling alley, whatever - I'll head for a nightcap at East Pearl Café on St. Mark's Place in Manhattan. This lounge, open until 2 am on weekends, is a teetotalers' wet dream. Homemade drinks are presented with flourish. The tea with pearl tapioca comes in all combinations of green and black tea. My first time here I had the coconut milk with green tea, a better version of a pina colada. There are also straight green and black teas in fruit flavors (check out the Champagne Grape, for example). Either way, they come out look like futuristic cocktails, mostly because of vivid color and the black tapioca swirling at the bottom.

    At first I was highly dubious about the bubbly, disco-y nature of this place. It reminded me slightly of the 80s and I worried that that in itself would make me crave vodka shots. I was also concerned they were both making a mockery of the institution of tea (by drowning it in milk and fruit flavors) and also losing the buzz factor in so doing. But as I sat there halfway through the first drink, my mouth full of tapioca balls, I fell into a fit of giggles. "Hey, what's in this thing?" I asked the bartendress. She explained the drinks are made with teas from Taiwan, stronger, she said, than other teas. I took her word for it and ordered a couple more rounds. So, you see, it can be done. There's no point to kissing your nightlife goodbye when opportunities abound in the overstuffed couches and the strange brews of your local teahouses. I'm not saying the tea program is some kind of cure. It doesn't have the immediacy of alcohol to falsely anesthetize us to stress and pre-existing chemical imbalances. It takes more ingenuity on your part than sidling up to a bar and dumbing down your senses. It's about the process. It's about flavor. It's about a healthier high. My last words of advice? Stick to the program. It works if you work it.