"Growing up close to Asia always gave me a sense of their traditions, especially the importance of tea in China," Elina Medvedeva told me when I visited her brand new tea salon in 2017. Originally from Russia, Elina came to New York in 2004, and today feels that "For me, this is home now."
Located one flight up, Floating Mountain is a hidden oasis on West 72nd Street. Blissfully tranquil, it is a perfect place to hide from the real world for either a few minutes or several hours - whatever suits a guest on any given day - and sip on a pot of freshly made tea.
While walking the side streets of Manhattan for the past several years, I have always found it fascinating to hear the stories of people who once worked in the financial world but left it behind to purse their true passion. Elina's story fits right in with so many others. She spent twenty years in Moscow as a high executive in corporate sales, but she told me that she never had the feeling that she was doing "something good for society." She continuously questioned, "Why am I here?" She did not enjoy the politics going on within the corporate world, and when she moved to New York, she initially decided not to re-enter the job market. She came with her husband and began contemplating her next move. She immersed herself in yoga and stayed with it for the next ten years.
Once Elina received her green card, she ended up back in a corporate position, but felt it was always a "contradiction." Practicing yoga in the morning and then sitting in front of a computer did not make sense to her. She was constantly feeling the "urgency and the stress. It was always in my heart to be searching for what I should do next."
In 2016, Elina was practicing yoga on 72nd Street when she noticed that the tailor across the hall had vacated his space. Peeking inside, she saw the arches above the windows and the light shining in and said, "Oh my goodness, I have to have this." Within one week she signed a lease. "Without making two plus two, I then began thinking of what I was going to do." She pondered how her concept could complement yoga and came up with the Tea House. "It made perfect sense, as Buddhism, Zen, and Yoga all flow together through tea."
Reflecting, Elina told me that tea had been a part of her life since she was a little girl. Her dad would have a cup every afternoon. So the more she considered the idea, the more it seemed that tea was the way to go. "We are always running somewhere - to be on time for something. There's no space in our lives to pause, sit, and reflect. Tea is a good excuse to do this."
Immediately after making her decision to turn her precious space into a tea salon, Elina began studying the layers of the 5000-year-old history of tea in China. She traveled to the country and became fascinated with every aspect of tea's history. "No one has any idea how much tea is in China." I learned that 97% or so of the leaves never even leave the country. "China is the mother of the tea - the depth behind the philosophy of the tea is mind boggling." Elina knew that she wanted to incorporate meditation into her space and to demonstrate how tea has been used in ceremonies throughout the centuries. None of her tea is mass produced - each tea leaf is handmade with love by the farmers in China. According to Elina, "This is their life - it is filled with generations of passion for tea."
"Everything came together for me in China," Elina announced. She brought Roza Gazarian, a graphic designer who moved to the States from Armenia in 2004, onto her team. Roza also worked in the corporate world. Although Roza described her experiences as positive, she was ready to leave the pressure of a daily job. Upon her return from a year of travel around the world, during which she practiced Buddhism, Roza was asked by Elina to design the space for her new venture. During their conversation, Elina discovered that Roza had also always wanted a tea house. The two seem to have found perfect harmony in their relationship - Rosa is the creative force behind Floating Mountain, while Elina is all about the tea and the finances.
The two have created an idyllic space - simple but beautiful with a white oak counter, tatami mats, copper lighting, soft music playing in the background, and a few shelves dedicated to delicate, petite pieces of pottery. At Floating Mountain, guests are welcomed in, asked to remove their shoes, and then invited to take a seat at either the counter or on the floor. People are encouraged to "smell the tea, taste it, and then relax with it." Elina and Roza find that many guests come by for one cup and then end up spending hours in the space. "Tea can get into your soul and soothe you," Elina stated with certainty. The goal of Floating Mountain is to allow people to feel that they are in a different environment from anything else they have experienced. The two women hope that everyone will be able to enjoy the moments they spend in the tea house while relaxing and contemplating life.
Sweet aromas lure one into this tiny coffee and tea shop on west 70th. Originally founded in 1976 across the street, the Sensuous Bean moved to its current location in 1990 and is now co-owned by partners in life and in business, Lucretia La Mora and Tom Wilson. "People follow their noses, " explained Tom of the cafe's success. And even horses cannot resist - he recalled one peeking its head through the door as an officer grabbed a cup. "We blend to taste, " Tom added. Each day, beans are grinded on site and brewed in three roasters for a hot cup. And although small, the place is stocked with a large selection of coffees and teas sourced from a variety of regions. The chai spice tea comes from India and the Mexican Vienna brew from Zimbabwe. The assortment of flavorful tisanes includes intriguing names like red velvet cupcake or bella coola lemon lime.
Across the park and nine streets north from the 64th Street location, Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was still visibly excited to be sitting down to breakfast at Alice's Tea Cup. Though she loves each of the teahouse's three "chapters, " the 73rd Street cafe is the original - and the first one she visited as a young teen. She shared stories with me of coming here and marveling at the tiered Afternoon Teas that would arrive at her table, filled with scones, finger sandwiches and sweets. She questioned whether or not she might have been a bit too old at fifteen to celebrate her birthday here and then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around New York blowing sparkle-filled bubbles, dressed in a pair of shimmering fairy wings acquired from the tea shop's front room, which is filled with whimsical retail items. On our visit to Alice's, Olivia, now a mature twenty-five, had her usual - a pumpkin scone with a personal pot of tea - while Tom, our photographer, ordered "the biggest coffee" they had. It arrived in a mug "the size of Tom's face. " Olivia pointed out all the Alice in Wonderland themed decorations that she remembered from previous visits, including a quote from the character of the Duchess written in fun purple font along the walls and an angry painting of the red queen in the bathroom, telling employees to wash their hands or "Off with your head! " Her favorite little decorative touch, however, was on the swinging door into the kitchen. There is a giant keyhole window, suggesting that maybe, like Alice, the diners had shrunk to the size of mice, and would be swept away into a magical land, scones and teacups in hand.
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure. Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father. Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different, " Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window. " He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock. "Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here. "It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right. " He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week. " Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me. "
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs. ” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers. Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student. I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand. Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market. ” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged. ” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first. ”
With its prime 72nd Street location, I have passed by Malachy's Donegal Inn almost daily, but had never stepped inside. I was always waiting for the day when I would be working on this street, so that I could go in with the Manhattan Sideways team and have a good time. And that is exactly what happened. "Looks can be deceiving, believe me, " owner Bill Raftery immediately said when we popped in during the lunch hour in the middle of the week. He continued to speak lovingly and confidently of his pub, which has been in business since 1989. "This bar has the best pub food of any like it in the area, " Bill stated. Looking around, we were pleased to find the old wooden bar packed from end to end. According to Bill, most of his lunch customers are crew guys from local theaters like The Beacon and Lincoln Center, and "they are loyal. " Engaging in conversation with more than a dozen men and women, we learned a lot about Bill, and the warm environment that he has built. As Bill continued to serve people from behind the bar, he spoke of how much the neighborhood has changed since he purchased Malachy's. On Saint Patrick's Day, the area used to be blanketed in green bar-goers. "You could not move in this neighborhood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There's nothing like seeing them blow up those balloons. " Hikes in parking and travel costs have drastically reduced business on both of those days, he lamented. Still, he brightened up when pointing to the crowded bar, and said how his regulars are certainly devoted customers. Quite busy, he told us to stop by for a drink sometime soon, and headed into the kitchen.