“Tea is an everyday, ordinary thing,” Elspeth Treadwell told me as she put homemade scones and pastries on a tray. “It shouldn’t be a fuss.” But she made a fuss over Erika, the photographer, and me on a warm June day, seating us at the sturdy wooden table that had recently been shipped from her childhood home in Minnesota. “It warms my heart when people sit here,” she told us, “because it reminds me of the days when my whole family used to sit and eat together.”
Elspeth, we soon learned, is incredibly devoted to her family. A former children’s book editor, she decided to open Podunk in 2002 with her husband, an academic, so they could spend more time with their daughter. Because they did not have much experience, Elspeth explained, they decided to call their tea room “Podunk,” meaning “a small, unimportant place in the backwoods.” That way, her husband said, “it wouldn’t be embarrassing if no one showed up.”
Customers did show up, however, and Podunk has been thriving ever since. Elspeth conquered the art of scone-baking, which had initially intimidated her, and sold her original tea flavors in packets decorated with her daughter’s artwork. Things have been more difficult in recent years, she admitted - her husband passed away in 2014, and their daughter is now in college - but she has continued to keep the family business running.
As we waited for our tea and scones, Erika, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, and I got a chance to look around Podunk. We browsed through the children’s books on the shelves and admired Elspeth’s extensive collection of teapots. She told us later that she did not intend on collecting them: “People just can’t bear to throw teapots away,” she said, “so they give them to me.”
After setting our table with bright, checkered napkins, Elspeth brought us a tray laden with scones, cream, and two pots of tea. As we sipped our tea - I loved the aromatic “black orchid vanilla,” while Erika was partial to the spicy “sage apricot” - Elspeth told us that she had invented both flavors. “Sometimes emergencies turn into accidental discoveries,” she said with a smile.
Though we did not want to ruin Elspeth’s beautifully arranged tray - complete with fresh fruit and a sprig of mint - we could not wait to dig into the homemade scones. The consistency was perfect, and, topped with fresh cream and two flavors of jam, they were the perfect afternoon snack.
On our way out the door, we asked Elspeth about the piano against the wall, and she reminisced about the year she and her husband opened the tea room during the holidays for caroling. She told us that she did not have any regrets about giving up her job in publishing: in spite of the struggles of owning a small business, it seems that she has found her calling. “Everyone daydreams about those properties for rent in Manhattan,” she told us, “but we were the idiots who actually did it.”
Few things are more relaxing than sitting in a cozy cafe, sipping a mug of tea. With art from local artists, Diane and David Green, hanging on the walls, a plethora of delicious herbal smells hanging in the air, and the soothing conversation of the owner, Ilana, Physical Graffitea is the perfect spot to do just that. Ilana told some of us from Manhattan Sideways that she used to own a vintage clothing store, but always wanted to open a tea shop. In 2011, she swapped out her vintage clothing for jars of loose tea and Physical Graffitea was born. The store is named after the Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti and is located in the building featured on that famous cover. In 2012, Ilana and her daughter took a picture with Robert Plant when he came by to check out the store. Ilana explained with a big grin how her daughter called to the customers in the shop, “Come out, Led Zeppelin is here! ”The menus are lovingly made with pressed oolong and lavender flowers. In addition to the teas, there are homemade cookies and kombucha on tap. Ilana has over 200 kinds of tea by the cup or pot, as well as a full online store. While teaching us about the origin and uses of her teas and herbs, she made us a cup of her super strong matcha. We could smell it from our table as she blended the ground green tea powder with soy milk and honey. She explained that there are different kinds of matcha and that she only uses the premium grade. A cup of this strong green tea, which comes both iced and hot, clears the mind and leaves one alert and calm. If matcha gives the brain energy, maca, a Peruvian superfood, gives the body energy. Ilana told us that the bartenders on St. Marks come to her to get matcha with some added maca right before their shifts so that they are ready for the night ahead of them. Ilana has gained her extensive knowledge of teas through constant reading. She explained that herbs quickly lose their medicinal power, and “you can tell that herbs are fresh when they’re more bitter. ” It has to do with the oil that is present on the leaves themselves. She informed us that flowers and leaves dry out in six months and roots and bark in three. All the teas are carefully sourced for flavor and freshness. The chamomile is from Egypt, the lavender from Tibet, and the hibiscus from Mexico. We learned so many interesting facts from Ilana: The Sweet Oblivion tea has been known to wean people off sleeping pills, nettle leaf is good for pregnant women, and Pu-erh is a tea that is purposefully aged, passed down from father to son. There are teas for allergies, hangovers, fertility, pregnancy, menstruation, digestion, and the list goes on and on. Ilana was excited to tell us that doctors have started to refer their patients to her, since they have found the medical teas so effective. Whether for taste, energy, or medicinal purposes, Ilana has clearly demonstrated that she has the knowledge to choose the right tea for the right customer.
How nice to see birch trees, weeping willows and turtles sunning themselves in the pond in this garden of paradise. In El Jardin del Paraiso, a great big willow tree shades this space. While this tree is magnificent on its own, it is highlighted by an octagonal tree house that encircles its trunk. The wooden structure's design was donated by tree house architect Roderick Romero, who resides in the East Village. His work for this 4th street garden, in 2003, was his first community project and we were delighted to see him featured in a July 15, 2012 segment of the CBS Morning Show. We learned that he is known for his tree houses both in the US and abroad including those that he designed for Julianne Moore, Val Klimer, Donna Karan and Sting. Climb a few rungs of the ladder and you will be several feet above the ground, taking in the lush greenery and appreciating the talents of this esteemed architect.
Strolling along 5th Street, I was immediately drawn to a row of old-fashioned light bulbs hanging in the window of a small hair salon. Alexandra, the owner, invited me in while announcing that today, June 3, 2015, was Filament’s first day open! As I admired the salon’s hardwood floors and simple, appealing interior design, Alexandra told me that she and her co-owner, Seiji, had recently decided to leave the nearby hair salon where they both worked. A native Puerto Rican, Alexandra specializes in curly hair, while Seiji, originally from Japan, mostly works with straight hair and extensions. The pairing is perfect, Alexandra explained, because “there’s something for everyone here. ” And while she and Seiji have different styles, they both believe in a natural approach to hairdressing: instead of trying to change their clients’ hair, they embrace and enhance its natural beauty. The salon’s name reflects this philosophy. Alexandra and Seiji spent hours trying to decide what to call their new endeavor, but it did not click until they bought their signature light bulbs. When they saw the glowing filaments inside the shop, Filament Hair Salon was born - a place where "the light inside you shines through the strands of your hair. ”
By the time I arrived at Fish Bar on a Friday afternoon, a few regulars had already settled in. They chatted quietly as I explored the bar, which - true to its name - is decorated with fish and undersea creatures of all kinds. As I checked out Fish Bar’s reasonably priced drinks, which attract a diverse group of young people and locals, I wondered why the owner had decided on a nautical theme… and why there were so many dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. Fortunately, John, the owner, was happy to answer my questions. In the mid-nineties, he said, he frequented a bar called the Castro Lounge, which was unofficially known as “Fish Bar. ” When the owner put the bar on the market, John bought it and made the unofficial name official. Fish Bar opened on January 1st, 2000, and regulars immediately began bringing fish back from vacations to decorate the ocean-blue walls. “It escalated quickly, ” John said with a sigh. That explained Fish Bar’s origins, but not the money on the ceiling. According to John, it is a game invented by the regulars, who have a special technique to get the dollar bills to stick. But he refused to tell me anything else. “I guess you’ll just have to come by and check it out, ” he said, and I assured him that I would visit Fish Bar soon - with a wallet full of dollar bills.
When I first walked into Doggie Dearest, I had no idea that it was one of the oldest businesses on 5th Street. The reception area was decorated with leafy green plants and painted a cheerful shade of “dog’s ear pink, ” and the owner, Evelyn, took a break from grooming to share her story. Now a fixture on 5th, Doggie Dearest started out as a hobby. “I was bartending and working as a personal assistant, ” Evelyn said, “and I decided to take a grooming class. ” She discovered that she had a talent for the work and in 1993, Doggie Dearest was born. Though the business has grown over the years, Evelyn has not hired a large staff. She and her assistant do all of the grooming work, and she prides herself on the individualized care she gives to each pet. While other groomers often keep cats and dogs waiting for hours, Doggie Dearest is structured like a human hair salon, so that each animal gets a personal appointment. Evelyn also describes herself as the “first line of defense” against diseases: she has often alerted pet owners to symptoms they would never have noticed themselves. Between rising rents and her own battle with cancer, it has been difficult for Evelyn to keep the business afloat, but she keeps going, because she loves the work. “I even love the crazy dog people, ” she added, laughing.