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There’s no ice at Calabash Tea & Tonic, a new tearoom and vegan cafe that opened last week in Shaw. But that’s simply an effort not to take up valuable real estate in your glass. Instead, chilled tea “cocktails,” chai, kombucha on tap, and tasting vinegars turn out to be refreshing complements to vegetable samosas and Jamaican jerk chili.
Don’t come here expecting a full meal. The sparse selection of snacks ($2.50 to $6.50) keeps your attention on the (non-alcoholic) drinks at the bar and the 50 loose leaf teas being sold on shelves behind it.
“Whatever is burdening you, I have a tea,” promises owner Sunyatta Amen, a fifth-generation herbalist who also operates SiTea in Takoma Park. She puts her academic background in biology to use educating people about the drinks and picking out the “cure” to what ails them.
Amen’s there’s-a-tea-for-everything motto was inherited from her family. For instance, Love Potion #10—a blend of black Assam tea, Jamaican ginger, cinnamon, Grenadian nutmeg, and other spices—is her grandma’s “aphroteasiac” recipe that claims to put you in the mood. Her Jamaican, Cuban, and Moroccan roots are reflected not only in her recipes, but also in the lounge with its colorful rugs and furnishings.
The all-vegan food selection includes salads and fresh pastries. The same teas and almond-milk chais ($3.40) are always available, but on-tap kombucha flavors rotate regularly (like rosemary lemon or a potent double ginger). Beginning in mid-May, there will also be pour-overs of organic Haitian coffee which, like all of the coffee, tea, and spices here, is directly imported and fair trade. Amen frequently travels to the families she sources from.
Having grown up working in (and learning from) her father’s own tea shop and herbal supply house in Harlem, Amen was inspired by the positive impact that such a place had on people.
“The art of having an apothecary that you can go and talk to is lost, but I think people really need that,” she says. And so whether you’re suffering from a headache, a heartache, or it’s just too hot out, chances are that Amen has a drink for you.
While Calabash is aimed at restoring the tradition of neighborhood apothecaries, it’s doing so in a contemporary way. The tea room’s name is steeped in tradition—a calabash is a gourd that for centuries people in India, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and South America have dried and used as a vessel for medicine or tea—yet it appears alongside a modern, cartoonish depiction of Sunyatta on the front window. And although you might think you’ve stepped from 7th Street NW into a living room in old-world Marrakesh, you’ll find free wifi and outlets to charge your phone or computer.
At night, the lights dim, bar stools come out, and the whole place transitions to what Amen calls its “sexier” look.
“It’s great to have bars but I also think it’s great to offer an alternative,” she says. “We take that great cocktail type of taste and strip it back to its original, medicinal value.”
Calabash Tea & Tonic, 1847 7th St. NW; (202) 525-5386; facebook.com/calabashtea
Photo by Elizabeth Escobar