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American Tea Room opens a swank shop downtown, with tea vats, booze and butter tea

American Tea Room opens a swank shop downtown, with tea vats, booze and butter tea
Butter tea sitson the patio at the new American Tea Room in the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles. (Amy Scattergood / Los Angeles Times)

While it's becoming very easy to find terrific new coffee shops in Los Angeles, the same cannot be said for tea houses.

David Barenholtz of American Tea Room means to change this, one tea shop at a time. His second shop opens Thursday in the southern quadrant of the Arts District. And this is not your grandmother's tea shop.

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American Tea Room's DTLA shop is enormous, a lofty building that looks kind of like a warehouse because it was a warehouse. On Santa Fe Avenue about a hundred yards south of Bestia, the new location combines shelves filled with hundreds of different teas to buy; a counter with a row of BKON craft tea brewers to get tea made on site; pastries, food and chocolates (all made with tea) from Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections; and even tea-based cocktails (the shop has a full liquor license).

The vast space has a front patio, with couches, a green wall and fire pits. Walk up the stairs from that patio and you'll find an interactive Tea Zone, with a computer screen that tells you all about the various teas, and rows of tea-filled test tubes. They have bar codes to match to the screen; the idea is that you open them and smell the tea leaves inside. If you thought the Intelligentsia in Venice looked more like an upscale meth lab than a coffeehouse when it opened, then you'll love this place.

In the back of the cavernous space, there are temperature-controlled tea vats behind color-coded doors (green door, green tea, etc.), a kitchen for Gordon and her staff, a tea lab, an office and space for the company's online distribution operation. The bathrooms have vintage tea posters; the place looks more like a Finnish sauna than a tea business.

Barenholtz says that when he was looking for a second location, he wanted a warehouse, "only I wanted a warehouse where I could eat lunch." In the beginning, he says, "I was afraid; I was at the edge of nowhere. Then the neighborhood started to change."

This section of the Arts District is now booming — there's Bestia, Church & State and Factory Kitchen (where Barenholtz now eats lunch), also Stumptown, the recently opened Petty Cash, and Matt Molina's new bar, which opens Friday.

For now, you can get tea — lots of it — to take with you, as well as tea pots and glassware (including a nifty glass cup that looks like the top of a Chemex). There's an extensive tea and tea-cocktail menu, as well as Himalayan Butter tea, which is kind of like Bulletproof coffee, but actually good — a combination of Nepalese black tea, oolong and pu-er teas, butter, salt, milk and honey, all emulsified in a French press pot.

And to eat with all that tea, there are pastries from Valerie Confection. In the next month, more of Gordon's tea-infused food will roll out, including Ceylon panna cotta, Jasmine-poached shrimp and Lapsang Souchong-braised short ribs on Texas toast.

And yes, you can order coffee at American Tea Room too — consider the place nondenominational. Don't expect a shiny La Marzocca next to those BKON brewers, though. The Verve coffee is kept and made in the kitchen because you want the aroma of tea in a teahouse, not coffee.

For now, the new downtown location is the only one open — the Beverly Hills tea shop, which opened in 2003, is closed for renovation. A third shop will open in Orange County's Fashion Island in November.

American Tea Room, 909 S. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles, americantearoom.com.

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