For many, the mention of any sort of Asian tea ritual may bring to mind a quiet spectacle of flowing silk robes and intricate ceremony. But since the Taiwan-originating bubble tea phenomenon hit North American, you might be as likely to think of young adults with punked-out hair and hooked-up laptops, bonding over brightly coloured beverages studded with tiny balls of starchy tapioca. (Thus the “bubble” appellation. Who’d have guessed that tapioca, of all things, would ever be viewed as a desirable edible, let alone cool?)
Gaining in popularity since the ’90s, bubble tea has moved well beyond Asian borders to invade shopping malls and plazas throughout Canada and the U.S. And now it’s poised for greater respectability, thanks to the owners of Go For Tea and their sophisticated new spot.
Jennifer Liu and Katy Kuo’s first outlet, in Markham, just north of Toronto, features the achingly bright lighting and cheek-by-jowl bar seating that’s pretty much standard in bubble tea joints. However, their newly built second outlet in Scarborough, slightly east of the city, has achieved a far loftier ambition.
Recognizing that their original teenaged clientele is now older, the owners wanted to offer a suitably grown-up environ in which customers can sip, chat and maybe take a little nosh. So they hired 2pi R Design, itself a relatively young Toronto design firm — headed up by Steen Lin, who spent last spring and summer prepping the tea house for its grand opening.
“The clients wanted Go For Tea to convey a whole new experience from what customers are used to,” Lin says. “It’s located in a very typical plaza, like every other one in Scarborough, but this was to be the unexpected.”
2pi R Design’s take on the clients’ request was to create a theatrical interior — highly theatrical in the literal sense, given the space’s 26-foot-high ceiling — contrasted by cozy and intimately lit banquette tables.
“We really wanted to stress the verticality of the space without letting it overwhelm the human element,” says Lin, unconsciously emphasizing her point as she leans back against the dark grey fabric of a banquette, cradling her five-month-old daughter, Ellyn.
The main dining area, where we are sitting, has been carefully designed to give the illusion that every seat “is almost an individual little niche, pocketed into an overall dimmed space.” Though the restaurant’s exterior is clad in glass, charcoal fabric blinds cut the outside light to a minimum, so that even in broad daylight one feels an otherworldly twilight has descended. Each dark marble table is lit by its own overhead circular halogen spot, while, in a vertical balancing act, halogens hidden behind banquettes wash softly coloured light up the slabs of textured Gobi plaster that form the four surrounding interior walls.
To hide overhead mechanicals as well as offer some spatial relief, the ceiling is dropped here and there, in stages of 22 or 23 feet. Interestingly, every dropped piece creates its own separate plane, intersecting but never touching another. Further horizontal counterweight comes from the room’s squared central dining area, built from broad planks of distressed oak, which rises a full three feet up from the main, grey-shaded concrete floor.
Although literally centre stage (which adds to the dramatic intent behind the room’s design), the 20-odd diners here are partially curtained off from the other 130 people the room can seat by framed translucent banners, pastel florals silk-screened by Toronto’s Moss & Lam studio. The rising rectangularity of these forces the eye upwards, to a mass of pendant Edison lightbulbs, their filaments shining like stars in the gloaming. Even higher, mahogany-clad beams dimly join each other in a crosswise pattern, echoing the four veneered pillars that rise to meet them in support.
“We wanted to anchor the space, and to give it an air of mystery,” Lin says, pointing out that even the bubble tea bar off to one side is shrouded from the patrons’ view by a high counter wall of blond-streaked Cippoline marble, just as the five semi-private VIP dining areas around the back are hidden by tall partitions. “Visual privacy was a key point to keep in mind when the space was planned.”
The intriguingly lit central stage at once commands the eye and cleverly sections off the lower seating area, tricking the observer into seeing less where there is more. Lin describes the look as “uncluttered spaciousness, like a maze where one can sense the presence of other people without really seeing them.”
Optical illusion is present too in the main entrance’s serried ranks of glassless, floor-to-ceiling wooden “windows,” which become at once part art installation, part magazine rack (filled with trendy publications), part practical screen of the uninspiring parking lot view beyond.
Finally, fittingly, one discovers the traditional touches underlying the room’s spectacular contemporary surfaces. The crossed wooden beams overhead, for instance — a sketched-in reference to ancient Chinese carved wooden ceilings. The Zen-like, almost calligraphic silk banners. The inherent harmony of four pillars surrounding the four-sided stage. The Gobi walls, a few hand-drawn lines offering a minimalist take on mah-jongg’s four prevailing winds.
The wind sure appears to be in the right quarter for 2pi R’s take on the nouveau tea house. For bubble tea and design connoisseurs alike, Scarborough’s Go For Tea is definitely the go-to place. CI