Tea Time

As the state’s only tea bar, Wilmington’s Levitea has joined a nationwide trend. In a little more than a year, it’s become a gathering place for a broad cross-section of customers.

Like any veteran bartender, Tynisha Lomax is accomplished in behind-the-counter skills: she engages in natural, witty banter with customers, listens to barstool woes, and knows the exact pour an indecisive patron needs.

But there’s one big difference—instead of doling out shots, Lomax pours pots of tea into white mugs at her tea bar, Levitea, at 9th and Tatnall in Wilmington. While waiting for customers’ tea to brew, she often treats them to “smellabrations” by opening one of her cans of loose leaf teas and waving the tin lid, sending the scents—bergamot, pumpkin chai, Earl Grey lavender, peach oolong, sweet chocolate orange, pu-erh—wafting toward customers.

Lomax is currently the only self-proclaimed loose leaf modern American tea bar proprietor in Delaware. But that may not be for long. Thousands of tea shops are popping up nationwide, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. Artisan loose leaf tea establishments—Tea Bar in Portland, Ore., Samovar Tea Bar in San Francisco, Chalait in New York City—are being looked to in the wake of third-wave coffee trends, according to Bon Appetit Magazine. Thanks to Lomax, Wilmington joined the movement a little more than a year ago.

Brightly lit with minimalist décor, Levitea eschews the Victorian look that might be expected in such an establishment. Lomax has carefully avoided traditional British or Asian tea room themes, explaining that she wanted to go in an alternative direction when she opened the shop in November 2014. As a result, Levitea gives off an artistic, laidback vibe.

“I wanted to do tea in a more casual way,” Lomax explains. “It’s what I call an American tea shop. I think America doesn’t really have a tea culture as a whole, but maybe that can change.”

Many customers stop by to sip tea with a book in hand, or to grab lunch on their work breaks. (Photo by Matt Urban)
Many customers stop by to sip tea with a book in hand, or to grab lunch on their work breaks. (Photo by Matt Urban)

Accolades are quickly building for the establishment. Last year, Levitea won a “Best of Delaware” award from Delaware Today, and the Green Room at the Hotel du Pont features a variety of its teas each month. Soon, the shop will offer teas to-go by the ounce, and an online store will be up and running, along with a blog. And this summer, Lomax promises bubble tea.

A Wilmington native and Tatnall School graduate (class of ’94), Lomax says customers complain that they don’t want to leave the shop to go back to work after a nice tea or lunch break (food is provided by Yummy Tummy, a Wilmington purveyor of high-end sandwiches, salad and fruit salad).

But that wasn’t always the case. At first, people told her she’d never make it.
“Who wants a tea shop?” she remembers people asking.

“So I had to think, ‘What would be the best way to introduce people to tea?’ We’re American, we don’t want fine china every time we go out, but we don’t want a plastic cup either,” Lomax says.

So she decided to give her shop a lighthearted, informal atmosphere without aiming for a specific demographic. Her efforts seem to have paid off—after the community’s initial uncertainty. The shop is now visited by customers ranging from local regulars to area politicians.

“I think the atmosphere brings people in,” Lomax says. “If they come here once, they’ll come again. It’s a place where people really get together—old, young, rich, poor, different ages and genders.”

She says that such diversity is an important platform for her.

“This is a tea shop. I don’t want to be specific. I think that’s what this city is missing, the diversity. People tell me you’re never going to diversify Wilmington, but every effort matters.”

Lomax eventually wants to add a window bar at the front of the shop. But otherwise, everything had already been renovated, ironically by the prior owner, who had opened a tearoom for a few months before closing because he and his wife were expecting their first baby in 2014.

Lomax had her eye on the space for a while even before the tearoom existed, while she worked as a web content coordinator for a national non-profit based in Delaware. Her passion for tea had been growing as she studied the benefits, properties and histories of tea, hoping to one day open a shop. Around the time that the tearoom became available Lomax was laid off from her job, prompting her to take the plunge and lease the space despite not having a business background.

“There’s something about tea that just makes you take a moment. Take it in. It’s like wine. You want to smell it. You become a tea sommelier.”

Levitea has become a destination for the creative community. Artists are invited to share their work at the tea bar, whether it’s artwork on the walls, live concerts or comedy nights. The space is also available for gatherings like birthday parties. A vegan group even comes in to do food demonstrations. Additionally, Lomax hosts a few events a month—Rawcoustic, an acoustic happy hour every other Wednesday, and Levitea Lounge, a late-night artsy open mic every other Thursday.

“We drink tea and eat food and laugh a lot,” says Lomax. “I really open it up to the community—it’s all about ‘What do you guys want, who wants to do what here?’”

Hours are Tuesdays – Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Visit leviteawilmington.com for more.