Throw out your preconceived notions and experience modern Persian cafe culture at Safa Persian Teahouse.
By Leksey Maltzman
Photography by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
When you hear the words “Persian teahouse,” what images come to mind? You probably imagine rich and colorful décor, dim lighting, and an older crowd. However, when you walk into Safa Persian Teahouse at 4165 Main Street, you are greeted by a well-lit, modern space with young customers studying and chatting. In addition to the fresh design, you still get the sense of Iranian culture in the teahouse with thoughtful interior touches such as Persian rugs, a map of Tehran, and hints of brass in the space — transporting you to the modern and trendy teahouse culture you would find in Tehran, Iran today.
Amin Shirazi, whose parents previously owned and operated Persian restaurant, Ali Baba, in the same location, is the one behind the new teahouse concept and interior decorating. After watching his parents try to succeed in the restaurant industry with strictly Persian food, he decided he wanted to change the concept to welcome the people of Manayunk to Persian culture without stepping too far out of their comfort zone.
“Persian food and pastries have always been something I thought had a lot of potential,” Amin shared, “It just needed to be done in the correct way to make it approachable and not overwhelming.”
That’s how he decided a teahouse would be the perfect way to introduce a key aspect of Persian culture to Manayunk, all while keeping the concept and food menu simple. In addition to Persian teas, Safa’s extensive menu features tea blends from around the world.
“The idea is you can come in and get any flavor of tea because most people think of teas as just black or green tea,” Amin said. “But we have so many different flavors — people can come in and try something new that they wouldn’t expect from a tea.”
The traditional teas like black, green, and chamomile teas aren’t on Safa’s regular menu, but they still keep them on-hand for customers who aren’t feeling so adventurous.
Safa has 24 teas on the menu in addition to the 10 traditional teas they keep on hand. Before adding a tea to the menu, Amin does his own taste test and has his friends and family try them out, too.
“Not all the teas are to my taste,” Amin explained, “but when I’m tasting them, I have to put myself in the customer’s shoes to see if it’s a high-quality tea someone else will enjoy.”
Amin also shared where he gets his tea blends.
“We get most of our teas from our distributor in Los Angeles, where each blend is made to order,” Amin said. “We get some of our teas imported from Iran and we also work with a couple distributors to make our own blends.”
The Zafaran and Persian Rose teas are two of Safa’s custom-made teas. They source each ingredient such as Spanish saffron, rose buds, rose petals, and cardamom, which are the three main ingredients in their Zafaron tea. They do trials and taste tests until they are satisfied with the flavor profile before it gets added to the menu. You can also purchase Safa brand tea blends to make at home.
Amin is very happy with how their Safa brand teas have been received by their customers.
“It seems to be working because the rose is our most popular tea by far,” he shared.
To keep his customers satisfied, Amin takes feedback into account, especially when it comes to the tea menu.
“I think our tea menu is what’s changed the most since we’ve opened,” he said. “People come in and ask for a specific tea and if we don’t have it, we will add it to our menu.”
The food menu is kept clean and simple to keep the emphasis on the teas.
“We wanted to keep it short and focused because we are not a restaurant,” Amin explained. “Our permanent menu consists of two wraps, a hummus, and Dolmeh, which is rice wrapped in grape leaves.”
Their most popular menu item is their Persian Wrap, which is made with chicken and potato cakes — known as kotlets in Iran — and your choice of sauce.
“We get people who come by a couple times a week just for that wrap,” Amin said.
In addition to their permanent menu, Safa offers four to five specials at a time to mix it up and introduce different Persian dishes to their customers.
To gain more exposure and to try something different, Safa has hosted a few events geared toward exposing their customers to Persian culture. Some of the events included Persian fortunetelling — also known as Hafez — Kabab specials, and even a full four-course Persian dinner.
“When you go to a Persian restaurant, you have 30 to 40 different items on the menu that you’ve probably never heard of,” Amin explained. “By doing a four-course meal, we can curate it so you can taste multiple dishes, but you’re not overwhelmed by a huge menu.”
It’s not just the teas and food that have customers coming back for more; it’s also the atmosphere of the teahouse.
“It might be unique for Manayunk, but if you walk into a high-end tea houses in Iran, this is what it will look like,” Amin said. “You can still see traces of the Persian influence, but they will look very modern.”
To keep the space on the quieter side, Amin made the decision to give up some central table real estate to balance the maximum volume of the café and keep the vibe calm, but also comfortable and welcoming.
Even though Safa Persian Teahouse has only been open since July 2018, Amin has plans for more events, delivery options, expanding their food menu, and online sales for their Safa brand teas.
“What we strive to be is somewhere that is known for being more low-key,” said Amin. “It’s more for someone who wants to come to relax and study.”