While for many people, a stop off at the local coffee shop constitutes little more than a daily habit, across different societies and times, the experience of drinking coffee or tea has been intricately tied up with a myriad of rituals, cultural customs, and history. With its curated selection of rare coffee beans, tea leaves, and herbal concoctions, Santa Monica’s Funnel Mill celebrates the fact that a cup of coffee or tea can be just as much about form as it is about function.
Despite being in business for many years, the Westside coffee and tea house has garnered a little extra buzz more recently thanks to nods from a number of Hollywood A-listers. As a writer and serial café-hopper, I am always on the lookout for my next favorite spot, and once I heard about the Funnel Mill, I had a feeling it was about to take a place at the top of my list. I recruited a friend of mine to join me on a rainy Friday afternoon that seemed to be absolutely meant for whiling away a few hours with a warm beverage and some quaint ambiance.
We arrived to find a charmingly simple, but cozy little shop filled with a handful of tables and a couple of couches along with a substantial service bar. The menu was extensive and could easily be studied for hours, but after a little browsing my friend and I had narrowed down our options. She chose a premium Oolong tea from the Nantou province of Taiwan called Jade High Mountain, while I debated between a Gen Mai Cha green from the Uji province of Japan and an herbal infusion made from the flowers of the Osmanthus plant, which is not very well known amongst Western cultures, but is native to Asia and touted for having a variety of healing properties. The woman behind the counter helped me make my choice by bringing a large glass jar full of the intoxicatingly fragrant golden blossoms over to me. My friend selected a vegan oatmeal raisin cookie and I had no choice but to respond to the siren’s call of a dark, chocolaty morsel called a Raspberry Noir that also happened to be vegan.
Our server informed us that we were welcome to sit anywhere that we could find a pair of open seats as all of the tables in the house are communal, so we found our way over to a section of couch near the front windows where we could enjoy the dreary weather from our little haven of warmth. Shortly after we sat down, a woman began to bring over our selections in a number of trips, first our plated pastries, then trays with a variety of vessels meant to create the most exquisite tea-time experience. She instructed each of us on the different steeping practices for our chosen teas. Mine was relatively simple and involved pouring hot water from a glass kettle in a circular motion in order to evenly saturate the Osmanthus flowers heaped loosely in a soft mesh sieve perched upon a glass receptacle. The Jade High Mountain green tea required a little more preparation and our server showed us how to pour the hot water from the earthenware kettle to first warm the tea cup, tiny steeping pot, and yet another earthenware vessel with a strainer across the top into which the steeped tea would be poured before being served into the tea cup.
The great care given to the preparation of these delicate teas encourages patrons to slow down and truly revel in the experience. As we nibbled on our baked goods that we agreed were almost too good to believe they were free of the non-vegan ingredients that usually account for such sinful deliciousness, we sipped our teas and explored the various notes that each one presented on the palate, crisp, herbaceous florals for the Jasmine High Mountain and creamy, surprisingly lighter florals for the Osmanthus. In no rush to leave the café’s cocoon of tranquility where texting is allowed, but cell phone conversations are not, we sank into the soft, leathery couch, chatted a few hours away, and sipped our aromatic teas, being sure to savor the sensual pleasures of every last drop.