In Iran, tea is life. All day. Every day. It should be tâzeh dam (freshly brewed), lab riz (filled to the brim), lab suz (hot [enough to burn your lips]), and lab duz (lip-smacking). In its most classy form, it’s served in clear estekân-e kamar bârik (“thin-waisted” glasses), and like Goldilocks’s soup, it’s not too strong, not too weak, but juuust right. Enter the tiniest teahouse in Tehran, where the tea ticks off all the requirements, and the atmosphere will charm the pants right off you. Oh, and be prepared to say cheese.
I had heard about the mythical, century-old teahouse hidden somewhere along the twisty labyrinth in the Grand Bazaar. Only 2-meters wide, it was supposedly Tehran’s smallest teahouse. I told another ex-pat friend about it, and it piqued his interest. So together, we were on a mission, but we weren’t prepared for the haft khâne Rostam we’d have to pass through to find it.
On a hunt for the tiniest teahouse in Tehran
As we stand at the courtyard entry path, staring down into the chaotic sea of people we’ll have to walk through, the bazaar games begin.
“Khânum (Miss), are you looking for rugs? Come see my store.”
“I’m not looking for rugs. Can you tell me where Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse is?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Khânum, we have fine rugs for sale. Come take a look.”
“I’m looking for Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse.”
“Haj Ali Darvish. You know, he has the smallest teahouse,” I say.
“A small teahouse? There’s one over by the other entrance. But come take a look at our rugs!”
He hasn’t finished his sentence, and I’ve already grabbed my friend’s arm to go to “the other side.” Sure enough, it’s another 2-meter hole-in-the-wall, but nothing to write home about. Chai served in a plastic cup? No, thanks.
Google Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse, and the articles will tell you it’s located next to Abdollah Khan School and the mosque as if it’s so easy to find. “Just ask anyone, and they’ll point you in the right direction,” they write. I’m here to tell you, no they won’t. In my experience, they are so busy trying to pull you into their rug stores that they couldn’t care less about your hunt for the perfect cup of tea. Perhaps it was just my own bad luck that day, but nobody seemed to know him.
“Khânum, I have some great rugs at great prices.”
“I not looking to buy rugs.”
“Where is he from?” he asks as he invites himself to walk with us.
“Austrians love rugs! Just come take a look at my store.”
“Âghâ (Sir)! We don’t want to buy rugs. We’re looking for Haj Ali Darvish. We want tea! Do you know where he is?”
“Yah of course! Go straight, then right, then pass the rug bazaar, make a left, then… wait, why do you want to go there? If it’s tea you want, I’ll give you tea! His is too expensive… come to my store. You have to pass it on your way, anyway. I’ll give you tea and you can look at our rugs.”
We’re somehow suckered into his store, but quickly get away, one step closer to our goal.
“Âghâ, bebakhshid (excuse me, sir), do you know where Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse is?”
Exasperated, I ask someone else. “Âghâ, do you know where Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse is?”
“He used to be about 20 meters up that way, but, khânum, he died!”
What? I ignore that last part.
Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse (at last)
We go about 20 meters “up that way” as the last man instructed, and at last, we find him. There’s a sign pointing into a narrow, blink-and-you-miss-it hall tucked off the main path. We spot him sitting in front of his stand, quietly reading a newspaper. Black-rimmed glasses, a white beard, and traditional vest made of termeh.
“Salaam!” I exclaim. “We’ve been looking for you!”
Since his father passed away, Haj Kazem has taken over the teahouse. I knew this. I didn’t know how the man who worked at the bazaar day in, day out didn’t know this.
“Salaam, khosh âmadid (welcome),” he tells us and gets up to go behind his counter. “What’ll is be?”
He has traditional Persian tea as well as a few flavored teas like na’nâ (mint) and dârchin (cinnamon). Turkish coffee and hot chocolate are also on the menu. We opt for traditional tea.
As he pours the tea, I take notice of this well-used, 2-meter space. It’s hands down the most charming teahouse I’ve ever seen. There are pictures of his late father, copper and porcelain teapots, antique lanterns, an abacus, jars of loose-leaf tea, and a samovar (of course) among other things. To the side, there’s a sign in English that says, “Sorry I am not perfect but I am definitely not fake!” I can’t help but wonder where he got it.
He presents us with tea in kamar bârik glasses served on lovely copper trays, ghand pahloo (with sugar cubes on the side). This is tea done right.
“Where is he from?” Haj Kazem asks about my friend.
“Here you are.” He hands my friend a coin. “This is a souvenir from Iran. Haj Ali Darvish Teahouse souvenir,” he says in English. I have a feeling he’s practiced this line.
Then an unexpected request: “Can I take your picture? I want to post it on Instagram,” he asks us (in Persian).
We trade places with Haj Kazem and go behind the counter where the two of us barely fit. He snaps our photo, writes #Austria in Persian, and immediately posts it to his Instagram account where he’s highly active! In fact, he posts pictures of all his guests (and follows them).
He asks my friend what his major was and to talk a little about it. I have to translate which is not easy because I don’t know a lot of the technical terms. Haj Kazem looks at me a bit confused.
“You see, I grew up in the US,” I say. “Some of this is hard for me to explain in Persian.”
“So that explains it!” he says. “And you’ve come back to Iran. Good for you. This is your country.”
As we chat, his regular customers from the surrounding shops stop by for tea. My friend orders a Turkish coffee, and some new customers come. Once again, Haj Kazem takes their picture and posts it on Instagram.
We eventually finish our drinks and bid our new friend farewell. Back in the bazaar, we pass a group of tourists who I’m sure is on their way to the tiny teahouse.
Revisiting the teahouse
I returned a few months later, this time with my best friend who was visiting. Retracing my steps from the last time, I’m proud to say that I found it without a hitch!
“Where is she from?” Haj Kazem asks.
“Serbia,” I answer.
He gives her the souvenir coin and posts her picture on Instagram.
“So, what’s the visa situation like for Serbia?” he asks.
“Actually, I think there’s no visa requirement anymore. Or at least there won’t be soon,” I tell him.
“Really? So then let’s go to Serbia! Airfare’s on me!” he jokes.
And then in keeping with true Haj Kazem fashion, he asks my friend to talk about her major, and I translate.