Morning Chai in San Francisco at David Rio Chai Bar

As you may know, Morning Coffee is my thing. But a good cup of chai is never a bad thing either. So in this edition of our regular “Morning Coffee” posts, guest writer Rachel Heller takes us to David Rio Chai Bar in San Francisco to show us how important such places have become in our modern lives.

A Place Where “Everybody Knows Your Name”

by Rachel Heller

As I entered the chai bar, I spotted my daughter, Anne, across the room right away. Sitting at one of those long tables meant for customers to share, she smiled and waved. Waving back, I approached the counter to order a chai.

The young man behind the cash register smiled and asked, “How are you, dear?”

Taken aback at his over-familiarity, I responded, “I’m fine, dear,” stressing the “dear” to make my sarcasm clear.

Unfazed, he continued, “Do you know that young lady over there?” indicating my daughter.

“Yes,” I replied, puzzled. “I’m her mother.”

“I know,” he said. “Did you know that we’ve had to call the police on her several times, she gets so rowdy?”

Now it was clear: this man knew my daughter and liked her. The fact is, she’s the last person on earth to get rowdy, never mind anyone having to call the police on her.

Isreal–that’s the young man’s name–is in his twenties, I’d guess, and good-looking. When he’s not working at David Rio Chai Bar here in San Francisco, he’s a photographer. He turned serious. “She’s been incredibly stressed, you know. She works unbelievably hard. And she never thinks she’s good enough.”

“Tell me about it.”

Anne, meanwhile, was watching us suspiciously from across the room. I looked at her and, half-jokingly, said, “She spends way too much time here, I think.” Isreal only laughed.

David Rio Chai Bar

This was my first trip back to the US in three years, and chai bars seem to have appeared from nowhere in that time. This one, David Rio Chai, distributes chai worldwide.

The chai bar sits in a strangely undefined part of the city. On the edge of what is considered a “bad” area, the Tenderloin, it is also a just a few blocks from the tourist hordes at Powell Street, home to the famous San Francisco cable cars. Twitter has a headquarters a block or so away, so despite the grunge level–homeless people sleeping on the street–the hipster quotient of the neighborhood is increasing.

The exterior of David Rio Chai Bar. a spot bright with light and inviting with outside tables and planter boxes.

David Rio Chai sits on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. With a Twitter headquarters nearby, the hipster quotient of the neighborhood is increasing. Photo: Rachel Heller

The chai concoctions they sell are cleverly coded to express the level of spiciness versus sweetness. They’re expensive, starting at $4.50 depending on ingredients and size, but very tasty and surprisingly filling. Coffee in various forms is available too. I never visited in the evening, but the menu on the wall indicates a range of choices in beers and wines for after-work visitors.

The big, light room invites people to stay and work, and many, like my daughter, seem to use it as their place of business. Ample outlets under the seats let them recharge their laptops, and the music level isn’t overwhelming. At the back is a “chai lab” where “experts” experiment with new chai blends and customers can learn “coffee art,” i.e. how to make pretty pictures in the foam on a David Rio chai latte.

Ball jars full of teas and spices wait for the experts at David Rio Chai Tea to blend them into new concoctions.

Ingredients wait for the chai experts at David Rio Chai Tea in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to
come up with some new chai blends. Photo: Rachel Heller

My Daughter’s Favorite Hang-Out

Anne moved to San Francisco to do her Master of Fine Arts at the Academy of Art University. It’s been incredibly stressful for her, partly because the program is extremely demanding, and partly because she is so driven to do her absolute best. At times, she doubted her ability and despaired.

It’s been hard for me and my husband, too, living so far away in the Netherlands. When she was upset, I just wanted to jump on a plane and go give her a hug. When she was feeling particularly stressed, we spent time online, “chatting” with her (I hate that term, since this was all far more serious than mere chatting).

To quote a certain senator, “Nevertheless, she persisted” and finished her MFA. I couldn’t be prouder. (If you’re curious about her work, here’s a link to her portfolio website

David Rio Chai barista Isreal shows off his darling baby.

Isreal, a barista at David Rio Chai in San Francisco, shows off his darling baby. Photo: Rachel Heller

For my daughter, this place has become a home away from home, and I’m not surprised. The second time I met her here, several employees greeted me on sight either by name or as “Anne’s mom.” Two of them, Isreal and Ban, have become true friends to her, listening when she was upset or stressed and sharing their lives with her as well. Anne raved about Isreal’s gorgeous baby, and she was right: the child is beautiful.

As I sit here in the chai bar, writing these words where she so often sits, Anne is out at a restaurant enjoying lunch with Israel and Ban, a gift from them to celebrate finishing her Masters. I’m so glad she found this place and these friends. She needed all the support she could get, and they provided it.

I’m reminded of the old sitcom, Cheers, where “Everybody knows your name.” This became the place for her to be seen, understood and supported.

And the chai is excellent.

Rachel Heller is a Dutch-American writer who lives in Groningen, in the northern Netherlands. She writes about travel at Rachel’s Ruminations, a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites and thoughts on expat life in general. You can follow her on twitter at @rachelruminates or on Facebook at rachelhellerwriter.

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12 replies
    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks Johanna. That is the goal of my “Morning Coffee” section. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. If you’ve got a “coffee and travel” story you’d like to share here, let me know.

  1. Cindy Carlsson
    Cindy Carlsson says:

    I’m glad Anne found a place to feel at home among friends. No matter how tough you are, it’s hard to be too on your own. And I’m hoping those chai bars are headed my way. I love chai and it’s hard to get a really good one when I’m not with my East Indian friends!

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Thanks Cindy. I love how coffee shops and chai bars have become places to work, as well as hang out with friends (and make new ones). When I lived in New York City, lo these many years ago, I did all my writing in an Italian coffee house in Greenwich Village. It was like an extension of the living room/office of my tiny apartment. I love how that phenomenon has now spread. And now with WiFi!

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      Yes, Jeff & Crystal, I think Chai Bars may be a regional thing right now, but I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the near future. That seems to be what happens to a lot of things that get big in San Francisco. 🙂

  2. Suzanne Fluhr
    Suzanne Fluhr says:

    Chai bars per se haven’t yet hit Philly, but we are sometimes a few years behind the latest “thing”. We do have chai, we just don’t have chai bars or it could be that I’m not hip enough to find them. As I was reading through Rachel’s essay, I was also getting the Cheers vibe. It is nice to have a place where everybody knows your name. In my case, it’s more of a dog walking thing, and everybody knows our dog’s name.
    Suzanne Fluhr recently posted…You’re Invited! 3 Reasons to Celebrate July 4th in PhiladelphiaMy Profile

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      HaHa, Suzanne. This made me realize that while I “know your name” and would happily greet you on any street in the world, there’s a good chance I would actually speak to Dino first!

  3. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    Like you, I like my morning coffee, but can occasionally be persuaded for something great. I used to live in San Francisco, and I still visit. Last time we deviated from traditional coffee to an Irish Coffee. Next time, I think I will try David Rio Chai. Your entire experience sounds wonderful. I am sure mine will be less personal, but equally tasty.
    Rhonda recently posted…20 Picturesque Cruise Ship Ports Around the WorldMy Profile


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