If you grew up in San Diego, you no doubt have seen pictures or heard stories of the original ornate Japanese Tea House. (Head over to the San Diego History Museum, if you haven’t.) It was built in Japan and shipped to San Diego in time for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and was open to the public for nearly 30 years. Its demise came in 1942 when the Asakawa family, tasked with operating the teahouse, was sent to an internment camp during WWII and the teahouse fell into disrepair. The teahouse and its garden were demolished in 1955.
Enter a group of dedicated San Diegans bent on bringing a Japanese garden and teahouse back to San Diego. In 1990 the Japanese Friendship Garden began in Balboa Park. The group’s desire for a teahouse came to fruition in 1999 when a second major phase of the garden was completed, including a new plaza at the entrance with today’s Tea Pavilion. Visitors to Balboa Park will want to put this café on their must-do list…along with a visit to the Japanese Friendship garden.
Tea Pavilion Ambiance
In a word, Zen describes the ambiance at the Tea Pavilion. Visitors shouldn’t expect an ornate Japanese teahouse like the original, although there are plans for a traditional teahouse pavilion that can accommodate 300 people. What visitors will find today is a modern pavilion with a minimalist design style. Japanese design elements provide the café with a sense of casual elegance, movement, and simplicity.
The expansive plaza outside the Tea Pavilion has numerous tables that are shaded by umbrellas and overlook the stunning gardens. The central location along Pan American Way between the Organ Pavilion and the House of Hospitality makes it a great place to people watch too.
Tea Pavilion Food
Come for the tea, stay for the food. The Tea Pavilion serves a seemingly limitless menu of teas, both hot and iced, including Green Sencha – a Japanese green tea, and Japanese Cherry Sakura – a green tea flavored with the essence of cherries. The full menu of teas also includes white, black, oolong, herbal, and specialty teas. If tea isn’t your thing, other beverages are available.
Tea Pavilion’s menu is dominated by soups, salads, rice bowls, and sandwiches, all of which are good choices. Diners on review sites rave about the udon (noodle soup) with tempura shrimp, fishcake, seaweed, and green onion. The soba noodle salad is popular with lettuce, cucumber, carrot, sprouts, walnuts, and soy ginger dressing. You can add tofu or chicken, if you want to customize it to taste.
Another favorite is the curry rice bowl with Japanese pickles and vegetables, particularly when it’s topped with grilled salmon, though you can order it with tofu, chicken, or beef instead. There are also four sandwiches to choose from that come with Japanese potato salad.
Tea Pavilion Details
At this casual café, you order at the counter, get your drink, find a table outdoors and wait until your number is called.
Some diners mention long waits during busy times. Free Tuesday in the Park is offered every Tuesday to San Diego residents, so you should expect bigger crowds then. Balboa Park hosts countless events throughout the year, particularly in the summer. If waiting isn’t your thing, you may want to avoid these high volume times.
Views from the outdoor seating area are amazing, especially during springtime when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Tea Pavilion offers take-out, free Wi-Fi, and bike parking. They also accept credit cards, and are wheelchair accessible and family-friendly. Dogs are allowed on the patio. They have tons of tasty Japanese snack food if you’re just stopping by for a quick snack and tea.
Be aware that a 3% surcharge is added to all guest checks, which is to defray increasing costs, and café employee wages and benefits under California’s new minimum wage law.
Tea Pavilion Neighborhood
At over 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is the largest urban park in the country. A San Diego historic landmark, it is home to 15 museums, the renowned San Diego Zoo, restaurants, theaters, lavish gardens, gift shops, and recreational spaces.
You will appreciate the beautiful Spanish architecture throughout the park, as well as El Prado – the grand pedestrian boulevard from which many of the park’s museums can be accessed. The Botanical Building and Lily Pond off El Prado is another must-see. The pond is dotted with lilies and teeming with beautiful koi fish. Sparkling Bea Evenson Fountain offers a refreshing place to sit at the end of the boulevard.
The mesmerizing 78-foot-tall tree with a 123-foot crown width is impossible to miss. It is Balboa Park’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree – one of the largest in California, and makes for one of several good photo opportunities.
Outside Balboa Park, you’ll find the hip Uptown neighborhoods of Hillcrest and North Park in one direction, and the diverse Downtown San Diego neighborhoods in the other. All are great walkable neighborhoods with plenty to see and do.
Balboa Park Golf Course is a nine-hole executive course at the south end of the park. It provides the perfect opportunity to try and break Sam Snead’s course record there.