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Dobra brings global tea traditions to Squirrel Hill

By Akasha Chamberlain, Point Park News Service:

Dobra Tea patrons in Squirrel Hill sit at small tables on floor pillows, chatting over warm cups. The smell of tea wafts through the air, and the soft sounds of foreign music fill the colorful room.

Before it was on Murray Avenue, Dobra started in Prague, in the hearts of a group of tea smugglers.

When good tea was made available only to the elite during Soviet control, a group of people enamored with the beverage smuggled fine teas from around the world into the country for their own enjoyment. After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in 1993, the same group of tea lovers opened the first Dobra tea room in Prague to spread their love for exquisite teas.

Now, thanks to a Swissvale native’s own devotion to tea, that love of fine teas has come to Pittsburgh.

Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill. Photo: Akasha Chamberlain | Point Park News Service
Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill. Photo: Akasha Chamberlain | Point Park News Service

“We try to cultivate an atmosphere where people just come and relax and have a conversation in the same way the smugglers used to meet in secret and drink their tea,” said Nathan Pantalone, 25, owner of the tea room.

The tea room’s niche is its workers’ devotion to the process of making tea. They use the brew methods of people who have been drinking it all over the world for thousands of years, Pantalone said.

“You get something hard-to-explain about preparing a cup of tea that’s different, that sets it apart from just using a tea bag,” Pantalone said. “It’s going to boil down to the aroma of the tea. The cup stays hotter longer. You can see the color. All these things kind of play into this chorus of drinking tea, which is something you don’t get by just making it with a tea bag. It’s something different. It’s all these things that make tea-drinking an experience. That’s what we try to do.”

Dobra is built to reflect the smell of the tea with employees burning incense only in the morning to start the day. The menu carries no heavily spiced dishes to overpower the tea, and the tea’s freshness is paramount.

“Even just in a couple months, tea can taste old,” Pantalone said.

The small business brings in a diverse crowd for regular events such as belly dancing, poetry readings and tarot card reading classes.

The menu consists of more than 100 teas, which are still hand-selected from around the world by the Society of Tea Devotees in Prague, specialty drinks and snacks such as a Middle Eastern eggplant spread called baba ghanoush and Japanese daifuku, a rice dough filled with red bean paste. It offers a cultural experience.

“I always feel such a positive energy,” said Mary Tokar, a tarot card reader who frequently holds classes in the tea room. “You can just feel it. When you drink the tea and stuff, it’s very uplifting and calming at the same time. It’s the entire atmosphere.”

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