[B]efore David Scott Lowe and Rio Miura started their chai company, David Rio, they wanted to open an espresso bar in Tokyo. This was more than twenty years ago, and the husband and wife didn’t have what Lowe calls the “exorbitant amount of money” it would have cost to lease the space to open a shop. Instead, they moved to the United States, set up offices in downtown San Francisco, and began to manufacture and wholesale chai.
Then something curious began to happen: fans of David Rio would show up at the office, hoping for a chai made by the experts. “We have people who drink three, four, five cups of David Rio chai a day,” Lowe says. “They would come to San Francisco, come to our offices, and expect a café. That told us we need a space.”
With that fan-base encouragement, and the funds to open the long-deferred shop, they opened Chai Bar by David Rio in the city’s Mid-Market neighborhood a year ago. Set on an expansive 2,500-square-foot floor, which is covered wall-to-wall in a mesmerizing pattern of black-and-white tile, the space features not one, but two bars. The main bar, a large horseshoe, greets customers walking in from Market Street, while the smaller bar, called the Chai Lab, rests beyond a row of stools at the main bar and a line of tables along the wall. Behind the U-shaped bar and hidden from view, a small kitchen fills out the space.
While the shop offers twelve types of chai, including bubble chai and a chaiffogato (chai over ice cream), the bar is not limited to its parent company’s singular focus. The menu includes a full set of coffee drinks, a robust tea menu with a focus on Japanese teas, and a tightly curated list of on-tap and bottled beers, wines, and even sake, which goes well with the six types of rice balls, themselves just one part of a lunch-focused food menu.
“I take pride in the fact that everything we offer is exceptional. We took a lot of care in choosing our coffee purveyor, for example,” Lowe says. “It is, by design, not a traditional café.”
Even if the bar isn’t a strict shrine to chai, the spiced drink is its main draw and Chai Bar approaches its namesake as a serious craft that welcomes a broad range of tastes. All of the chais at the main bar are made to the customer’s milk and sweetness preference, but the real action is at the small bar. There, experimental recipes are prepared, giving customers a chance to try chais that may become part of David Rio’s lineup. “It’s a great test kitchen for us to get feedback from our customers,” says Lowe. One lab experiment that jumped to the main menu is the boldly spiced chai, a fiery, unsweetened concoction that first came to the lab bar through customer demand for something burning hot.
The chai lab also showcases what can be done with chai beyond a drink. While the main bar offers an array of chai-laced pastries, one of Lowe’s favorite creations is the lab’s chai stroopwafel, a thin cracker-like waffle filled with a sweet chai mixture.
While this is David Rio’s only café, it doesn’t have the normal trappings of a flagship. “It’s not like we’ve got posters all over the wall with David Rio Chai,” Lowe says. “Even with the menu, you’re not beaten over the head with our logos. It’s really understated.” There are two merchandise displays, one at the front of the store and the other behind the Chai Lab, but even in those spaces David Rio’s products are joined by other items, like ready-to-drink bottles, salads, and parfaits. It feels like a café, not a loss-leading showpiece.
Which is what Lowe and Miura wanted all those years ago in Tokyo: a café.
—Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup‘s editor.