In many aspects the Chicago version of Eli Tea, Eli Majid’s eponymous tea cafe, is similar to the original in suburban Detroit. Customers will be greeted by a bright LGBTQ rainbow flag and see a world map pinned to the wall and tins of loose leaf teas cleanly stacked on shelves against the wall.
But Birmingham, Michigan, the city where Majid opened his first location in 2015 is different from Andersonville, the North Side Chicago neighborhood where Eli Tea will officially open on Saturday, December 17. Birmingham is akin to a suburb on Chicago’s North Shore. Many of its customers are teens who stream in and out of the Michigan cafe, goofing off. Majid knows how to handle the youngsters like a champ, pouring boba tea and crafting other beverages behind the counter.
In Andersonville, however, few school kids will make up Eli Tea’s clientele. Majid says he’s figuring out how he’s going to handle commuting between Michigan to Chicago, but since he studied botany at Loyola University, he’s got an understanding of what makes each city neighborhood unique. Along Clark Street on Andersonville, Eli Tea fits into a retail district that includes craft beer paradise Hopleaf Bar and Simon’s Tavern — where glogg flows freely during the holidays and home to one of the city’s best jukeboxes.
Majid specializes in fusion, putting his science background in coming up with unique concoctions. If Chicago restaurants like Angry Crab, Kimski, and Budacki’s can mix cuisines, why can’t the city’s cafes do the same with non-alcoholic drinks? Eli Tea’s creations include a Thai Chai made with coconut and a smoky lapsang mocha. Chiya Chai, the South Asian tea specialists with cafes in Logan Square and the Loop, call chai “the original mocktail.” While Majid prefers to avoid that description, his goal is to create a sober alternative to area bars. A few miles to the south in Northalsted, long a focal point for LGBTQ nightlife, nightclubs and alcohol reign. Majid wants Eli Tea Bar to be an alternative to that life and for those outside the LGBTQ community, too.
He also wants the new cafe to promote conversation. There are chess boards on the table, and next year, he’s thinking about commissioning some special carrom boards for the cafe. (Carrom is a South Asian tabletop game that’s popular at cafes and among families at home.) There will also be food in the form of baked goods from Spoke and Bird, a South Side staple. Majid says he wants to liven up the walls with pop art in the style made popular by Maria Qamar, a Pakistani-Canadian artist. It’s a way of taking something old-school and keeping it relevant, something that the cafe specializes in.
Take a tour through the cafe below.
Eli Tea Bar, 5507 N. Clark Street, planned for December 18 opening at noon.