When it comes to the oldest teahouses, the historical Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House probably has most other locations in the greater Seattle area beat. Built in 1910, the Panama Hotel is over 100 years old. However, the Panama Hotel wasn’t always a tea and coffee house, that particular feature was only added on in the past 15 years, around 1999. As the building’s name states, it was originally a hotel.
According to the historical information found on the website for the Panama Hotel, it was originally built by Sabro Ozasa, a Japanese Architect and graduate of the University of Washington. The hotel was built as a “workingman’s” hotel and has served as a home for generations of Japanese immigrants, fisherman and international travelers. One of the most notable features of the Panama Hotel is the bathhouse found in the basement that was a huge part of the Japanese community before World War II. In fact, it was this bathhouse that attracted many of the hotel’s visitors in the early 1990s, as it was a place to relax after work with their friends. Interestingly, the bathhouse is now the only remaining Japanese bathhouse left intact in the United States, which you can arrange to tour when you visit the Panama Hotel or Tea and Coffee House.
The Panama Hotel itself is still in existence, and unlike the bathhouse, the hotel rooms are still serviceable, so you can stay in one the next time you visit. However, while the Panama Hotel has interesting background, part of the building’s history is bittersweet. Just 31 years into the hotel’s lifespan, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sending thousands of people of Japanese decent to internment camps in 1942. These families were only allowed to bring what they could carry with them to these camps, so a lot was left behind. However, many people also turned to friends they knew that had a lot of space, and asked if they could store their belongings with them. This is how the former owner of the Panama Hotel, Takashi Hori and his family, came to have the possessions from a number of Japanese families stored in his basement. Sadly, many of the belongings were never claimed after the war ended in 1945.
As a result, many of these belongings now decorate the Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House, providing a look back at the first couple of decades in the 1900s. In keeping with the historical feel of the hotel, the cafe has an old and unique design. There is a lot of exposed wood and brick, black and white pictures of Japantown prior to WWII cover the walls and there is even a window in the floor that allows you to look into the basement where the possessions were stored.
Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to talk to the current owner of the Panama Hotel, Jan Johnson, to find out how she came to own the hotel or what inspired her to add a tea house to the building. However, I did take advantage of the opportunity to sample their tea. I stuck with my usual white tea for this review, and tried one called Peach Blossom. My tea arrived in a glass mug with a net-like infuser full of nearly whole tea leaves. I immediately fell in love with the smell wafting from the cup; it smelled very sweet, like peach nectar or juice – perfect for spring! After the tea had steeped for about three to four minutes, I decided to go ahead and try it out. The flavor was very light, I tasted mostly peach (much like the smell) but the tea had a few floral notes as well. This tea is definitely one of the best ones I have tasted by far, and will definitely have to return for another cup in the future.
I couldn’t let my tea go unaccompanied, so I sampled the Panini Panama. This Panini is made with cheese, tomatoes, artichokes, roasted red peppers, olive tapenade and seasoned with basil and other spices. Just the smell alone made my mouth start to water all over again. Of course, it was excellent, and tasted like a veggie pizza but in sandwich form. Besides tea and Paninis, the shop serves pastries and traditional Japanese desserts like mochi and manju. If you come between 6-8 pm you can also get a tea based cocktail. While the focus of the café is primarily on tea, the café also serves Lavazza coffee and espresso based drinks for all you coffee lovers out there.
Perhaps it is the old-timey feel of this café, but time simply seems to slow down at the Panama Hotel Tea and Coffee House. The slower pace and laid back atmosphere makes this a great place to relax and soak in some Seattle history. The latter of which makes this café a nice spot to take visitors, since it is one of the few places in the area where you can get a history lesson along with your cup of tea.