Oct. 15 2010 12:00 AM

New East Lansing teahouse opens Friday


(Wednesday, Oct. 13) You won’t need to strap on hiking boots and climb a couple miles up a mountain or slash your way through rainforest to find the Wanderer's Teahouse and Caf in East Lansing.  No, in our urban home, where the most elusive treasure is an open parking spot, the wonders of the human world surround us, thanks in large part to a university with international attraction.

Owner Elizabeth Marazita, a 1984 Michigan State alumna with an international affairs degree, worked for the State Department before venturing into an international banking job that zipped her around the world. Later, she embarked on a second career in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with a focus on oncology and herbal medicines.  After crisscrossing the globe, she concluded that the Lansing area needed a proper tearoom.  

"Wherever I went around the world, I found tea and teahouses," Marazita says.  "When I came back here, I couldn't find it."  

So at the beginning of September, Marazita and her husband of eight years, Michael Spano — like Marazita, he's a globe-trotting master herbalist certified in TCM who has trekked the jungles of South America and the streets of Beijing — opened Wanderer's Teahouse.  A grand opening celebration and festivities will be held Friday, Oct. 15.

The overriding theme of Wanderer's is exploration, intellectual as much as physical.  Through the front doors, visitors first encounter a tea bar where long vials of tea stand in a rack, lining the front counter.  This is a space, Marazita says, for the curious to learn more about tea by touching, tasting, smelling and seeing assorted tea leaves.  Accompanying the sensuous experience is a printout of types of teas detailing health benefits and suggesting blends.

"You rarely ever just drink one type of tea," Marazita says. "In China, teas are traditionally blended together according to the season, one's constitution and one's day-to-day health."  

After the grand opening, Spano will hold daily, one-hour talks, teaching about the health and wellness benefits, history and culture of tea. He might speak about rooibos tea, which has medicinal qualities from its phenol compounds, or he might explain how the second harvest of Darjeeling tea imparts a more mature flavor than the first harvest.

Wanderer's has a tea combination for everyone: a hangover blend for the still-squinting student who staggers in just past noon; a memory blend for when you've decided you've lost your car keys for the final @#*&!!! time; a PMS blend to help soothe cramps and the all-but-inevitable bouts of crankiness; or a calming blend in the late evening to soothe frayed nerves after a grueling day.

The tea (and coffee, too) is organic, and, as much as possible, it's fair trade. While tea is Wanderer's raison d'tre, the focused food menu is organic as well, along with a line of gluten-free sweets.  Some options, served with carrot and celery sticks, include a warmed portabella mushroom sandwich, with pesticide-free caps, organic spinach, red onion, tomato and a house caper mayo dressing ($5); a chicken salad sandwich ($5) with baked chicken, almonds and apples on whole grain bread; or a spring salad ($5) with organic baby greens, smoked turkey, avocado, tomato, cucumber and a vinaigrette.    

An intimate atmosphere pervades Wanderer's, with soft lighting, smiling faces, community boards and an honor system community book exchange. Photographs and pictures of inspirational humanitarians and explorers fill the walls, from UNICEF champion Audrey Hepburn to Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim explorer, better known by his legendary moniker Sinbad, who sailed the world's seas a century before Christopher Columbus.

On Friday, Oct. 15, at 2 p.m., Wanderer's will celebrate its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting by East Lansing Mayor Victor Loomis behind the caf. Following the dedications will be song, tea education and a couple of street performances featuring an Italian and Chinese opera. If all that's not enough, Wanderer's and its neighbors will offer complimentary refreshments: organic tea and scones from the teahouse; organic wood-fired pizza from Pizza Pi; and Chinese dumplings, eggrolls and scallion pancakes from Peking Express.

The celebration is intended to bring the community together, a philosophy that guides Marazita and Spano as they embark on their new journey. Tea, as they have both experienced, is a force of unification throughout the world, but it didn't take circumnavigation for Marazita to discover the importance of congregating with friends and family, or even strangers, over food and drink.

"When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to say, 'Sit down, sip tea together,'" Marazita says.  "It's very important to take time to sit down, relax and enjoy something simple."

Wanderer's Teahouse and Caf

10 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday

547 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing

(517) 580-4043

TO, OM, WiFi, $