Behind Boulder’s iconic Dushanbe Teahouse

The operators of the teahouse, which just received city landmark designation

By Tatyana Sharpton Nov 20 2020

The city of Boulder designating the iconic Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse a landmark this week, and we spoke with local operators Sara and Lenny Martinelli who have stewarded it since it opened in 1998.

“It’s like running a restaurant in a living museum,” said Sara, who operates the teahouse as a restaurant with her husband through their Three Leaf Concept business. “The project itself was much bigger than we expected. Very much in the public eye, and bigger — more guests than we were thinking, and it became much more of a tourist attraction than we expected.

When the teahouse first arrived in the city in 1988, a gift from its sister city Dushanbe in Tajikistan, it sat in Boulder’s airport for 10 years in 200 crates.

The City held a selection process to see who would steward the space, and among those who submitted proposals and business plans, it chose the Three Leaf Concepts restaurant group to run the business at 1770 13th Street with a 15-year lease. Assembly began, and The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse opened for business officially in May 1998.  The Martinelli’s current lease cycle will run until 2028, at which point they will need to resign.

The building, with its beautiful hand-painted ceiling, hand-carved cedar columns and ceramic tiles, has become a Boulder icon.

While the teahouse fits the criteria for landmark designation — buildings with special character and historical, architectural or aesthetic value to the city — typically only the exterior of a building gets this label. However, with the fine and fragile detail of the building’s interior, Boulder’s historic preservation organizations advocated for and received protection of the building’s interior as well.

The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse’s stunning glass and tile exterior. Image: Boulder Teahouse.

Spirit of Boulder

Sara Martinelli

When they first assembled the teahouse, crafted in Tajikistan by architect Vern Seieroe, the Martinellis’ several translators had to help in the process, since those in Dushanbe speak Farsi but write in Cyrillic instead of Arabic.

Luckily, the Teahouse had an NEA grant attached to it that allowed the funding of the artists to come over an help erect it, Lenny tells BLDRfly. The entire ceiling came together by hand without any power tools. “No nail guns; it fits like a puzzle,” says Sara.

Upon signing with the teahouse, the Martinellis opted to make their own tea blends, and feeling the need for a traditional education, Sara went back to school for herbal medicine. This education built atop of her undergraduate degree in anthropology where she focused on food, nutrition, and how different cultures arise from their area’s foods.

The added fuel of herbal medicine, from magical herbal folklore to tree medicine to organic urban medicines, gives life to the tea in the Dushanbe Teahouse and adds a special touch of Boulder’s own magic to it.

Some of Sara’s homemade herbal mixes, teas and tinctures from her practice as a certified medical herbalist, nestled in her cozy office over the barn. Images: Tatyana Sharpton.

[Alpine Botanicals: sublime alpine beauty + healing in Ned]

Three Leaf Concepts

The groups’ name stems from its core triad of food, tea and farm. Along with running The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, Sara and Lenny also oversee four other restaurants in the Boulder area, as well as Three Leaf Catering, the Boulder Tea Company, and Three Leaf Farm, which feeds the restaurants a small portion of their produce and on a good year, hosts classes on earthy topics from teas to medicinal herbs and magic.

Its other restaurants include: The Chautauqua Dining Hall, first constructed in 1898, Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant, and Louisville’s The Huckleberry and Zucca Italian Ristorante. The group also used to own the café at Boulder’s Naropa University as well as Aji Latin American Restaurant on Pearl Street, which closed shortly before Leaf moved to its new location.

With partner Jerry Manning, director of operations, each member of the Three Leaf Concepts group runs its own realms of the business with a tiered management program.

Lenny heads up the food in all of the restaurants as its CEO and head chef, while each kitchen has its own executive chef, general manager and management staff. Sara runs marketing and manages the farm and operations, as well as the educational programming the farm offers.

The farm, which fuels the restaurants’ creative and medicinal passions and offers intimate tours and learning to the community. Images: Sara Martinelli.

With its roots in native foods and the medicinal value of eating with natural cycles, each of the group’s restaurants has its own niche in Boulder’s food scene.

The farm’s abundance of squash right now. Find it at Leaf! Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

“We try to focus on as much local food and produce as we can, even if the Teahouse has international cuisine,” Sara tells BLDRfly. “All the food is made within the restaurants — breads, sauces, fries, everything.”

“I really believe that the areas we live in,” says Sara, “we are in some way energetically in tune with [the plants in the same area.] To be at our most healthy, we want to be in the right relationship with that.”

Though the Teahouse represents Three Leaf’s flagship, as Sara says, it has also felt the effects of the pandemic the hardest. With the tourism industry down, and people visiting family less, its stewards have found it hard to maintain the giant restaurant at such a small capacity.

In addition to lack of local tourism to keep the Teahouse afloat, Sara says that Leaf’s sales revenue have also dropped with the seating capacity restrictions. [Watch our IGTV for Sara’s take.] Louisville’s Zucca has had a more successful run, recently winning Best of Boulder County Gold 2020 for its curbside to-go program.

Three Leaf Concepts has not lacked its share of challenges. In 2013, when Boulder’s flood hit, 15 of Three Leaf Farm’s 17-acres sat under water and the Martinellis obtained a grant from a medicinal plant conservation non-profit, United Plant Savers to help save its plants. The group now faces new challenges, Sara says, with the recent drop to 25 percent indoor capacity, as it navigates how to keep its restaurants humming.

[Confronting the vegetarian’s dilemma at Boulder’s Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant]

Sara Martinelli with son and farm manager Jax on a chilly November day at Three Leaf Farm. Images: Tatyana Sharpton.

Header image: The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. Image: Boulder Teahouse.