A slight, bald man in geeky glasses is sitting outside a cafe on a hot spring afternoon in Manhattan's Lower East Side, attracting as much attention as a parking meter. The restaurant is crammed with people eating delicate tea sandwiches and creamy desserts, sipping lavender lemonade and spooning sticky jam onto scones. They are into their food and friends, not the little guy to their left.
But the gentleman across the street, pointing a camera this way, hints at the celebrity making the scene, and those in the know, know it's Moby -- music innovator, bottled iced tea maker, restaurateur, vegan and newly minted cookbook author. Much like his two Teany vegetarian tea shops ("Tea" + "NY" = small cafe in New York City), the bespectacled Moby is understated, insouciant and as chill as a champagne mojito.
"As un-rock-and-roll" as it might sound, he says, sitting on a bench outside the Rivington Street Teany, "it has always been a dream of mine to open a little tea shop."
Since 1993, the 39-year-old electro-pop performer has sold more than 15 million records. His music has been part of a car commercial and the 2002 Winter Olympics, and he often spends up to nine months out of the year on tour.
But Moby, aka Richard Melville Hall, a descendant of "Moby Dick" author Herman Melville, eschews the common unhealthy habits of rock stars on the road. A vegan since the late 1980s, he prefers to detox with antioxidant teas, and his food and beverage venture promotes this more health-conscious lifestyle.
Four years ago, Moby and his then-girlfriend, current business partner Kelly Tisdale, were feeling the morning-after effects of some late-night partying when they had a revelation. New York City needed "a vegetarian tea shop that had great hangover food," as they explain in "Teany Book" (Viking Studio, $16.95), described by its authors as "stories, food, romance, cartoons and, of course, tea."
"I had never heard of a vegetarian teahouse before," says the vegetarian Tisdale, 28. "You find English-based ones or Anglophile-based teahouses or Asian-themed houses. But you don't really find an American teahouse that just wants to have all kinds of teas, appeals to the average Joe coming in."
Their Teany cafes, which are sit-down restaurants with carryout, and the new book also serve a secondary purpose: to dish out innovative vegetarian food with omnivore attraction. "A vegetarian restaurant where even meat eaters are happy," says Moby.
Both of the cafes brew 98 kinds of tea, including traditional Irish breakfast and the palliative teas for allergies and the flu. The menu also features "safe" vegetarian fare, such as goat cheese and artichoke salad, and more adventurous entrees such as the chef's salad with tempeh (soy-based) bacon, smoked tofu and mock turkey. To further throw off meat eaters, there is also a vegan chicken salad melt and a "non-turkey" club.
Moby's emphasis on vegetarian food and tea -- which together don't have the mass appeal of, say, a Planet Hollywood hamburger and pitcher of soda -- makes this celebrity project an anomaly among star-affiliated food enterprises. Teany has become more a neighborhood hangout than a fan destination.
"The first time I came to Teany, it was because of Moby," says Vladimira Drapalova, 25, who lives in New York but was raised in Prague, where tea shops are as common as Starbucks are in the United States. "But I have come back four or five times in the past couple of months for the tea and salads."
The speck of a cafe on Rivington Street seats about 30 people indoors and out, including a sunken sidewalk space countrified with hanging plants and tins of mint. (The second Teany recently opened at the McNally Robinson bookstore on Prince Street and is about the same tight squeeze as the original.) The bare-bones staff preps the food in an elbow-shaped kitchen no bigger than the cafe's restroom. Fortunately there's no large, heavy equipment to maneuver around -- just a commercial toaster oven, espresso machine, coffee maker, microwave and cutting board as long as an apron string. The soups, chili and more complex dishes such as Welsh rarebit are made in the takeout area next door, on an induction cooker and double-decker open toaster. There's no oven, so the vegan baked goods are outsourced.
"It's difficult. It's a challenge," says assistant chef Michael Yi, 26, of the limited kitchen equipment. "But I've gotten used to it."
Teany does not scream Moby. Its avocado-green walls display no Teen Beat posters, and an eclectic blend of indie music and retro pop plays in the background -- Moby tunes are banned. "It would be distracting," he says. But Moby's culinary preferences and animal-rights principles inform the menu, although he admits that he's no cook.
Here's how the Teany partnership works: Tisdale develops recipes and creates dishes. She was raised by a macrobiotically hip mother in Massachusetts and knows tempeh from seitan, both high-protein meat substitutes.
Moby concocts the beverages, buses the occasional table and just eats. He does not have kitchen privileges: "Whatever rudimentary cooking skills I have are bachelor cooking skills," he says. Moby considers himself a product of the microwave-meal generation, having eaten fast food of every stripe and, when he was living on his own in an abandoned Connecticut factory, anything inexpensive that could be made on an electric hot plate.
During his 13 years on tour, Moby has witnessed a renaissance in vegetarian food and restaurants. Now performing in Europe, the musician says he has no problem finding creative vegan cuisine there. His only trouble spots: Russia and Greece.
When he's back in Manhattan, Moby makes Teany one of his first forays. But not because he eats gratis. Even after sampling the world's buffet, Moby craves a taste of home, which for him comes between two pieces of French bread, with layers of olive tapenade, tomato, pepper, arugula and basil.
"I wasn't hungry," he says, after talking about his cafe's version of pan bagna. "But now I am."
"I'll send you home with one," says Tisdale.
Andrea Sachs is a copy editor for The Post's Travel section.