Starbucks gets a lot of credit for raising both the bar for coffee as well as the overall awareness of how good coffee can be. Despite the hype, I never really was much of a coffee fan for a lot of reasons. First, my mother was a regular tea drinker, drinking it at both breakfast and dinner. Second, "coffee" to her was Sanka instant - not what anyone would consider real coffee. Finally, I actually really liked the taste of tea. My favorite tea was the rich black, strong tea we had at Chinese restaurants. Although at home, my mother's recipe for tea was to dunk the Tetley or Lipton tea bag in a lukewarm cup of water a few times - until he water darkened a bit - and then pull the bag out. I think my rookie taste buds could tell that the Chinese restaurant experience was proof that tea could be something special, not just warm, brown water.
In college, the "adult" beverage was coffee and while it didn't taste very good (college for me was decades before the first Starbucks) it was good for keeping me alert for those late night cram sessions. My real tea epiphany was during Organic Chem lab when we had the assignment to extract caffeine from tea leaves. Our chem professor, a real renaissance man, not only taught us the science of tea and caffeine, he also explained how to brew a really good cup of tea. He even recommended a great tea shop in Greenwich Village - McNulty's on Christopher Street - where a young epicure could buy quality loose tea, thereby avoiding pedestrian tea-bag tea. That was 40 years ago and I have been a tea snob ever since.
Unfortunately, while Starbucks has made it unacceptable for any shop - from 7-11 to a local bagel shop to the finest bistro in your town - to serve a mediocre cup of coffee, today, when you order tea, even in a classy, gourmet establishment, you will more likely get tea like my mother used to make. That's warm water with a blah tea bag lolling about pretending to be a tasty beverage!
And our lack of appreciation for good tea is even the object of international scorn - I recall a TV interview of one of the British Prime Ministers where he dismissed our entire country as being clueless on how to serve a decent cup of tea! That more than ticked me off because I know how to brew a great cup of tea and if he had come to my house, he would have been convinced.
If you want to experience a great cup of black tea, here is what I recommend:
First - start with good quality "loose" black tea leaves (green and white teas brew differently). In the NY / NJ area, the best place to buy small amounts (e.g., 4 oz bags) is still McNulty's on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. It's been selling tea and coffee to New Yorkers since the 19th century and they have both a huge selection and sharp sales people. Also, lots of local shopping malls have a new tea franchise called Teavana - these are shops that specialize in loose, quality black, green and white teas. Worth a visit.
Second - use bottled or filtered water. Since tea is mostly water, you want to get rid of any chlorine or chemical tastes. It's not a small factor - don't scrimp!
Third - use a clean, well-rinsed (no soap residue) tea pot and pre-heat the pot with tap water.
Fourth - scoop a tablespoon of loose black tea into a decent-sized tea infuser (available at most gourmet shops, Tevana and McNulty's).
Fifth - dump out the warming tap water from your tea pot, insert the infuser and quickly pour the boiling water directly on the tea leaves - this helps release the tea's flavors.
Sixth - look at the clock - you want to brew for a minimum of 3 minutes to a maximum of 6 minutes. I like to stir the water a bit to increase contact between the water and the tea leaves. When you have reached your personal brew time, pull the infuser out of the water, noting the time - you may want to adjust your brew time in the future if the tea is too strong or too weak for your taste.
Seventh - enjoy your tea! Most experts like to use a mug instead of a tea cup. I have a couple of favorites and agree with the experts on this point. You can add sugar, lemon or milk (but not cream) to taste.
Some recent research shows that if your tea is too hot, you will lose some of the nuances of flavor so I have read that you can improve the flavor by letting the tea sit in the mug for a couple of minutes. I can drink and eat things way too hot for my wife and other normal people so I'll just say, try it.
If loose tea is not your - ahem, cup of tea (sorry) - and prefer the convenience of tea bags, try using a higher quality tea instead of the grocery store staples like Tetley and Lipton. I think Twinings is a good, easy to find "better" brand (I like their Irish Breakfast - a blend of Assam and Keemun black teas) and Taylor's of Harrogate (I like their Scottish tea) offers good, robust flavor without any of the loose tea hassle.
Once you learn what good tea taste like, you will never be satisfied with the warm brown water most restaurants serve.