I spend an irresponsible amount of money at coffee shops and I’m okay with that. Squandering my fortunes on iced Americanos and almond tea biscuits is just a nonnegotiable component of my lifestyle.
As much as I patronize certain coffee shops, I also complain about those coffee shops and the other patrons. I have abundant constructive criticisms, the first of which is that the coffee shops should have anonymous comment boxes so that I could issue these constructive criticisms.
But since they don’t have comment boxes, I’m going to comment to you. Here are my opinions on some popular coffee shops in my current foraging range—which means the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, MA.
Simon’s: I frequently go to Simons because it’s next to my nail place. It’s fine in all respects. It doesn’t have a corporate chain feel, but it’s not quite charming. The food is adequate, but unmemorable. The staff is friendly, but boring. Simons is like those inoffensive people who annoy you because they’re so inoffensive.
Conversation you’ll overhear: two middle aged women, one in business attire, the other in wrinkly free spirit mom clothes
Free spirit mom: “Janette you look radiant.”
Business woman: “Thank you. Things have been really hectic at work, but now I’m working from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I’ve started rowing in the mornings.”
Free spirit mom: “Oh I can tell. You look so much more grounded and centered. And how is your diet? Me and Rich and the girls have recently given up wheat and dairy, and we’re just thriving. You should really think about it.”
Lady, I’d be thriving if you shut up.
Crema is an excellent coffee shop in the thick of Harvard Square. The only problem with Crema is that it’s in the thick of Harvard Square. In order to get there you must dodge tourists, undergraduates, street performers, fundraisers, and beggars.
You’re forced to say, “No I don’t have time to hear some words about Amnesty International. I’m on my way to drink a cappuccino and read Tweets on my smart phone.”
Or, “No I don’t have any change to spare. I’m on way to spend $12.65 on a turkey sandwich with jicama slaw and a lavender macaroon. So I need every penny.”
I actually have no complaints about Crema, once I’m inside the legal boundary of Crema itself. The staff is cool, but not intimidating. They take your order without rolling their eyes and acting like it’s suuuuuuch a fucking hassle to do their fucking job and take your fucking order (which is the case at Hi Rise and every coffee shop in France).
The food and drink menu gets my highest regard from the fancy sandwiches to the infused iced teas. I recommend the tomato bisque as a savory pre-lunch—for when it’s 11 am and your friend doesn’t want to eat until 1 pm and ohmygod you’ll stave before then. Or for a little afternoon snack, have Crema’s homemade English muffin, toasted with butter or jam. It’s lovely!
Conversation you’ll overhear: Harvard undergraduate with visiting parents
Undergrad: “So I want to apply for this internship in Thailand this summer with this really cool travel journalism website. My friend did it last year and said they like really like to hire Harvard students, so I think I have a really good chance, but if that doesn’t work out then I’ll probably work for this food blog in San Francisco that my roommate’s brother’s girlfriend started.”
Dad: “Are either of these internships paid?”
Undergrad: “I mean, no, but that’s not the point. The point is getting them on my resume and getting the experience.”
Mom: “You know San Francisco is very expensive.”
Undergrad: “I know mom, but like millions of college students live there, so it must be possible. People with unpaid internships aren’t like starving on the streets. Okay, can we please not talk about this right now.”
Dwelltime: It’s like the spa retreat of coffee shops. The air is cleaner, the light is softer, and noises are more hushed at Dwelltime, compared to the rest of Earth. Large windows open to a quiet street; breezes carry in tiny petals from the flowering trees, which rustle across the hardwood floors. Ahhhh, Dwelltime. I assume they stone someone every summer equinox to maintain this Utopia.
Dwelltime is so airy and refreshing.
The coffee and tea are fancy—too fancy for me actually. The baristas ask me things like, “for your slow drip pour over would you like Sumatran teaberry or Bosque Reserve?”
I pick the second one because pirates are bad. Oh wait, that’s Somalia. Oh well.
They hand me a teapot with an electronic timer and thermometer and instruct, “when the first timer goes off open the pot lid, but don’t pour it until the second timer goes off or it reaches 170°F, whichever comes second.”
That’s too many instructions for tea! I reuse Lipton bags!
Customers are (silently!) absorbed in their work, or respectful that others are absorbed in their work. A beautiful androgynous person with large headphones is coding; I assume coding an awesome DJ mashup. A pale young woman gnaws on her nail and stares at her laptop with consternation. A wild-haired, wild-eyed Scottish lady knits and keeps an eye on her overweight beagle tied up outside.
Conversation you’ll overhear: Just me, as I join a friend who is already working there.
Me: “Ohmygosh it took me forever to get here because I couldn’t find my phone because I left it in Max’s office and then he took it to class, thinking it was his and I had to sneak in and get it from him.”
My friend Ryan gives me a look that a cross between skepticism and boredom; like many too-cool people from the Bay Area, that’s his resting face, so I continue blabbing, undeterred.
Me: “I can’t remember if they told me to check the thermometer at one beep or two. God, why is this tea so complicated? I kind of hate this place. Anyway, I have to finish this grant by tomorrow so I really shouldn’t have come all the way to Dwelltime. I should be like in solitary confinement in the library stacks.”
The pale woman casts me a subtle—and not very intimidating—glare. I am respectful that she is absorbed in her work—which obviously is not going well—so I shut up and open my laptop.
Hi Rise: There are two Hi Rise locations. The one near Fresh Pond is more of an upscale bakery market. It caters to settled wealthy people who need to pick up a bottle of cab sauv and artisan baguette on their way home from work. On Sundays they’ve got babies in strollers and hard copies of The New York Times. That’s not the Hi Rise I go to.
The other Hi Rise is on Mass Ave, about two blocks from Harvard Law School. It caters to soon-to-be settled, wealthy people who will soon have babies in strollers, but for now are still graduate students and reading the Times via Twitter on their iPhones.
The prices at Hi Rise are audacious. I routinely spend > $4 just on my drink, and I don’t even get the fresh squeezed almond milk for a $2 upcharge. The staff act like they are paid to frown and model Urban Outfitters clothes, rather than serve coffee. I think they make the tables wobbly, intentionally.
A half sandwich, almond macaroon, and Arnold Palmer from Hi Rise? Probably $15.
That said, I go to Hi Rise all the time because it is two blocks from my home and I love the little sandwich cookies; they taste just like Oreos, but are six times the price!
Conversation you’ll overhear: an obnoxious one; it seems to be THE place for informational interviews.
Stuff like: “So I really feel like I’m at the division of two career trajectories at this point. I have my non-profit work, which I love, but I don’t know if I’ll want to be doing that ten years from now. And then I have my law school path, studying for the LSAT, looking at schools, and trying to decide if I really want to go to law school. But I feel like if I don’t go now, it will be too late.”
And stuff like: “The really great thing about working for Imaginecore is that you’re given so much freedom to explore your own projects, but with the support and resources of a creative think tank.”
When I’m not in the mood for the pretention of Hi Rise, I go to the Starbucks across the street.
The Starbucks across the street: Although directly across from Hi Rise, this Starbucks does not seem to be direct competition because it attracts a separate demographic: normal people in a hurry and teenagers not in a hurry.
Conversation you’ll overhear: high school girls wearing designer gym clothes and way too much makeup
Girl 1: “So every morning I’ve been having strawberries with Greek yogurt and fair trade granola.”
Girl 2: “But you know I read that strawberries aren’t even that healthy.”
Girl 1: “What are you talking about? They’re fruit. Like all fruit is healthy.”
Girl 2: “I mean they’re not bad for you, but they’re not like that good for you either, you know? They’re not like acai or something. They’re just like strawberries.”
Barista: “Can I take your order?”
Girl 2: “Yeah, I’ll just have a grande caramel Frappuccino.”
Yep, strawberries are just like strawberries and grande caramel Frappuccinos are just like 1000 calories.
Darwin’s Ltd: Darwin’s has my favorite work environment during the morning hours. It’s quiet, spacious, and offers free wifi. However, I have never been impressed with the menu or service. Most people swoon over Darwin’s sandwiches like they’ve never had a fancy, overpriced sandwich before. I think they’re overhyped. The sandwiches are sloppy and the employees do not know how to toast properly. My toasted bagel is usually burned, and when I request it “lightly toasted” it is basically untoasted.
Unappetizing untoasted Darwin’s sandwich, in my opinion. “Ohmygosh the most amazing sandwich,” according to others.
And I had to boycott Darwin’s for a while because of one infamous morning when I was hung over and desperate for a breakfast sandwich.
Me: “Hi I’ll have ham, egg, and cheddar on wheat bagel.”
Cashier: “No breakfast sandwiches until 8 am.” She pointed to the chalkboard menu where it says, “Breakfast served 8- 11 am.”
It was 7:42 and I had to be at work by 8 am.
Cashier: “Sorry. No breakfast sandwiches until 8 am.”
Me: “I’m really hung over and need some kind of breakfast sandwich. Can you just give me something with egg?”
Cashier: “We have egg salad.”
Me: “Egg salad?! If you give me egg salad I will barf.” I stormed out and went to a Starbucks one block away where at least they know how to toast my bagel.
I will put up with rude baristas, audacious prices, and wobbly tables—but cashiers who offer hung over people egg salad!? This I will not stand.