I’m at a time in my life where the coffee shop has taken over from the bar as the mainstay of my social life. Not long ago I would have said that the pub was the focal point of my weekends, with lots of boozy lunches on lazy Sunday afternoons. Now, I tend to sprint lounge around coffee shops. (Sprint lounging is like a normal lounge but it only lasts 20 minutes, my average nowadays.) Like an alcoholic craving their next drink, I lurch from one caffeine high to another. If I don’t get caffeine in the morning, I usually end up with a headache by late afternoon.
It therefore follows that I’m always on the hunt for a good coffee house – and that means somewhere independent. In London, things have improved dramatically for coffee drinkers in the last 10 years. I remember getting bitter, watery coffee from a limited number of chains when I first arrived in the city. When a cool little coffee shop opened up near Leicester Square, serving Illy espresso, my English boyfriend and I went there regularly. We felt like members of an elite club. Fast forward 15 years and it’s hard to walk more than 5 minutes in central London without literally stumbling across a coffee shop of one sort or another.
Like most of the United States, the coffee shop you are most likely to run into is Starbucks – it does sometimes seem like there is one on every corner. They’ve become a bit like Boots is to chemists. In some corners of central London, there could be substantially more. In Islington, one of my old haunts, there is a total of four Starbucks within walking distance of each other. Four. The fact that they are all profitable says a lot about the incredible footfall in densely packed urban areas.
But, now that I’m in southern California, everything is defined by the car and the distances are much greater. I could walk to my closest Starbucks, but it would take a good half an hour and I would need to cross a couple of freeway on-ramps and areas that aren’t exactly pedestrianized, plus a dangerous bridge with a steady stream of freeway traffic below. I’ve done this more than a few times, and I always feel like people are staring at me and thinking, What the hell is that crazy girl doing walking across this scorched earth with a baby strapped into a stroller? I’ve kind of given up on the walking thing.
But this Starbucks, about a 5-min drive from my mother’s house, is where I usually hang out because of convenience. It is neighbors with a CVS Pharmacy (like Boots but much, much bigger) and a McDonald’s – and it faces a very uninspiring parking lot. It’s no wonder I keep feeling slightly dissatisfied with my visits, even though I’ve developed a taste for its Cafe Misto (a cafe au lait in any other part of the world).
In another cosmos
Last Saturday, at a loose end, I went to La Mesa Village because it was the grand opening of a Goodwill (a huge charity shop for my British friends). I didn’t get into the Goodwill because they had a line out the door and were only letting one person in at a time. Go figure. So I took the opportunity to visit an independent coffee shop I don’t go to often enough. The place is called Cosmos and, like the name would suggest, it is decorated in a kind of spacey theme. There are tea cups with saucers that look like planets at the entrance. The ceiling is cerulean blue, and local art decorates the walls. It feels warm and inviting in here and like a true neighborhood coffee shop. This is something I’ve missed from my London days.
I can’t say the coffee is out of this world (pardon the pun). It’s decent enough, but the best coffee I’ve ever had in the United States was in Seattle and Portland, followed by Atlanta, Georgia. In Europe, I love the cafe ‘cortos’ (short) in Spain. It’s just the right amount of espresso and milk and the perfect pick-me-up after long rambles. The reality is that I don’t come to Cosmos because the coffee is incredibly amazing or cheap, but because it feels like I’m voyaging to another planet (I’m getting into these puns, sorry.) I am kind of burned out of Starbucks and its cookie-cutter shops. I wish they (the corporate Starbucks people) would make their shops more unique. I get the feeling they try, but it normally doesn’t extend beyond the bulletin board and occasional staff comments.
I spend half an hour in Cosmos and vow to come back again. I’d rather give some of my money to an independent shop than one that is raking in profits. Besides, I get a bit frustrated that the Starbucks menu reads like a bewildering technical journal for someone who just wants a regular cup of coffee. Most people in Starbucks get concoctions that might have a coffee base but are more like calorific desserts. The other day I was standing behind a girl who ordered some incredibly complex venti-sized coffee/dessert/milkshake thing that even threw the Starbucks employee, who has probably heard it all. After about five minutes, he gave up and wrote it all down on a piece of paper. Then she ordered for her boyfriend, who had something similarly complex but slightly different to hers. The barista wrote this down too. They also bought some huge, plastic refillable Starbucks cups – and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that their bill came to about $40 dollars. I’d like to see them try this in Italy.
I’ve been at this blog thing a little while and I suspect not many people read it, which is fine, but if you have a favorite coffee shop I would love to hear where it is and why you love it. I tried doing some fancy poll thing, just to experiment, but you need multiple-choice answers which wouldn’t work. Feel free to post a comment instead. And if you love Starbucks, that’s fine too. Thanks