The independent coffee shop

Cosmos' storefront

The only one in the cosmos

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.

Inside Cosmos

The children are well versed in the ritual of coffee drinking

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.

The trophy cabinet

Comos shows off its awards for best coffee shop (non-chain)

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.

Toilet mural

Even the bathroom in Cosmos coffee is original

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.

Cosmos coffee water cooler

Yes, you can even get bumper stickers

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



Filed under American life, Going out

12 responses to “The independent coffee shop

  1. Frederique

    My favorite coffee shop is unfortunately nowhere near me! I don’t even have one particular in mind but I would say it is probably a small coffee place in Italy in the backstreet surrounding the Duomo in Milan. They do the best coffee. Simple. No tall skinny latte, or caramel double cream macchiato but good, strong and reasonable sized coffee. There, a cappuccino is a cappuccino; an espresso shot with foam on top. Italians drink their coffee fast and preferably without milk. Ok sometimes it is nice to indulge with a cafe lungo but in Italy that is still only the equivalent of a small black Starbucks coffee. But I guess in London anywhere selling illy coffee would be my choice too. I quite like the coffee place we went to a few times in Crouch End. The one near the small square in the middle. I believe it was Italian and with a bit of imagination and on a sunny day, it did feel a little bit like we could have been sitting in a cafe in Italy. Anyway, now where I am (in sweden, Trelleborg) I can’t think of any place. Here we have Espresso House. A big chain like Starbucks that sells overpriced milky and sweet coffee. Or there is traditional bakeries where one can buy a normal brewed coffee and a treat to go with it. I prefer those here. It makes me feel better to sit there than to go to one of those big coffee shops that all look the same. It makes me feel like i am sitting somewhere a little special. Having said that I can’t say I have found a gem yet!
    I love your blog! I read it!

  2. Juliana

    Honey, I always read your blog! You seem to have the abbility to transform trivial and common things into very interesting stuff. By the way, my favourite coffee shop is ‘Pret a Manger’, although if I’m close to home, I go to ‘Costas’. All chains… Are you coming for X-mas or not??? xxxxx

  3. Favorite coffee shops? Since I’m always moving, here’s a few from our various locales. My reasoning has less to do with how good the coffee was or wasn’t:
    SIggy’s Good Food

    The Oaks Gourmet Market (because we could walk from our house on Canyon Drive, and I would usually see some C-list celebrity like Kathy Griffin)
    The Coffee Table, Silver Lake (I could also walk here from one of our apartments, though I got strange looks). Not that the coffee was so amazing, but it didn’t have wi-fi so I actually finished my book there.

    Daybreak Coffee Roasters in Glastonbury, CT
    (Although the sole Starbuck’s in Rocky Hill, CT became a kind of town center after Hurricane Irene, and it was bustling. They had power. Everyone gathered there, united in our mutual addictions: caffeine and charging cell phones/laptops.)

    Dublin: TBD. While I love your concept of sprint lounging, I am limited to where I can fit through the doorway with the double buggy. (The “fits standard-sized doorways!” selling-point was apparently only true in the US.)There’s a tiny kiosk called Nick’s outside Ranelagh Village Market that is supposed to have amazing coffee, but I don’t think more than three people (including the workers) can fit inside, let alone me and my SUV-stroller. So I tend to go to the chains here: Insomnia, and Cafe Java, and I tend to get tea at that point in the day.

  4. Vivian

    I don’t have much chance to explore either Stamford or NYC these days but I do have a favorite that is right around the corner from my office. It is called M Cafe and it is the sweetest little, little place owned & run by a handful of super hip Korean girls who wear cool hats. The cappuccinos are beautiful, creamy, and bold and they make pretty delicious macaroons in all colors of the rainbow. The cafe is modeled after a French bakery and while it’s just shy of gimmicky, the cafe is so tastefully and stylishly decorated that I don’t mind. It’s a happy place but know in advance that it has one, maybe two tables max!

    In L.A. I want to give recognition to Kaldi on Glendale Blvd in Atwater Village, simply because it was my local coffee shop where our house is located and I have really fond memories of it. I give Kaldi a lot of credit for being able to hold its own even though a Starbucks is located just a few doors down. The prices were right and even though their regular coffee and pastries were not my favorite, we would make a point of going there and getting a little something even if we then went to Starbuck’s to get our coffee. I will say that their ICE coffee was as good as any and a frequent go-to during those hot summers. Plus, once I saw a disheveled Colin Farrell hanging out in his pajamas. Pretty big news for little Atwater!

  5. Viyan

    I hate Starbuck’s too but I’m often forced into one because it’s the only thing around. Cafe misto is my drink of choice as well! As far as REAL coffee shops, Rebecca’s in South Park is my local pick followed by Cafe Basamm (it used to be in downtown and a lot cooler; now it’s in Banker’s Hill) and Cafe Lulu—I haven’t been there in years because they made it into a partial hooka lounge but it was one of the best mocha’s I’ve ever had.

    P.S. I read your blog too! Keep writing (typing)!!!

  6. In third place: Tinderbox in Islington (I think we’ve met there before. And most importantly, it is Not Starbucks)

    Second place: The Algerian Coffee shop in Soho (to buy)

    The winner – of course – Bar Italia in Soho! Also legendary bolt-hole post-clubbing, back in the day.

    • Hello Tangerine, I love Tinderbox too. We definitely have met there. It is a lovely little place, although hard to grab a seat with kids. My favorite in Islington remains Euphorium Bakery – and there are two now. Both of them are just up the road from Tinderbox, on Upper Street, and easier to navigate with a stroller. Their pastries are also divine. I liked the fact that I could actually sit down at a huge table and let the kids run around.

  7. The English husband

    I’d go along with tangerine26 – Bar Italia is the real deal; they’ve even imported the staff from Italy!

  8. I was so impressed by everyone’s comments that I’ve been inspired to include my own, from London. Since I spent so much time traipsing from one coffee shop to another, usually with one or both children, it’s hard to narrow down – but I am going to go with my ex-local as well. Sable d’ Or is a very small chain, owned privately, and it does some amazing, very French pastries. They opened up a branch on Upper Tollington Park Road in Finsbury Park last spring and it is beautiful, with exposed brick work and an open kitchen. When something like this opens up in Finsbury Park, a place where the greasy spoon and African hair salons are generally the norm, you hear about it quickly.
    I spent many an afternoon staring out of their windows and drinking their cappuccinos. I also spent one of my last days in London there, waiting out a torrential rainstorm in mid-July with the Chatterbox as company. I remember leaving and not knowing when, or if, I would make it back there one day.

  9. Valerie Krause

    I read your blog religiously! Let me give this some thought.

  10. April Wright

    Now that I’ve found it, I’m reading it ❤

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