Told you I was a jet-setter! Okay, I am not a jet-setter. But I did travel to Massachusetts for my best friend’s wedding. It was imperative that I try out a coffee shop while there. Chanda, the bride, and Kevin, the groom, took me to Dwelltime, a sourcing-focused coffee boutique down the street from their home.
One look at the menu and you could tell that these people take their coffee seriously. I showed up a second time on my own to test the atmosphere for writing and found it highly hospitable. It doesn’t hurt that Cambridge is a college town. You can almost always be certain to find a good place to write and chug coffee in a college town. Indeed, most of its early-morning denizens were students, which momentarily sent me right back to college…not as nightmarish a feeling as expected.
I’m a caffeine junkie and cafe fly, but I don’t claim to be a coffee connoisseur, so while I enjoyed Dwelltime’s carefully-sourced and selected brews, I didn’t attain java enlightenment or anything. But it was good and I brought a bag home for myself and a friend, along with some of their homemade jam, which I probably appreciated more than the coffee–but that’s just me.
In case you’re curious, the wedding was a wonderful affair, and the bride was stunning.
Viscosity: 5 out of 5
Literati Cafe–West Side/Santa Monica Adjacent
For a time, I commuted from Highland Park to Brentwood for work. If you live in L.A., you probably cringed. My commute lasted up to two hours. Because I didn’t want to go “Falling Down” on the 10 freeway one day, I decided to park myself at a coffee shop near my work, as I had done in Downtown when I worked there, to wait out the traffic productively.
And so it was that I descended upon Literati Cafe, flapping my quill feather wings and squawking for coffee, only after a less-than-ideal experience at 8 Espressos, also near my work. It wasn’t entirely 8 Espressos’ fault that things didn’t work out. What happened is that I didn’t realize they have open mics later in the evening. Both times, they were running a comedy show. Both times, I–the only person in the audience not participating in the open mic–made an obscenely awkward exit. The last time (the time I decided I couldn’t come back), the comedian onstage begged me to stay. Begged into the microphone. Yep.
Literati was a last-minute decision. I had about 24 hours’ notice to write an article and needed a place to sit down and bang it out because I had a second article to write that same weekend. It was a Friday night. I arrived around 5:30 p.m. and found parking on Saltair, the first cross street after Wilshire. There’s unmetered street parking there if you can find a spot. I found plenty of spots at that time of day. When I showed up again at 5:30 on a Wednesday, it was a bit trickier. I can see this area being difficult for parking if you don’t want to pay, but I haven’t had to yet.
The coffee is good, the seating is ample. Good amount of outlets and they do have all-important free WiFi. In addition to pretty but unexceptional baked goods, you can get real (healthy) food here, so you’ll be fine if you’re marathon-writing and need serious fuel. I haven’t tried the real food because I live on coffee.
What with the name and the area, I was sure the crowd here would be pretentious, and I have witnessed some snotty behavior, but in general people show up to innocently socialize or work. It’s a decent crowd, and a decent place to wait out the five hours it takes for traffic to clear up in L.A.
Viscosity: 4 out of 5
The only problem I had with my old neighborhood was a lack of late-night coffee shops. When I lived in Downtown L.A. for a hot second, all I had to do was walk a couple blocks, order a cup of writing fuel, and enjoy the dull buzz of this city’s finest crazy-folk and students while doing my thing.
Highland Park needs a cafe that stays open late. Just sayin’. I always want to go to the Coffee Table in Eagle Rock but the crowding there is hellacious. One hot day, I decided to forgo coffee for boba and discovered a late-night boba place that wasn’t all the way out in Alhambra.
Flour+Tea specializes in boba done exactly the way you want it, and this glorious thing called a cloud. I’m not talking cumulus; I’m talking pillowy-soft, airy sponge cakes in flavors like black tea, strawberry rose, and blueberry lavender. I had the black tea cloud and a black tea boba and they were both perfect.
The boba shop offers stools and a high table for people in need of outlets and that worked for me. The problem with stool seating is that it gets uncomfortable after an hour or so. The place is tiny too, so you don’t have many other seating options. There are some almost communal tables in the center of the shop. I’d come back to blog over a boba and cloud, but not for lengthy writing sessions.
P.S. You can read more about the cakes and boba at Food Riot.
Viscosity: 3 out of 5
What better way to familiarize yourself with a new neighborhood than to explore its coffee shops? I actually grew up in the Highland Park/South Pasadena/Eagle Rock area, but things have changed in the past decade. Now that I’m back, I’ve come to realize that what was once a network of churches, rinky-dink shops and little else, is now turning into yet another L.A. hipster mecca. So I set out with my laptop to rediscover the neighborhoods of my yesteryear; to find a corner in it where I could sit quietly and do what I do.
Cafe de Leche–Highland Park
You know what? I was ready to write this place off as a 2 out of 5. The original first sentence of my Cafe de Leche review was, “Meh.” This is why it’s important to give a bad experience a second chance, because Cafe de Leche isn’t meh. Let me explain.
I first arrived at the shop high on three cups of Highland Cafe’s Handsome Coffee. I wasn’t feeling too hot. Stomach acid may have been leaking into my system and my laptop battery was in the red. I ordered a fourth coffee because I didn’t want to sit down without buying something like a chump, but I wasn’t hungry. A regular stood in line in front of me. He happily chatted away with the baristo. But when I was up, I got the customer service cold front. I got text wrap around my irises–the man was repelled by my very gaze. Was this real or a product of my coffee bean high? I’m pretty sure it was real. The place was packed and the outlets here are sparse–that is one real drawback to writing in the shop. If you’re a presser of keys who needs a charge, you’ll have to hope for a seat at the high table near the front door where you’ll find an outlet.
I cursed under my breath. I could only stay for 25 minutes, after which time my laptop would flip me off. I slapped my MacBook open to log on to the Wifi and saw this:
It was like the universe was telling me to GTFO. So I did.
I typed out my angry rant wherein I would have told you all to stay away, but I ruminated on it… I’ve had bad days, haven’t I? Maybe coffee shops have bad days too.
So I showed up on another Saturday around the same time, but only after half a cup at Highland Cafe. Both baristas greeted me sweetly and cheerfully. A cute design was rendered in my cappuccino foam (they serve Stumptown Coffee Roasters here if that means anything to you). It wasn’t as crowded that day, so I got a better look at the place and found myself charmed by its quaintness: the cruiser bike mounted high on the wall, the grass-green patio chairs, the exposed ceiling beams and general airiness of the cafe. I took a deep breath and sat at that high table (though I showed up fully charged like a pro).
I re-read my review as the barista/os laughed and joked around behind me. A warm flood of shame washed across my face. What a jerk.
Cafe de Leche isn’t my Highland Cafe–the seating is a bit claustrophobic for the paranoid writer who thinks everyone is checking for typos over her shoulder–but it’s not the place I’d been ready to paint it as. Moral of the story.
I’m glad I gave Leche a second chance. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Viscosity: 3.5 out of 5
Buster’s Coffee–South Pasadena
I’m going to admit straightaway that I’m biased about Buster’s. I used to go to the double-decker coffee shop for shakes and Italian sodas with my dad all the time as a kid, so this retro establishment resides in the warm, fuzzy area of my memories. I wore a Gaussian blur veil stepping into the place which, by the way, hasn’t changed since I first started going.
Okay, a couple of things have changed. The shopkeepers maintain a few funny, somewhat boggling, rules about technology. No cell phones while placing your order: 100% understandable and it’s sad they need a sign for that. Only use laptops at non-yellow tables upstairs? Oooookay. They’re also strict about how long you use their Wifi. I guess they don’t want you occupying their tables for an inordinate length of time. I get it. I’ve seen people walk in and then immediately out of shops with unrestricted Wifi because every seat was occupied, including large tables taken up by a single occupant chained to his or her laptop. That’s business lost. Which is why I always either order food with my coffee or buy two drinks when I stay at any cafe for a long stretch, and I try to take up the least amount of space possible since I’m usually alone or with one other person. If I’m at a cafe that long, it usually means I like the place, which means I want it to stay in business.
Buster’s epitomizes kitsch. If your story is set in the 50s or 60s, you have to try writing here. I promise you’ll be inspired. And if you’re not completely satisfied, get yourself a chocolate malt and all regrets will slip away. Magic. The cafe is full of teal, brick red, orange. The tables and chairs are rustic, painted things; everything has a haphazard, grandma’s attic appeal.
Oh and there’s a door to nowhere. If you opened it and stepped out, you’d fall through space and land on the Metro Rail tracks. I’m pretty sure the staff push technology rule-breakers out of this door.
The coffee here is always good. It’s mellow and unobtrusive. It might be Chock Full o’Nuts–nobody here is swishing coffee around their mouths to identify the notes in their beans. The “technology area” upstairs is nice and quiet. It’s an enclave with a nice view of the similarly old-timey strip of Mission Street it sits on.
One thing to note is that Buster’s gets intense on hot days. The sun brings in ice cream addicts because their shakes and malts are menu highlights. It crowds fast. Ice cream also draws kids, so you might be swarmed by half-pints. But on a weekday during work hours or on an off weekend, the place is a slice of vintage heaven.
Viscosity: 3.75 out of 5
Highland Cafe–Highland Park
I had to hold off on telling you about this place for a while because I had to pee on it first. Okay, I didn’t really pee on it, but I did have to establish my presence here before putting it on blast.
You know when you find a place that you want so badly to be your Cheers? That’s how I feel about Highland Cafe. It’s right down the street from me, it has just the right ambience, super writer-friendly layout, Wifi, nice staff, great food and, importantly, strong coffee. Although, they serve Handsome Coffee, which leans toward acidic in its plain, hot state. I’d recommend the cappuccino, which is my favorite form of coffee anyway. But they don’t stop at coffee. Highland offers a delicious and (mostly) nutritious breakfast and lunch menu. I recommend the huevos rancheros.
This is the coffee shop I’ve been looking for and the reason I can never move.
I even considered not talking about this place at all. My Gollum-desire to keep the precious battled it out with my moral duty to report on amazing writing spaces for the good of the collective. Guess who won? One day I’m going to crush you under my boot, Jiminy Cricket.
Highland Cafe is one of a few new shops that opened up on Figueroa, a Highland Park street that has been crawling toward gentrification for about six years. It’s starting to look a lot like Silverlake. I don’t mean that in a wholly bad way. Sure, the Wifi networks around these parts are now riddled with outraged contempt, but I kinda like what the old neighborhood is becoming. I’m not restricted to hanging out at Jack in the Box on Eagle Rock Blvd anymore.
I certainly can’t find anything despicable about Highland Cafe. This is the kind of place where the waiters dance with each other behind the counter and croon along with Morrisey, albeit tunelessly. This is the kind of place where they enthusiastically shout their goodbyes as you scurry out the door. This is where I want to be when I write.
Viscosity: 5 out of 5 (!!)
Holy Grounds Coffee & Tea–El Sereno
I shielded my eyes from the sun and stared out at the quiet, open street in front of a folksy, colorful cafe. I would never have traveled down that section of Alhambra Avenue on a random search for coffee and would later pause to thank whatever coincidence led Justi to learn of Holy Grounds‘ existence. It was Justi I waited for. She was joining me for coffee, as usual, but not for the usual reasons.
I didn’t have my laptop and loose pages of ink-splattered manuscript that day. We weren’t meeting to write or study; we were meeting on personal business–to talk about endings and beginnings. We were both going through the same thing at the same time, and I for one needed to bend a nonjudgmental ear. Thank goodness Justi expresses the recessive gene that makes her ears just so.
I was early, so I went in to order a cup of coffee. I threw caution to wind and chose something with dairy–lactose intolerance be damned during times of war. The waitress was friendly and sociable. She talked about the coffee shop as if it was an old friend, and as she talked, I began to feel like I was in someone’s home, having a chat. I took my coffee outside to the open square. The sun beamed down on the tables and coruscated off the burbling water from a stone fountain. I really did start to feel like I was heading into therapy at that moment outside with the “nature track” playing around me.
Justi strolled out minutes later with a diabolical coffee drink that put my dairy-infused beverage to shame. We talked for a long time, accompanied, for the most part, only by a tabby cat who sprawled out beside us to soak the heat.
Did I write? No. Can I unequivocally say Holy Grounds is a great place for writers? Yes. It had just the right ratio of noise to silence. Just the right mood. Just the right space. I only wonder if it would be challenging in less perfect weather as most of the seating is outdoors.
In any case, it’s spring. I’m returning with my laptop.
Viscosity: 4 out of 5
Tom N Toms–Koreatown (3974 Wilshire Blvd.)
I think that somewhere in Koreatown, there exists a Tom N Toms wrapped in a Tom N Toms stuffed with pureed Tom N Toms. This chain coffee shop is ubiquitous in that neighborhood. I have seen Tom N Tomses two blocks away from each other. I’m not exaggerating–Justi was directing me to one of these coffee shops and I ended up at a different one just down the street. We were both confused.
Going to a Tom N Toms might be considered cheating in the context of this series, which focuses mainly on independent, local coffee shops, as it is the Starbucks of Koreatown. But Korean coffee shops have such a unique flavor to them, visiting does become an experience for the unfamiliar caffeine addict.
What coffee shop serves different types of brick toast? And I swear I had the best iced green tea latte ever here (Green Tea TomNccino).
I hear these coffee shops are packed with young, noisy types later in the day, and that they blast K-pop directly into your ears. Luckily, it was early in the day when we arrived and only a few older groups sat outside to people watch and chat on the porch with a soft soundtrack of bad, but ignorable, smooth jazz. So I can’t give these rumors credence. Yet.
Tom N Toms is near the top of my list in terms of how much work I got done.
I don’t live near this particular shop anymore, but I was informed about another near my office and recently checked it out. I’m not telling you about that one because I intend to use it as my almost-daily spot and I like having a place to park on the street.
Viscosity 4.5 out of 5