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
I’ve decided to continue the Best Place to Write in Los Angeles thread indefinitely rather than ending it here at Part 3, as originally planned. I’ll be taking my adventures in writing beyond coffee shops, exploring some other–perhaps offbeat–spots, and also on the road because I’m a vagabond rockstar and wanderlusting jet-setter…
The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa — Culver City
Guest Post by Victoria Farrow
I’ve gone to The Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa about three times by now. The first time I wasn’t impressed at all. The place is awkwardly designed and feels cramped. It isn’t the biggest coffee shop ever but the seating area is so tight. The chairs and tables are not comfortable or inviting, just patio furniture it seems.
The place was kind of dirty; there are huge burlap sacks of coffee beans on a platform right when you walk in and rogue beans have not been swept from underneath it in forever. They do offer loose leaf teas to taste and buy, but the area to do so is as large as a hallway and difficult to access if more than one person is in that area as well.
Anyway, let’s get on to the important stuff…Their selection is the basic/essential coffee/espresso offerings but it seems they specialize in having various types of beans and roasts available. I’ve had a few different things here and maybe my palette is not fine enough, but it just tastes like coffee or espresso. It doesn’t blow my socks off. Their pastries look good, but don’t get their sandwich croissants; it was made with so much butter it felt like a slippery fish in my hands. Their muffins and scones are better.
Overall, this place is average.
Yikes! I thanked Victoria for saving me from a bad cup of coffee. I didn’t rate this one since I haven’t actually been there, but I doubt I’ll be visiting after that review.
Kaldi Coffee — Atwater Village
Justi suggested this place called Kaldi Coffee & Tea in Atwater Village and I was game to go based on her recommendation, but I was more excited about finally visiting my old java hole adjacent to the South Pasadena Public Library. Although the South Pas cafe is my favorite in all the land, I could never remember its name. It was such a nondescript, tucked-away place. For the longest time I didn’t know it had a name. The mystery was part of its charm.
You can imagine my confusion when Justi told me the name of her recommended coffee shop in Atwater and the very same name came up for my coffee shop in South Pas. The website didn’t mention two locations, so I assume it moved. I can’t confirm because we didn’t go to South Pas. Honestly, I was afraid to find my little coffee shop full of memories abandoned.
The Atwater Kaldi bore no resemblance to my Kaldi, but, inside, a fat leather armchair waited for me in a puddle of sun, so I couldn’t hold a grudge. Justi and I sprawled out like the cold-blooded lizards we are and enjoyed a cup. The shop brews its coffee on site. Could I tell the difference? Not really. It was nice and strong though; after so many weak coffees, I’ve come to appreciate that detail. They also have a large selection of teas.
Atwater is thoroughly gentrified so I was surprised by the lack of crowding inside. I guess hipsters don’t wake up earlier than noon (I swear I don’t dislike hipsters even though I keep insulting them…oh wait, yes I do). Only two or three others occupied the airy, white-walled space. Some uncomfortable-looking patio furniture hedged the street just outside the shop, but it wasn’t warm enough for that. Besides–fat leather armchair!
At Kaldi, I finally finished writing Part 2 of the Places to Write thread so I’d call it a successful writing environment. It was just quiet enough. Perhaps not having a plate of breakfast in front of me helped. Don’t come here on an empty stomach unless fruit and cold pastries satisfies you. It would not do for us, so Justi and I vacated to find food.
Viscosity: 4 out of 5
Novel Cafe — Pasadena
Justi and I learned an important lesson: never coffee hunt on an empty stomach, especially when you don’t have a plan. I thought we could wing it. We had the infallible Yelp on our side. All we had to do was find a coffee shop that served food. As we frowned at the sparse menu board in a dingy Glendale coffee shop-cum-greasy spoon that Yelp assured us was a-okay, I began to regret my bad planning. We wandered past the fancy shops and “experience” restaurants at the Americana–an outdoor shopping center–and knew we had to get right back in the car and head elsewhere before the day escaped us.
We tried our luck near Pasadena City College, where Justi had to be dropped off later, and found Novel Cafe. With a name like that, we couldn’t go wrong. This discovery turned out to be worthy of celebration in the form of mimosas. Their menu was thoughtful, they had coffee, and we could sit outside, away from the crowd, and set up our laptops. Although this place was a godsend for hungry people with writing and studying to do, I wouldn’t write here unless I could sit in the outdoor area. Indoors, Novel Cafe is very much a restaurant. I suspect working on a laptop in the low lit social atmosphere would have proved awkward.
This is one of those entries where the place is great, but maybe not so much for the task at hand.
Viscosity: 2.5 out of 5
SteamPunk CoffeeBar + Kitchen — North Hollywood
Like many alternative and creative types, I threw myself into steampunk when it reared its brassy, cog-cluttered head a few years ago. And, like many, the glut of steampunk everything eventually became unbearable and I lost the ecstasy.
But I do have an appreciation for steampunk done well if not just for the aesthetic appeal. So when my coffee companion, Justi, told me about SteamPunk CoffeeBar + Kitchen in North Hollywood, jaded as I am, I immediately said, “let’s do this.”
The coffee shop sits on a nondescript street. Strip malls, fast food, a random mix of small businesses. That kind of street. On this street, the café’s woodwork saloon storefront stands out. Inside it’s tats and laptops. The cashiers/waiters/possibly owners are friendly. They have a great breakfast menu–no cold pastries and bananas in baskets here. Justi and I ordered a traditional scramble and a coffee; we grabbed a table without any hassle. It always seems like we’re just ahead of the morning crowd.
I like the idea of writing feng shui and believe décor, as a component of atmosphere, can lend to (or stifle) one’s flow. I’d love nothing better than to write in a forest where the tree trunks are made of book bindings and the leaves of pages. Steampunk did originate in literature, so why shouldn’t steampunk décor provide some inspiration even if my works in progress have nothing to do with the genre?
Unfortunately, our arrival may have been premature for a moment of steampunk catharsis. The shop had that “still moving in” smell. And that’s how I learned that Justi is quite the interior designer (which was further explored at our next stop). She had a wealth of ideas for how the restaurant could improve their look on the cheap, and I recommend they hire her for a consultancy.
The place had some art by Brian Kesinger and the area behind the cash register was thought out with coppery panels on the walls and an early 20th(?) century cash register behind the counter. But after that you get bare white walls, exposed wiring (not in an artistic/crafty way) and unremarkable chairs and tables. If the draw is steampunk décor, the shop has a long way to go.
But–BUT–I got a lot of work done. At the time, I was rushing toward a deadline with my graphic novel and had a lot of revising to do before day’s end. Even with the distraction of good food, I got a ton of work done. The morning crowd never got too bad–an advantage of the shop’s newness, I suspect. It wasn’t too loud or cramped. I think it has great potential, especially if the service and food remain consistent.
Viscosity: (a surprising) 4 out of 5
The Trails Cafe — Los Feliz
It was after visiting The Trails that I wondered if my next series should be “Strangest Places to Write in L.A.” The Trails is a coffee shop housed in a miniature cabin nestled in the woods of Griffith Park. No inside seating, just picnic tables but plenty of them. Best check the weather forecast before making plans to write here unless you prefer your paper soggy, your ink spattered, or your laptop fizzling. It was a surprisingly hot winter’s day when Justi and I made it out to Trails. Luck is always on the side of the voyager (unless you count the Donner Party…or Amelia Earhart…or Ernest Shackleton…or…).
When you approach the front of the line (and I get the feeling there’s always a line), a gaggle of delectable baked on-site pastries peeks out at you from the window, and you’ll almost certainly order one. I got a strawberry rhubarb mini-pie because I can’t resist anything in miniature.
I got a decent amount of work done, even with a children’s party in full, screaming, swing around us. Oddly, the white noise of children may have helped (although I had to make sure none of the more horrifying images from the graphic novel were on my screen when a kidlet was nearby).
I’d say Trails is the place to go if you’re having writer’s block. If such a thing afflicts you, Justi suggests considering Walden while walking the trails, drinking a hot, deliciously piny cup of lapsang suchong.
Instead of searching the trails for plot devices and tropes, we went in search of branches, ill-prepared for clambering up hills (but clamber we did), because Justi had an attack of DIY after the steampunk place and needed a shelf. What better way to end a day of writing and caffeinating?
Viscosity: 3.5 out of 5