In Need of a Study Break? A Review of Coffee Houses

by Kelly Dumke, Caroline Carney, and Jalal Elhayek

Boston Common Coffee Co. by Kelly Dumke

Wandering down Washington Street in hopes of finding a warm, cozy café to park my freezing California frame, I spotted the Boston Common Coffee Co.    With cold core but high hopes, I ventured in and was definitely not disappointed.

With three locations throughout the Boston area – Downtown Crossing, the North End, and the Financial District – the Boston Common Coffee Co. maintains the quality of a local coffeehouse and the warmth of a neighborhood bakery.   Black leather couches, big easy chairs, and plenty of tables in combination with its proximity to the Red Line make the Downtown Crossing location an ideal place to pop in for a warm beverage, delicious meal, sweet indulgence, or a cozy study spot with free wifi access.  Immediately upon entering the coffeehouse there is a sense of ease from the bustling city outside, and the expansive seating section creates a choice place to study, warm-up, or meet friends.

The Boston Common Coffee Co. boasts a new nearby roasting facility and commitment to buying local.  The coffeehouse is a certified Fairtrade coffee vendor, which means that the coffees they offer from South America, Indonesia, and Africa are grown under fair conditions that support farmers and promote organic farm conversion.  The wide selection of blends and a variety of flavored roasts – chocolate raspberry, cinnamon, cinnamon hazelnut, French vanilla, Swiss chocolate almond, and pumpkin pie – offer something for every coffee addict.

Some coffeehouses are brilliant with the beverages and blends but fall short in the heartier fare they offer as an accompaniment. Not the Boston Common Coffee Co.  With homemade soups, baked goods, sandwiches, and salads, this is a one-stop shop for fuel.  Breakfast sandwiches on fresh croissants or bagels are only $3.25.  A house favorite among customers is the homemade muffin tops in blueberry, cranberry nut, orange blossom, and peach granola for just $1.95.

The Boston Common Coffee Co.’s homemade salads include a three-bean, mixed green, and tortellini variety in 4oz to 16oz sizes for less than $4.  You can add a protein punch with tuna or grilled chicken.  Also popular are the fresh grilled paninis and wraps.  Varieties include “The Traditional” with mozzarella, homemade pesto tomatoes grilled on rosemary garlic bread;  “The Salem” with roasted eggplant, red peppers, and balsamic; and “The Sal” with an Italian fig spread, roasted red pepper, and fontina blend.  Sandwich prices range between $6 and $7.  Soup selections change daily with flavors like butternut squash with apple and New England Clam Chowder. For those with a sweet tooth, the coffeehouse offers a variety of local bakery indulgences including cannolis, éclairs, carrot cake cupcakes, and cookies.   The Boston Common Coffee Co. has a twitter feed updating fans on daily specials and promotions at http://twitter.com/BostonCommon

Whether you’re a Boston native, a student searching for nook to study, or a cold Californian looking for warmth in your new city, the Boston Common Coffee Co. offers great variety, cozy comfort, and a fairtrade coffee selection that is sure to satisfy every pallet.

Espresso Royale by Caroline Carney

I sat down with the manager of the Newbury Street Espresso Royal Caffe to talk about coffee, food, and the cafe (see below for details on the other two locations). Sal, the manager, is the archetype of the Espresso Royale employee. He is young, dressed like a punk-rocker in skinny-leg black jeans, a black t-shirt, a navy-blue hoodie, and a slightly askew Yankees hat.

Sal told me that Espresso Royale chooses to procure its coffee through direct trade rather than fair trade methods. I got the sense that Espresso Royale has done its research and feels passionately about this method. The coffee is the best I have tasted in Boston. While the source of the coffee changes, I have consistently found prominent notes of caramel, butter, and chocolate. The price of a small coffee, $1.85, is comparable to a tall at Starbucks.

Espresso Royale offers teas supplied by MEM Tea Imports, a Somerville company. MEM imports the tea directly from villagers and thereby helps to support the local culture and ecosystem. The extensive selection offers a tea for every mood. I highly recommend the yerba mate, which is light and earthy with a slight honey finish.

To accompany my beverage selection, I often opt for a Bagel Rising bagel. Bagel Rising owns Espresso Royale, so fresh bagels arrive each morning along with prepped sandwich fixings. The most popular is the whole wheat everything bagel. Get to Espresso Royale early to savor one of these beauties because they sell out before lunch. Bagels can be adorned with one of many regular or low-fat cream cheeses. They offer regular and low fat.

Those of us who are vegans or are less-than-tolerant of lactose can choose the tofu spread in plain, veggie, or sundried tomato. All are delicious. The excitement continues because Espresso Royale makes some serious bagel sandwiches. They use cage-free eggs and have vegetarian options. If you go, try the Joy of Soy: tofu spread, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, sprouts, roasted red peppers, and avocados. Most sandwiches are under $7.00 and rank high on the satiety scale.

Leo’s Bakery, in Marshfield, MA, bakes the muffins and the flax bars- a café favorite. These are made with flax seeds, oats, coconut, sesame seeds, raisins, soy beans, and honey. There is nutty sweetness in every bite. Savoy Bakery makes the croissants and pastries. Espresso Royale also offers Taza Chocolate, a Somerville company that crafts organic stone ground chocolate. I recommend the vanilla and chile dark chocolate disks. They both pair well with a cup of coffee or espresso.

Espresso Royale composts and recycles. Their cups for iced drinks are made of corn and their cups for both cold and hot drinks are completely compostable. The compost is picked up by Save That Stuff. You can guzzle some coffee and feel good about yourself all at the same time.

The music changes according to how busy the café is. In the morning and during the lunch rush, the music is more upbeat. During down times, it’s softer and quieter. Regardless of the time of day, you can be assured that the music will be good. Many of the employees are Berklee students with excellent taste in music. During my recent visit, songs by Louis Armstrong, Graham Nash, and Neil Young played softly in the background, providing just the right volume and vibe for the serious concentration needed during finals.  Espresso Royale offers free wireless and the table size is just right for a computer or a couple of books.

Espresso Royale Caffé is certainly worth a visit. Go there to study, grab lunch with friends, or listen to the coffee guy skatting à la Louis Armstrong with surprising skill. There is no stress at this café, only momentary panic that can set in when you are not sure what kind of tofu spread you want.

Ula Cafe by Jalal Elhayek

Leafy JP seems to hew closer to the residential model than its greater Boston counterparts Allston-Brighton and Somerville, resulting in a lower overall denizen to hang-out ratio. Imagine my dumb luck, then, to have found my home a few hundred meters from the up-and-coming Brewery complex, home to Bikes not Bombs, the Milky Way Lounge, and Ula Cafe. For those seeking student sanctuary at crunch time, the latter has no rival in the neighborhood. With the proper approach, you can linger unbothered for a full day of studying.

The coffee is good, if slightly unreliable. I have been served stale or weak versions of their fair-trade, locally roasted drip coffee on more than one occasion, though as the exception rather than the rule. The espresso drinks are always good, and lovingly crafted. When I need a good, strong coffee, I order an americano and add a touch of cream for a rich, dark kick in the butt. And if tea is more your…cup of tea, peruse the offerings from MEM Tea Imports, based in Somerville. From “Russian Caravan” to “China Jade,” a few cups worth of loose-leaf tea is presented in a small stoneware pot for your prolonged enjoyment.

Once you’ve put in a few hours on your social networking sites, you’ll likely be feeling peckish, especially with the various aromas wafting from their busy kitchen. With a full line of baked goods (including seemingly world famous popovers), oatmeal, and a daily offering of savory egg strata, breakfast is well represented. However, I find lunch to be their strong suit. A few daily soups and a regular line up of sandwiches on locally baked bread from Hi-Rise are supported by fresh salads.

Ula makes some effort to source locally, and rearrange the details of their menu by season. If you see the green bean almond soup, get it. Otherwise, choose a combination of soup, sandwich, and salad to your heart’s content (veg or not) for about $7-10. Just remember that this is a cafe, and you may be disappointed at the moderate portions (read: bring your own supplementary snacks if you like to stay full on a budget).

And now, the caveats: Ula is the only game in town, making space an issue. Although the interior oozes comfort and neighborliness and the tables and seating are appropriate for a sprawling study session, it’s all for naught if every seat is taken. Strategies are required to capitalize on the space. Three factors come into play here: crowding, lighting, and plugging-in. Ula gets slammed in mid-morning, and lunch times on weekdays. On weekends, there is a steady flow of locals, their dogs, and their stroller-bound children.

While the convivial atmosphere among the art covered walls makes for an inspiring scene of community, the result is difficulty getting a table, or staying focused. What I do is show up early, get my coffee, and stake out my spot. This way I’m guaranteed to get a table with good lighting and a nearby outlet. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you can snag a seat at their modest counter, which has all too many outlets. Though often full, the place never gets loud (oddly). If you’re nevertheless easily distracted by sudden rushes of people, or sudden blasts of indie rock, bring your headphones.

Bottom line: Pros: A well priced, socially responsible, and versatile offerings in a bona-fide students hangout. Cons: It is often overcrowded, some tables have poor lighting, and outlets are poorly distributed.

Espresso Royale Caffé
286 Newbury St.
Boston
(617) 859-9515
Monday – Saturday: 7am-11pm
Sunday: 7am- 5:30pm

44 Gainsborogh St. (near Northeastern University)
Boston
(617) 859-7080
Monday – Saturday: 7am-11pm
Sunday: 7am- 5:30pm

736 Commonwealth Ave. (near Boston University)
Boston
(617) 277-8737
Monday – Saturday: 7am-11pm
Sunday: 7am- 5:30pm

The Boston Common Coffee Co.
515 Washington St. (Downtown Crossing)
Boston
(617) 542-0595
Weekdays: 6am-9pm
Weekends: 6am-9pm

10 High Street (Financial District)
Boston
(617) 695-9700
Weekdays: 6am – 6pm
Weekends: Closed

97 Salem Street (North End)
Boston
(617) 725-0040
Weekdays: 6am-9pm
Weekends: 7am-9pm

Ula Cafe
284 Amory Street (in The Brewery),
Jamaica Plain
(617) 524-7890
Weekdays: 7am-7pm
Weekends: 8am-7pm

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