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Monday, October 29, 2018

Working in Coffeehouses, Part 119

IT IS EASILY ARGUED THAT, more than ambiance, a coffeehouse needs wifi and enough room on the table for your computer, coffee, and cellphone. Of course, we’re far from the days of Addison and Steele, when a single, notable newspaper might be produced: now the coffees have designs etched in foam and the writing contributes to the solipsistic howls of a million little blogs.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But that doesn’t make it any less fun to work in the right place. I don’t require much. It’s nice to be considered a regular, at least when it gets you a free beverage now and then, but it’s nicer to find an electrical outlet yawning near your seat. As one for whom caffeine is forbidden, I have no patience with the snob joints that eschew decaf roasts. What may seem trendily arrogant from your Brooklyn-aping perch is a serious health issue for me. And I think your tattooed forearm looks silly.

I’d like the background music kept interesting and quiet. It doesn’t have to be classical – I subject myself to a sufficiency at home – but good taste in jazz counts for a lot, so how about a Bill Evans track or two? And please don’t try to imitate Starbucks. That pretentious, labor-hostile chain is annoying enough on its own. Be different. Call it a “large.”

Nothing furthers the cause of atmosphere more effectively that age, and there’s a spot in Manhattan’s West Village that is the hands-down champ of coffeehouse ambiance: Caffè Reggio at 119 MacDougal Street. I’ve written about the place before, but it’s worth revisiting, which I had the chance to do this evening.

Walking up MacDougal from Houston requires the agile avoidance of the inevitable comedy club hawkers and street throng, especially at night. Past the venerable Café Wha? the street is flanked by all manner of little eateries and boutiques, but Caffè Reggio is still a zoom back in time.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s been there since 1927, which is significant enough. The walls are a crazy display of classical artwork; the music is a rotation of a few well-known classical tunes. (Fine with me, although Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 does grow wearisome after a while.) The tables are an every-which-way assortment of shapes and sizes, and wouldn’t you know it. I got placed at a two-top next to the pastry case.

Ten o’clock at night, and the tables were almost filled. Beside me, a party of five squeezed around a table for four and alternated a lively conversation between Italian and English, with a succession of cappuccinos (making their U.S. debut right here 91 years ago) followed by a round of massive cheesecake slices.

How the servers manage, I cannot say. They must weave between tables where’s there no room to weave. The part of my substantial frame that spilled into the wee aisle was barely brushed by either of the tray-laden workers. And two of them were taking care of the rather large room, yet when one stopped to take my order she gave the impression that she had all the time in the world to learn what I desired. Which is an important skill in this business – that and the friendly hand that fell on my shoulder as the bill was presented at the end of my stay. Of course that inspired a generous tip.

The only drawback was the small amount of work I got finished as I made my way through a book I’ll be writing about here in a couple of weeks. I tried to read and take notes, honest. But a place like this also gets too distracting.

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