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The “Profiles” features in The New Yorker are some of the most inspirational, thought-provoking pieces of writing one could read on otherwise unproductive, stifling commutes on the subway. In a recent feature, Jony Ive, senior vice-president of design at Apple, alludes to the German designer Dieter Rams as a source of inspiration. To quote the article:

“In Rams’s formulation, a new object should be innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough, and environmentally friendly, and feature ‘as little design as possible.'”

While this is certainly applicable to Apple and its immensely profitable products, that last bit is profoundly gospel-like – as little design as possible. Now, more than ever, when coffee roasters and cafes are investing more time, energy, and money into designing and operating coffee shops of varying appearances, “cafe design” has become a cornerstone topic. (As a footnote, you can read my interview with Brian Jones of Dear Coffee I Love you, here.)

Less is more. Design is most effective when it whispers. Shouting, while eye-grabbing for fleeting moments, is distracting to the ultimate experience of enjoying a tasty cup of coffee.

Peregrine Espresso, in the Eastern Market neighborhood in DC, embodies this ideal. I have heard of Peregrine’s impressive selection of impeccably (in-house) roasted beans, and the masterful orchestration of its baristas. All true. The natural sun-dried Yirgacheffe I tried that day, from the Idido farm, was immaculate. With hints of Concord grape and strawberry jam, the cup was balanced with just enough acidity.

Compared to the flashy flavors of its coffees, the cafe itself is very understated. No Scandinavian furniture, no fancy lighting, no multi-colored chalk drawings sprawled about. Space is a premium. Yet the cafe is profound. Peregrine’s logo, re-created on one wall, is symbolized with a shade of the color green; that green theme is subconsciously reminded throughout the cafe, to the point where it goes unnoticed until the second or third glance. The place does not shout “hipster.” It is clean-cut, minimal, where you have just the essentials – bar, brewing gear, pastry/coffee display, tables, chairs. Not much else.

On a rather unassuming Wednesday afternoon, the cafe was bustling. Patrons order, chat, drink, chat some more. Some stay, some leave. A cafe carrying out its essential functions is a beautiful thing. Serve great coffee, provide an inviting space, highlight your brand quietly in design, but powerfully in taste.

Specialty coffee, in recent years, has attracted (unwillingly, and unintentionally, maybe) a pretentious side. While in line at Peregrine, I overheard an interesting exchange between a patron and a barista.

“Could you grind this bag for an AeroPress, and this bag for a Bialetti?”

Perfectly legitimate request, until you think it through. The AeroPress and Bialetti are both excellence brewing contraptions. But getting freshly roasted specialty coffee pre-grinded – by the bag – defeats the purpose of buying specialty coffee or brewing with varying devices. Brewing devices exist to highlight different angles and flavor profiles in a batch of coffee. The lone fact that you are brewing using an AeroPress or Bialetti has little value in itself. It almost seems as if saying “I brew with an AeroPress” automatically places one in the class of coffee connoisseur. It does not.

It does not take a major stretch in imagination to think that coffee – although perfectly sourced, processed, and roasted – that was ground three, five, seven days prior, is not the same coffee. It loses aroma and essential oils that are so vital to highlighting the coffee’s flavors. The AeroPress and Bialetti are not flavor injectors; they are mere tools to enhance what the beans already possess.

There is no room for pretentiousness in coffee. While the science behind cultivating, picking, processing, roasting, and brewing coffee is undeniable, enjoying coffee is simple, as simple as things get. In this regard, coffee’s magnetic attraction to design is irreversible. Contraptions, cafes, brands – they are there but not there. Getting out of the way for the coffee in the cup to shine is hard to execute but essential to sustainable success.

Peregrine would have Rams’ approval. Aesthetic beauty is best exemplified through unobtrusive, honest design. And design is best exemplified when there is as little design as possible.

Design is not foreign or alien. It is most effective when it is the opposite: intimate. But one could argue good design is roving or migratory, in that it is never the overwhelming statue in the middle of the room. Rather, it is a steady, constant current, drifting through the core. According to Peregrine, its name is defined, fittingly, as follows:

Peregrine (per’e-grin,-gren)
1. Foreign; alien.
2. Roving/wandering; migratory

[Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin peregrïnus, wandering, pilgrim, from Latin, foreigner, from pereger, being abroad]

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A feeling of loss? Theft, maybe. Relinquishment?

It’s the feeling when a best kept secret is no longer a best kept secret, when the world knows what you thought was secretly yours. I guess it was never a best kept secret in the first place – it was never ours, never mine. It was the world’s to begin with.

I’m talking about Baked & Wired in Georgetown.

Weekday mornings, weekend evenings, it seems nearly impossible now to find a decently serene time of day to fully enjoy this beautiful coffee shop. The coffee bar is on full throttle – milk steaming, espresso flowing, coffee grinding. Tourists, passers-by, serious folk, casual folk, they’re all lined up in a squiggly formation in front of the pastry and cupcake shrine. And macaroons, too.

Coffee is great here, partly because they usually offer a variety of single-origin beans from a few roasters. Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and so on. I don’t usually drink lattes, but when I do, it is here at B&W. If you do have a sugary urge, do grab a cupcake. Yes, you read that correctly. Cupcake. There is a particularly famous joint in Georgetown, one that has its own TV series, where tourists stand in lines that go for blocks, in rain and snow. You might of heard of it, yeah, Georgetown Cupcake, or whatever. Totally overrated compared to the stuff at B&W. Better frosting, better flavor, better and better. I don’t usually buy cupcakes, but when I do, you get the gist.

Great coffee, great baked goods. But I like this place because of its somewhat odd, unbalanced interior. The coffee bar is understated, the La Marzocco machine is prominently featured, while random trinkets hang from the ceiling in harmony with hand-written menus. Minimal, essential. The baked goods bar is contrasted by giant moon-like lighting fixtures, illuminating the assortment of carbohydrates enveloped under glass lids. More like an art showcase than a pastry display. Glamorous, even.

The back of the coffee shop is starkly different, highlighted by a “Napkin Wall.” Dozens of paper napkins are taped to the wall, all of them with some form of writing or drawing (or both) on them. I don’t know what the wall is supposed to represent. As a collective, it seems to be a “I was here” sort of thing, individual doodles making a broader collage with no particular meaning. Meaning, however, is no prerequisite to general aesthetic beauty. And the wall, in an eery way, is beautiful.

The coffee shop that was never mine, never ours, is no longer mine, no longer ours. But it’s still there, serving good stuff, and the wall is growing. Each stroll through Georgetown will always feel incomplete without a visit to Baked & Wired.

And as the great Maya Angelou would say

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

Walking out of the screening of “Chef” the movie, a prominent thought in one’s mind has to be, “I’ve got to get me a Cubano. Now.” After the pork fantasy subsides, the next prominent thought is the “pretentiousness” of the food and coffee world. When does one cross the line between “connoisseur” and “snob”? How does one define “good” food or coffee? Or is there even such a definition? Can good food be just “good,” and can good coffee be just “good,” without the superlatives, adjectives, and the beards and flannel?

While spending some time away from this site, I was asking myself some of these questions. As a read various coffee reviews and food columns – and as I tried to wrap my head around those honey-blood orange-cactus-butterfly-cumquat cupping notes – I realized that coffee and food is not some hipster fad. Rather, they are fundamentals of life that have been part of people’s lives since the dawn of civilization (yes, coffee came a bit later). Gatherers gathered, hunters hunted, farmers farmed, fishermen fished. And at the end of the day, folks built a fire and gathered around a table to break bread. Good food, good people. No nonsense, just communion.

When I first planned to write about Northside Social in Arlington (alas, already several months ago), I remember being somewhat disappointed that the cafe did not offer pour over coffee. I thought to myself, you’re serving great Counterculture Coffee, and all you have is that pre-dripped Bunn trash that I can get at the diner down the street? And yes, I was planning to write a harsh review on Northside’s lack of coffee sophistication, that while serving as a cool local hangout, the cafe did not offer anything worth noting.

Snob. Douche. Unappreciative of what coffee, and food, is all about.

Northside Social is the perfect cafe for a late night shot of whatever (and wine upstairs) with terrific pastries (biscotti and chocolate cake are worth every bite) and sandwiches. When most other cafes are closed by nightfall, Northside runs strong into the night, buzzing until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Besides having more than enough tables outside for a cold one on a summer night, live music in the cafe is not a stranger, as musicians from all roads come and go with their tales.

Good coffee is so much more than cupping notes. The countless minutes I wasted swirling my Chemexed brew around my tongue to get a glimpse of that preserved blackberry note. While quality beans roasted perfectly will undoubtedly have pronounced flavors, there is no need to make coffee more than what it is. Some of the best food I’ve had came from the fish-gut riddled streets of an outdoor market in rural Korea, and I was applying a different standard to coffee. A lack of pour over service is not a death sentence. Maybe I don’t need to know the exact soil content of the micro lot the coffee came from. Maybe I just won’t drop a Benjamin to buy that state-of-the-art coffee scale, maybe I just won’t nervously eye the stopwatch to time my brew to the exact second.

Maybe I’ll just brew coffee and drink coffee.

Excellence should be awarded. Perfection should be pursued, and perfected. Yes, please don’t stop developing those personal relationships with micro lot farmers, and please don’t stop working the soil to harvest the best coffee there is. Please keep the science moving.

But at the end of the day, it’s meat over an open pit, fresh bread from the oven, and coffee. It’s that steaming Cubano from the truck. It’s a good meal with good people, and coffee. A good Cubano is not birthed by chance; marinating the pork, roasting it, slicing it, buttering the bread, pressing it down on the grill, all requires precise science, innovation, technique. But that Einstein Cubano is not meant to be eaten with forks and knives. It’s best when eaten curbside, hot mustard and grease running down your thumb, the Autumn heat pounding on the back of your neck.

Coffee tastes of the atmosphere. It’s a communal beverage, soaking in the notes of the music and people that surround it during consumption. In that realm, Northside has great coffee. Folks chatting over a glass of wine, folks chomping on paninis with their eyes glued to their Macbook monitors, folks splitting a thick slab of triple-chocolate cake over late night coffee. Lively, boisterous, unpretentious. Coffee where coffee belongs, in the midst of conversation, work, tears, joy. Amongst the people.

Give coffee back to the people.

Admittedly, it is not normal for one to enjoy a cup of hot, drip coffee at nine p.m. But a life of sole individual norms does not add to much, and for no particular reason, I have a personal tradition of ordering black coffee before late night movies. It is as addictive, and comforting, as extra-buttered popcorn or warm kettlecorn. As others munch through their bags of corn, I sip incessantly, sometimes consciously, but mostly at a pace of utter ignorance and lack of thought. I just drink.

Coffee at the movies does not usually generate much conversation. Not only is it less popular than the standard popcorn, nachos, and soda, but the quality is (understandably) below what I would consider drinkable. Somewhere between law school coffee and the three p.m. leftover pot at work. For coffee, that is kin to the eighth ring of hell, in Dante’s terms. Soda and popcorn, that is the staple. Soda and nachos, soda and hotdogs. I find incredible, heartfelt joy when I find another being sipping coffee at the movies, as if I’d found a long lost kin.

Angelika Film Center and Cafe is like none other. When it first opened its theater in the Mosaic District in Northern Virginia, people flocked to it for the balanced showings of independent and blockbuster films, the occasional foreign features, and believe it or not, the kimchi hotdog – which I’ve tried, and to my disappointment, is nothing special. Bollywood or no Bollywood, kimchi-dog or no kimchi-dog, what drew my attention was the shiny La Marzocco espresso machine on the first floor. I could not believe my eyes. Where was the Denny’s coffee pot, and Bunn brewing thing?

Along with beer on tap and an impressive assortment of baked goods, the tiny cafe in the corner brews Intelligentsia coffee, even at the utmost late hours, for addicts like me shaking to take that fresh cup into the showing. The baristas knew what they were doing, and let’s just say that sipping quality coffee at the movies was something I did not expect to see in this decade.

After opening its flagship theater in New York’s Soho district in 1989, Angelika has expanded into Dallas and Plano, Texas, and Northern Virginia. This is not the AMC you’re accustomed to. The interior design, the layout, and the lighting is more like an exhibition, patrons lounging and chatting with a glass of wine, pint of beer, and yes, coffee. Gourmet snacks, gourmet-level independent films, and a gourmet atmosphere is very fitting for gourmet coffee.

Angelika’s iconic logo, resembling the likes of a mixed breed between a Greek god, Roman soldier, and rugby stud, hangs prominently on one wall, as if to watch over the patrons as they ascend or descend the glass stairs to and from the theaters. I wish, however, that Angelika would make more use of the logo. Simple prints or stamps of it on the coffee cups or sleeves would be a nice touch, and would enhance its branding.

Tapping the Fandango app on my phone, finding a new movie I’ve barely heard of, realizing that it starts in thirteen minutes, rushing to the theater, barely making it to my seat to catch the final seconds of previews – with a cup of Intelligentsia coffee in hand. Fewer things in life could be more satisfying.

Wikipedia defines a collage as “a technique of an art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.”

An assemblage of different forms. Creating a new whole. Most things we consider “uniform” did not start out in uniformity. At one point, most things we consider as uniform, as a singular “whole,” began as distinct, individualistic blurbs, heralding from different corners of this organized chaos we refer to as our world. An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes, whether or not the purveyor of the said whole or the recipient of the benefits of the said whole realize the distinctness that embodies this new creation.

When one studies the history of coffee, from its early beginnings through colonialism through industrialism and beyond, one realizes the undeniable fact that coffee history is “an assemblage of different forms.” As the coffee trade traveled through cities, countries, and continents, it absorbed distinct blurbs of disinctness, reformatting itself to the needs and wants of the people.

The coffee house was no exception. Debate house for debaters, political house for politicals, chat house for chatters. The coffee houses we know today are a product of this assemblage of hundreds of years, and is still being molded to create a “new whole.”

Killer E.S.P. in Old Town Alexandria is a collage.

The cafe’s entrance is bright and airy, as an impressive selection of colorful gelato and a hand-painted elephant greet you. As one walks deeper towards the back of the cafe, the more “random” everything becomes – an odd collection of tables and couches, eclectic photographs hanging throughout, and red brick walls as old as Old Town itself. Organized chaos, when executed precisely, is a beautiful thing. An assemblage of different forms creating a new whole is no easy task, and Killer E.S.P. almost has it.

“An assemblage of distinctness thus creates new wholes.”

Seating per square feet says a lot about a coffee house. More seats, more bustle. Less seats, less bustle. To add to the character of a coffee house, the decision to place more or less seats per square foot should be made on an aesthetic basis. Done this way, even a “cramped” coffee house could resemble “an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole.” Coffee houses should not be about “turning tables” without any design considerations on how the seating affects the cafe experience.

The random collection of tables and couches at Killer E.S.P., seemingly thrown together at the back of the cafe, is not ideal for reminiscence, quiet conversation, or work. However, that is why this coffee house has character. The random tables and couches add character, the photographs on the wall add character, the “tightness” of the space adds character, the loud music adds character. Killer E.S.P., in short, is visual arts demonstrated in coffee-form. Preference for lighter, airy cafes should not diminish the value of human warmth devised through the proximity in which my neighbor is sipping her latte.

 

This leads to an observation of something prevalent in the coffee house world, something that does not embody the collage of coffee history – coffee houses exclusively brewing coffee from a single roaster.

The economic reasons for such business decisions are clear. So are reasons based in reality and practicality. Exclusive dealing clauses are a way of life in the world of contracts, ensuring a protective bubble around a brand’s product in the market. Killer E.S.P. brews Stumptown beans exclusively. Stumptown Coffee is excellent. In terms of sourcing, roasting, and branding, it is indeed one of the leaders in the specialty coffee world. But it seems like every other coffee house brews Stumptown. Every other coffee house (at least in the DC area) brews Counter Culture Coffee, for instance (which is, of course, another excellent leader in quality coffee). The issue is not with the standard of quality associated with these roasters. Instead, the issue is the lack of choice for the customer.

“Coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only.”

Coffee connoisseurship is often compared with wine connoisseurship. There begins my analysis. When one walks into a wine bar, one expects more than one variety of wine from more than one vintner. A wine bar that serves only a limited number of bottles from one vintner from one region could be deemed a “specialist,” but it would indeed close its doors in no time. Singularity is not accepted in the wine world, and it should not be so easily accepted in the coffee world. Variety should be celebrated, not only in terms of coffee growing regions and micro-lots, but also in terms of specialty roasters.

For coffee houses that roast their own beans, singularity should be celebrated, and all attempts should be made to feature, front and center, their product. But for those that “import” beans from elsewhere, this is a thought to consider. There already exists coffee houses that practice this method. Even some coffee houses that roast their own beans often feature “outside” coffee. This added variety not only enhances the customers’ coffee experience, but also adheres to the history of the coffee house.

At their best, coffee houses are miniatures of the neighborhoods they call home. They are the essence, the quintessential, the absolute, the one-and-only. Killer E.S.P. smells of the brick walls of Alexandria. As a collage within a collage, the heart of a city thumps within this giant of a cafe.

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http://killeresp.com/
1012 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Sun – Thur 9 – 9:30ish, Fri – Sat 9 – 11:30ish

Coffeehouses are special places. “Reviewing” them is, therefore, almost heretic.

One can only scribble one’s thoughts into merely man-made words, as all senses take part in a unique experience one refers to as “drinking coffee.”

The initial review of cafes in Old Town Alexandria started off with Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster. And now, the second installment of coffeehouses in Old Town takes us to a space I have been meaning to visit for a while: M.E. Swings’ coffee bar and roasting facility in Del Ray.

Established in Washington, DC in 1916, M.E. Swings became a neighborhood charm when it opened the now historic Mesco Coffee Roasters building at 1013 E Street, decked with hand-crafted mahogany interior and bright red, wooden coffee bins. In addition to crafting hand-dipped chocolates, Swings roasted fresh batches of coffee every day with a German roaster, permeating downtown DC with the smell of roasted coffee beans for 70 plus years.

I first became acquainted with Swings through their coffeehouse on G Street. Located across from the Old Executive Office Building, the G Street coffeehouse is filled with the original mahogany and mirrored fixtures, vintage burr grinders, wooden coffee bins, and counterweight scales that were part of the legendary Mesco Building on E Street.

When I heard that Swings opened an expanded roasting facility, along with a spacious coffee bar, in the Del Ray neighborhood in May 2013, I was intrigued to see how Swings would portray its rich history in a new space, a new block.

After spending a quiet Saturday afternoon there, serenity is my word of choice.

One often associates the coffeehouse with conversation, with music, with bustling crowds, with newspapers, with laptops. All of that was present, but I choose to associate Swings’ Del Ray coffeehouse with natural sunlight.

The space is bright and airy, and its high ceilings, along with endlessly tall windows spanning an entire wall, are remnants of an old bakery. The mixed use of wood and steel was a unique aspect of the space. The coffee bar itself and some of the tables featured beautiful wood, while other parts of the coffeehouse are riddled with – and supported by – what seems like steel construction beams. This concoction of wood + steel gives the space an industrial yet natural vibe. And yet you will also find refined modernity by the presence of a beautiful, shiny La Marzocco Strada espresso machine, front and center.

One commonality I am finding amongst newer coffeehouses is the lack of seating per square feet. (This was also apparent when I visited Dolcezza’s new gelato factory and coffee lab in Shaw.)

A large “communal” table, two or so smaller tables, and a few arm chairs. That was it as far as seating. Coffeehouses, at least those opening new spots in the DC area, have taken advantage of larger, “warehouse-like” spaces to create airy and spacious “labs.” These new spaces are not about cramming as many seats as possible within a given square footage. Instead, like good paintings, they fully utilize “emptiness,” and thrive upon it.

Along with design and atmosphere, an absolute must for a stand-up coffeehouse is – coffee. On that particular day, I had hand-poured Brasil Sertão, a lighter roast with notes of cinnamon, nuts, and lemon. I had a brief discussion with Brian of DCILY about how Swing’s coffee is usually roasted on the darker side, maybe too dark for some. I agreed. But Swing’s may have found an answer in the Brasil Sertão. The coffee was roasted lightly enough so that the natural acidity and sweetness of the coffee came through, and yet it was dark enough that the depth of flavor, especially the nutty cinnamon notes, was still present. Delicious.

The “lab” aspect of the Del Ray coffeehouse comes from the separate cupping room, where public cuppings are held every Friday at 10 am. With its roasters literally right next door to the cafe, the Swing’s cupping room can truly be designated as a coffee “lab.”

To go back to step one, serenity is my word of choice to describe this Del Ray spot.

A coffeehouse has many ways to “speak.” It may speak through its baristas, its patrons, its music, its design, its furniture, and of course, its coffee. But a coffeehouse may also speak through its emptiness. Emptiness speaks volumes, perhaps even more so than any other aspect of a coffeehouse.

In a world where restaurants and cafes alike fight to see who can cram more seats (and turn them over faster) into limited and pricey square footage, being able to discern the flooring at Swing’s and notice the natural sunlight bounce off of it was a serene experience.

Only in relative emptiness did I truly find a fulfilling coffee experience.

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Swing’s Del Ray Coffee Bar

501 East Monroe Avenue, Alexandria, VA

Monday – Friday | 7:00 am – 3:30 pm

Saturday | 8:00 am – 2:00 pm

The wind was blistering cold, churning the frigid air, molding it into icy torpedoes gusting through the narrow streets of Old Town Alexandria. Right in the heart of town lives Misha’s Coffeehouse, a local favorite known for its addictive Route 66 blend (roasted in-house, like all of its blends and single-origin varietals) and cozy atmosphere.

The centerpiece of this coffeehouse is the vintage refrigerator, featured prominently next to the main entrance. Draped with all sorts of local community news and announcements, the fridge, which is still used regularly, shows how deeply Misha’s is integrated with Old Town.

I can sum up Misha’s as “vibrant.” The amount of red used in a cafe, let alone in any interior design layout, could be frightening. But the red used in Misha’s is anything but that. Rather, the red is inviting, complimenting the rows of freshly roasted beans, loud but not boisterous jazz music, and the unassuming black and white exterior.

In terms of cafe design, I prefer minimalist approaches, lots of black and white, modern metallic pieces mixed with vintage items, and bold colors used sparingly as highlights. If color is to be used, in any amount, it needs to make a statement without screaming at you. Misha’s interior accomplishes that at some level.

Fresh batches of coffee are roasted several times a week. While its signature Route 66 blend has customers incessantly storming the counter, Misha’s also roasts an impressive lineup of single-origin varietals, from Yemen Mocca Matari to Kenya AA. The barista’s pour over technique was less than impressive (did not pre-soak the paper filter to minimize the paper taste, and I always cringe when there is a row of commercial Bunn coffee makers displayed at a coffee bar), and the “French Roast” for certain beans seemed too dark to bring out any of the unique flavor notes of the coffees. That said, with a little training, this coffeehouse has potential to brew delicious coffee in a delicious, historic neighborhood.

Misha’s Coffeehouse & Roaster

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