Grounds For A Good Time

TREND: Coffee bars

by Maria LoBiondo

It had to happen. After years of watching coffee bars proliferate elsewhere and having no shops locally devoted solely to this brew, Princetonians have at last been rewarded with not one, but several places to retreat and enjoy. Not only that, they can satisfy mood, need to nosh and pocketbook concerns in a variety of ways, since each coffee haven offers a variation on the coffee theme.

Those who want to linger for hours can sit undisturbed at Small World Cafe or the Original Princeton Coffee House. Connoisseurs can sample what micro-roaster Bucks County Coffee Co. has to offer. Expected to open soon is the coffee bar that started the current coffee bar trend, Seattle's Starbucks Coffee House.

Starbucks' arrival in Princeton is a sure sign that the coffee bar scene's time has come. But these coffee bars are not alone in offering serious mocha java.

Bibliophiles can take a break from browsing at the Cafe at Encore Books and Music. Italophiles can spike memories of European travel at Landolfi's Pasticceria; a sweet snack and sip can be indulged in at Wadsworth's Bakery. Gourmet cooks can refresh themselves before heading to their kitchens with goods purchased at Bon Appetit.

Parents can satisfy the need for a pick-me-up, while treating the kids to a sweet fix, at Halo Pub.

"Three years ago there wasn't even a good cup of coffee in Princeton," says Jennifer Hartshorne, who grew up in Blawenburg and got hooked on good coffee during her years living in Boulder, Colo. "Now you don't have to go to New York or Philadelphia to get it," she adds.

The coffee bar trend has struck fertile ground in Princeton, with good reason. It's the '90s answer to treating oneself to something a little naughty - caffeine is a stimulant, after all - but within the bounds of healthy splurges now that smoking, heavy drinking and overeating are declasse. Finding the perfect java blend may not be akin to finding the Holy Grail, but coffee fanciers sure make it sound that way - and it seems easier to find at a coffee bar than to brew at home, according to demographic experts.

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As a university town, one expects to find casual places for respite. At one time, having a beer at the Nassau Inn's Tap Room or at The Annex filled the bill. Then came a surge in ice cream shops such as Thomas Sweet and Haagen-Dazs. While stopping for an alcoholic beverage or an ice cream cone are still popular in their own ways, the new coffee bars have expanded on these concepts: these coffeehouses are the new hangouts. They're the perfect places to see or be seen, to strike up friendly conversations with strangers, or, conversely, to lose oneself in writing, reading or watching the world go by. They also have added to Princeton's evening scene by becoming showcases for local arts talent.

Small World, the Original Princeton Coffee House and Bucks County Coffee are located within blocks of one another; Small World is on Witherspoon Street where the Tempting Tiger restaurant once was, Princeton Coffee House has taken over the former Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop space, and Bucks County Coffee calls Palmer Square home. Starbucks expects to take over the former Tucker Anthony Investment Co. offices next to Hamilton Jewelers.

Small World Coffee is probably the closest to the image "coffee house" conjures from days gone by and the biggest of the shops in terms of seating. It's a bustling place much of the time, with the clink of mugs, conversation and piped-in music vying for the ear's attention. Those who want what little quiet there is at a busy time can look for a seat in the back of the shop; those who enjoy clatter and activity can set up camp in the front.

In tune with the '90s version of coffee bars, Small World offers the multiple variations of espresso- based drinks that have become standard coffeehouse fare. A poster near the front entrance as well as an explanatory menu helps the uninitiated by explaining what these variations entail, so that when they make it to place their order they can do so with confidence. One can go for simplicity with an espresso, cappuccino or Small World Blend brewed coffee, or get fancy with such concoctions as Menthe Cafe Mocha, a mix of espresso, creme de menthe syrup from the French purveyor Monin, chocolate, hot milk and a generous portion of whipped creme.

Small World's owners, the husband and wife team of Brant Cosaboom and Jessica Durrie, come with a feel for university towns, which may play into the shop's hipness. Durrie herself worked in the coffee bar world of Ann Arbor, Mich. and Santa Cruz, Calif., which gave her a base for what she wants Small World to be. But the two main reasons propelling the team to set up shop in Princeton were, according to Durrie, that the couple enjoy the kind of atmosphere a coffee bar can engender and that a university town is more resilient when economic downturns hit.

"We wanted Small World to be attractive, comfortable and friendly," Durrie says of the mood she and her husband sought to create. "Human beings respond to friendliness."

The team also wanted to make their cafe a community center. "Cafes historically have been places in a town where people get mail, find out what's happening," Durrie says. "One of my intentions was to get people together socially, to enjoy art and music." The bulletin board in the rest room, revolving art exhibits on the walls and various poetry readings and musical entertainment are part of this effort.

In addition, Small World has developed a following of regulars, Durrie says, that has become a "family of sorts."

"I've watched so many relationships start," she reveals. Friendships have grown between university and high school students, between moms with young children - even romances have begun to blossom. "It's a non-threatening atmosphere," Durrie offer by way of explanation. When things get really busy, Durrie has no qualms about asking a regular if he or she would mind sharing some space. "They always say 'yes,' " Durrie says - and sometimes a new friendship is born.

Bucks County, under the helm of Rodger and Kathy Owen, actually had a foothold in Princeton before their coffee house opened. The Squire's Choice on Palmer Square, which still does brisk business in gourmet eats, gave the Owens' a feel for the Princeton market. The Owens' business began in 1981 when Rodger Owen started roasting cashews in the couple's garage; six years ago he began roasting coffee, too. Their Princeton coffee house is the couple's first, but two more will open soon at the University of Pennsylvania. As for selling coffee beans, the Bucks County Nut and Coffee Co., which includes a mail- order operation, plans to have 36 outlets (including McCaffrey's supermarket in Princeton & Yardley, PA) and the coffee houses by this fall.

In Princeton, the Owens' have created a sunny niche, making the most of a tiny space. The light paneling suggests a country kitchen; "We want to be like you're family room," Rodger Owen says of the shop's mood. Like Small World, two benches out front allow joggers and others to sip al fresco; exclusive to Bucks County are two pillow-rich bay windows cozy enough to curl up in (In fact, Rodger Owen did stop by one day and find a customer taking a catnap while his coffee cooled, he says). Blackboards detail the latest specials and the current brew being poured.

One may see a budding writer pondering his or her work here, but more often the seats are filled with shoppers taking a break from the demands of their rounds. Then again, depending on the time of day, Bucks County offers intellectual stimulants as well as thirst quenchers. In addition to musical entertainment on selected evenings, Stu Robb from Princeton radio station WHWH broadcasts live from the coffee house every Wednesday morning, offering a forum for those with a cause to promote.

A Bucks County specialty is its Mocha Crush, a coffee lover's answer to lemonade.For those who can't start each day with a stop at the coffee house, Bucks County beans are for sale at the shop. The Owens' travel far and wide to get their beans - next spring they may go to Kenya - and Rodger admits he spends more time sampling coffee than he does sipping it. Two roasters keep the operation in stock; one can handle 165 pounds of beans at a time, the other, 55. A one-pound sample roaster gets the biggest workout: "We are constantly evaluating coffees," says Owen, who does the buying. "If we have bad quality, we have nothing."

As at other coffee emporiums, a dizzying array of products are for sale - a way to announce one's coffee house loyalty as others do for their favorite sports team. At Bucks County, one of the most popular items is their plastic portable coffee mugs. "People take pride in where they get their coffee," Owen explains.

The Original Princeton Coffee House opened this summer as the dream child of Steve Rippins. After five years as assistant director of admissions at Trenton State College, Rippins decided to change course and try entrepreneurship, starting first by working at the Coffee Beanery at Oxford Valley Mall. That stint convinced him that the coffee bar trend was a hot one, and one in which he wanted to be a part.

Rippins took an East Coast tour of coffee bars as part of his new education. He was pondering where to make his mark when the former Haagen-Dazs ice cream store location became available - and the rest, he hopes, someday will be business history.

Anyone who has watched the television sitcom "Friends" will know the mood Rippins is after at his coffee house. The inspiration for the couches comes from the coffee house where the show's characters hang out. In what may be an unconscious nod to the former tenant, the wooden chairs at his tete-a-tete tables are reminiscent of ice cream parlor design. Haagen-Dazs popsicles are for sale at the coffee house, as are sweet treats and breakfast fare. With its wrap-around windows, the Original Princeton Coffee House offers an indoor cafe experience; one can watch passers-by easily while enjoying a caffeine fix.

The plans for Starbucks are still in the permit stage, but if all goes well, the coffee bar will follow the format of other Starbucks shops throughout the country. Coffee and desserts, as well as coffee brewing equipment, coffee beans, mugs and other related merchandise will be for sale. Banquette seating will dominate, and some 20 tables will be ready for patrons. Except at peak hours, beverages will be served to customers.

On a smaller scale, but still part of the coffee bar trend, are pit stops such as the coffee corner at Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center. Several green bistro tables and chairs are arranged inside positioned near the bakery of this gourmet food shop, with a nearby wall of whole beans for purchase offering a tantalizing backdrop. Several outside tables are also available for customers who want to take a coffee break and enjoy the center.

Also at the Shopping Center is the Cafe at Encore Books and Music. While not devoted solely to coffee, the Cafe offers a similar ambience to the coffee shops found in town.

Partners John Cross and Jennifer Hartshorne were among the first in town to create a place for patrons to sit and sip. When the Cafe opened in November, 1993, it started off as mostly a coffee place, but has since expanded to serve largely vegetarian fare. Cross is in charge of the daily operations. During non- meal times, sitting with a book and a cup of coffee is welcomed, Hartshorne said.

The Cafe also pioneered what has become a staple addition to the coffee bar scene - evening entertainment. Small World and Bucks County Coffee invite musicians and writers regularly to strut their stuff during the week; Rippins of the Original Princeton Coffee House says he hopes to do the same in the future.

At the Cafe at Encore, folk or jazz musicians set up in front of the book store's mystery section, and Yperform Tuesday nights at the Cafe to a steady crowd of newcomers and regulars. "It's a place for 'dress rehearsal' in front of an audience," explained Hartshorne, who books the acts. "It's a nice gig for someone on his or her way to something bigger."

Not all musicians who perform at the Cafe need dress rehearsal, however; local favorites who appear often are the John Bian Culli Trio and pianist Laurie Altman, who performs with a quartet and vocalist Jackie Jones. Hartshorne does insist the musicians have a compact disc to their credit before hiring them. She adds the "club scene" created on Tuesdays seems to attract primarily those in their 40s and 50s.

Two tables and stools by a bar offer a place to sip at Landolfi's Pasticceria, the Princeton sister of the venerable Trenton pastry shop. Anyone who longs for a vacation in Italy on the cheap would do well to stop by - a cannoli (filled to order, of course) and espresso here are instant transports to that sunny land.

Romantics, take note: Landolfi's also offers more quiet - more intimacy, if you will - than other coffee bars in town.

Down the street from Landolfi's is a parent's paradise: Halo Pub. Closer to the Italian concept of a bar - it serves only sweets and coffee - it offers a perfect place to park the kids for a pick-me-up while mom or dad gets a quick caffeine fix.

It took a while, but it looks as if Princeton is setting its own standard of coffee excellence, hot on the heels of the coffee bar trend.

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