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Café Culture: Boston’s Coffee Shops in Review

Drinking coffee every day in high school was a terrible idea. As a college freshman, I now often feel as if it’s necessary to drink myself awake just to make it through the day. Things are even worse when I actually need to concentrate. Luckily, Boston has way more cafés than I could ever hope to visit. But what can be viewed as a blessing — tons of opportunities for rewarding exploration — can also be a curse in the form of the daunting choices that accompany each additional option.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.58.25 PMThere’s nothing more satisfying than spending hours at a good café, pounding out a difficult assignment. When off-campus cafés get things right, they can provide the perfect environment to eat, work, and relax in comfort and seclusion. There’s also almost nothing worse than struggling through hours of work in a bad café. So, in hopes of guiding other caffeine addicts in the right direction, I’ve compiled a list of several nearby cafés that I’ve visited over the past semester.

This list doesn’t include any locations on campus (i.e. dining halls, the Hillside Cafe, or the Chocolate Bar) mostly because none is a café in the truest sense of the word, all have little to no ambiance, and everybody knows about them already. If you’re satisfied with the on-campus options, whatever, congrats. Sometimes it’s nice to get a break from things. Have fun and explore the city, or at very least BC’s surrounding neighborhoods!

Starbucks | 1948 Beacon Street

The Starbucks near Cleveland Circle is only a short bus ride away. It’s familiar. It’s convenient. It’s open late. It has plenty of delicious, over-the-top drinks that are all slightly overpriced. The biggest problem is that there’s nothing interesting about any Starbucks. Every single location is plagued by the same nondescript corporate cleanliness. As I sip on my Caramel Frappuccino, I sink into an all-consuming ennui and forget my work entirely. I see no compelling reason to ever return.

10-3102-EATNEWBURYTrident Cafe | 338 Newbury Street

Trident is a combination bookstore-café on Newbury Street, near the Hynes Convention Center T-stop. It’s somewhat of a Boston institution among college students. Trident is far from campus, but as a Boston resident, you’re pretty much obliged to go at least once, even if only for decent late-night food. Newbury Street obviously has tons of stuff going on, and all the books and magazines in the bookstore section of the café create quite a distraction, so Trident is not the optimal place for a hard-core study session.

Fuel America | 152 Chestnut Hill Avenue

The food and drinks here are fantastic and very reasonably priced. Fuel America is also within walking distance from campus. Unfortunately, nowhere is perfect; I probably wouldn’t hang out here for fun. Fuel America seems to be confronting an identity crisis. It may be independent (which is awesome), but it feels like it has corporate aspirations. It tries to brand itself as “indie,” while servicing a mainstream commercial end. If you get off on bland patriotism and inoffensive yuppie charm, you’ll love Fuel America. But, if gentrification makes you mad, think about going to…

Refuge Café | 155 Brighton Avenue

refugecafe1-thumb-520x390-50602Although it’s a schlep to get here (walk about a block from the Harvard Ave stop on the B line), Refuge is definitely worth visiting if you wish to escape BC. Everything on the menu
is tasty and relatively inexpensive. The vegan food options are particularly good, and Refuge serves beer too, which sets it apart from every other place on this list [Editor’s Note: Trident also serves beer!]. Unlike Fuel America, Refuge is able to pull off the “authentically indie” vibe, complete with entertaining politically-charged bathroom graffiti. The seating could be more comfortable, but the surroundings, the free printing station, and the cool baristas make up for that. There are plenty of cheap restaurants and interesting shops (especially if you’re into vintage clothes and used furniture) in the neighborhood. 

The Thinking Cup | 165 Tremont St + 85 Newbury St + 236 Hanover St

The Thinking Cup has three locations, but I’ve only ever been to the ones on Newbury Street and Tremont Street. If you’re super committed to spending a day doing work in Boston, you should go to Newbury Street (get off at the Copley or Arlington t-stop), which is much cozier than the Tremont Street location. The food and coffee are amazing, and thankfully The Thinking Cup is open until 11:00 on weekdays. Both locations are small, so the line can occasionally stretch outdoors. It may be difficult to secure a seat, but if you’re able to find one, hold on to it.

Dunkin’ Donuts | 15 Commonwealth Avenue

I’m only including Dunkin’ on this list because of its proximity to campus. It may be affordable, but it’s never worth it.

Athan’s Bakery | 407 Washington Street + 1621 Beacon Street

Athan’s has two locations — one in Brighton, one in Brookline. Both have excellent food and coffee. The Brighton location is quite spacious, with a generally quiet feel. If it were closer, I could easily spend all of my time and money there. The Brookline location is homier and more accessible, but it’s also louder, more crowded, and less ideal for studying. In contrast to the sparse decor of Brighton Athan’s, Brookline Athan’s is a veritable wonderland of baked-goods. If you’re looking for quick, cheap coffee near the Brighton location, you might want to head across the street to CaféNation.

Anthony_Coleman_soundcheck_-_Café_Fixe,_October_9,_2012Café Fixe | 1642 Beacon Street

Café Fixe is situated across from the Washington Square t-stop on the C line, and that sets it in direct competition with Brookline Athan’s. (There’s also a Starbucks in the area, but that’s not really relevant.) Quality and price wise, Café Fixe has much in common with Athan’s, The Thinking Cup, and Fuel America. But unlike Athan’s, Café Fixe is very small, bordering on miniscule. Its size works to its advantage – even with its minimalist atmosphere, there’s an impression of intimacy that few other cafes can match.

Pavement Coffeehouse | 1243 Commonwealth Avenue

There are 6 (?) Pavements in Boston, the closest of which are situated near BU along Commonwealth Ave. Be prepared, because these places are literally swamped with BU students. The coffee and food are decent, but somewhat expensive. Any Pavement Coffeehouse could conceivably be a nice place to waste a day studying. Overall though, Pavement is pretty much just a slightly more alternative alternative to Starbucks.

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