WHILE JUST ABOUT ANY ESTABLISHMENT IN TOWN WILL SERVE A CUP OF COFFEE, THE MARK OF A TRUE COFFEEHOUSE IS AS MUCH ABOUT THE ATMOSPHERE AS IT IS ABOUT JAVA.
CINCINNATI HAS DOZENS OF SELF-DESCRIBED COFFEEHOUSES, FROM THE NATIONAL CHAINS ON EVERY DOWNTOWN BLOCK AND SUBURBAN STRIP, TO THE INDEPENDENTLY OWNED AND FREE-THINKIN' DIVES. EACH WITH THEIR OWN DISTINCT PERSONALITIES.
UNTIL IT RECENTLY RELOCATED, Sitwell's Coffee House IN CLIFTON WAS THE STEREOTYPICAL COLLEGE COFFEEHOUSE, IN THE BASEMENT OF AN APARTMENT BUILDING NEAR CAMPUS. ITS RECENT MOVE UP LUDLOW AVENUE PUTS IT IN THE HEART OF THE GASLIGHT BUSINESS DISTRICT (IN THE FORMER SHAKY PUDDIN' SPOT) AND HAS OPENED IT UP TO A BROADER CLIENTELE, INCLUDING FOLKS WAITING FOR A MOVIE TO START AT THE ADJACENT ESQUIRE THEATER. COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE STILL HERE, TOO, AS MUCH A PART OF THE BOHEMIAN DéCOR AS THE SALVAGED TABLES AND CHAIRS, TAPESTRIES, PILES OF USED BOOKS AND STACKS OF NEWSPAPERS.
THE PLACE IS USUALLY PACKED. THE AFTERNOON WE VISITED, EACH TABLE WAS FULL, MOSTLY WITH STUDENTS AND YOUNG TWENTYSOMETHINGS LINGERING OVER COFFEE AND LATE BREAKFAST. WE SCOURED THE ROOM FROM FRONT TO BACK FOR AN UNOCCUPIED TABLE. NEARLY ALL WERE COVERED IN DISHES AND/OR STACKS OF PAPERS, AND WE COULDN'T TELL WHICH WERE BEING USED AT THE TIME AND WHICH WERE AVAILABLE. (DIRTY DISHES, IT APPEARS, MEANT NO ONE FELT LIKE CLEARING THE TABLE.) WE SETTLED ON A FOUR-TOP WITH THE LEAST TO CLEAN.
SITWELL'S SERVES UP RICH INDIAN MALABAR BY THE CUP ($1) OR BOTTOMLESS ($2), BUT THAT'S JUST FOR STARTERS. THE DRINKS GET MORE COMPLICATED FROM THERE, RANGING FROM COMPLEX ESPRESSO ($1.25 - $2.75) AND CAPPUCCINO ($2.50 - $3.25) TO ALCOHOL-ENHANCED COFFEE DRINKS
THE PLACE ALSO OFFERS SEVERAL SANDWICHES, SOUPS AND A FEW à LA CARTE ITEMS, SUCH AS A BAKED POTATO ($2.25), CHEESE PLATE FOR TWO ($6.95) OR HUMMUS WITH PITA ($4.75). WE WERE PRETTY HAPPY WITH OUR SANDWICH CHOICES: A GOUDA AND GUACAMOLE MELT ($4.75) ON A FRENCH ROLL, AND THE HOUSE FAVORITE, SALAMI, CREAM CHEESE AND CUCUMBER ($4.65) WITH RANCH, DILL AND ONIONS ON A FRENCH ROLL.
THE MOSTLY COLLEGE-AGED PATRONS HAD NO PROBLEM SETTLING IN FOR A LONG STUDY BREAK OR A SESSION WITH A BOOK, BUT I FOUND IT TOUGH TO LINGER, IN SPITE OF GOOD COFFEE AND TASTY SANDWICHES. FROM THE REGULAR AT THE COUNTER (HE RECEIVED NUMEROUS HUGS FROM THE STAFFERS, SO I ASSUME HE WAS A REGULAR) WHO CONTINUED TO HOCK INTO A TRASH CAN WHILE I ATE, TO THE NUMEROUS TABLES FULL OF DIRTY DISHES NEVER CLEARED DURING OUR ENTIRE 90-MINUTE STAY, THE PLACE KIND OF GROSSED ME OUT. MY VISION OF A COFFEEHOUSE (OR ANYPLACE WHERE I'M EATING OR DRINKING, FOR THAT MATTER) INCLUDES A COMFORTABLE ATMOSPHERE WHERE I FEEL INVITED TO LINGER. AT THE VERY LEAST, IT HAS CLEAN TABLES. WE WEREN'T THE ONLY ONES: MANY ESQUIRE THEATER-GOERS ENTERED, THEN LEFT WHEN THEY COULDN'T FIND A CLEARED TABLE.
JUST UP THE HILL IN CORRYVILLE, HOWEVER, THE Highland Coffee house NOT ONLY INVITES FOLKS TO LINGER, BUT PERHAPS EVEN OVERINDULGE. PERHAPS IT'S THE OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH LOCATION, A LATER OPENING HOUR (5 P.M.) OR THE 18-AND-OVER POLICY THAT APPEALS TO AN OLDER CROWD. REGARDLESS, HIGHLAND COFFEE HOUSE SEEMS TO BE UP A FEW NOTCHES ON THE SOPHISTICATION SCALE, COMPARED TO THE CAMPUS REC ROOM FEEL OF SITWELL'S.
HIGHLAND ALSO OFFERS A FULL BAR. GUINNESS AND HARP ON TAP, AS WELL AS SEVERAL IMPORTED BOTTLED BEERS, ROUND OUT THE ALCOHOL SELECTIONS, BUT COFFEE IS STILL THE CHOICE DRINK HERE, TOO, AND PATRONS CAN TELL FROM THE MOMENT THEY ENTER. THE SMELL OF RICH COFFEE FROM THE BINS OF ROASTED BEANS WELCOMES GUESTS RIGHT AT THE DOOR. THE WARMLY LIT ROOMS FURNISHED WITH WORN WOOD TABLES AND LADDER-BACK CHAIRS, HIGH CEILINGS AND HISTORIC CHARM ALL ADD TO THE INVITING ATMOSPHERE. IN WARM WEATHER, THE OUTDOOR PATIO IS IDEAL FOR ENJOYING ONE OF THE MANY ICE CREAM DRINKS.
IN ADDITION TO TRADITIONAL COFFEE, MOCHAS AND ESPRESSO DRINKS, HIGHLAND OFFERS A FULL MENU OF SPIKED COFFEE, CAPPUCCINO AND CIDERS, AS WELL AS TEAS, SODAS, FLOATS AND SMOOTHIES. WE SAMPLED A FEW OF THE HOUSE GOODS, INCLUDING WHITE IRISH COFFEE ($3.95; HOUSE BLEND WITH BAILEYS IRISH CREAM), CAPPUCCINO VIENNESE ($3.95, WITH AMARETTO, KAHLUA, COGNAC AND FRANGELICO) AND KAFFE MIT SCHLAG ($2.50, COFFEE WITH A SHOT OF WHIPPED CREAM).
THE COFFEEHOUSE ALSO OFFERS A FEW MODEST DELI SELECTIONS UNTIL 10:30 P.M., AND WE INDULGED IN A PEANUT BUTTER, HONEY AND BANANA SANDWICH ($3.95) ON WHEAT TOAST TO SUPPLEMENT OUR CAFFEINE FRENZY. OTHER OPTIONS INCLUDE HUMMUS AND SWISS ON WHEAT ($5), OR TOMATO AND MOZZARELLA MELT ($5.50) WITH OLIVE OIL ON A HALF BATARD. ON A COLD FALL EVENING, I CAN'T THINK OF MUCH MORE THAT I WOULD NEED THAT ISN'T OFFERED HERE.
ACROSS TOWN AND SEVERAL HIGHWAYS AND SIDE STREETS LATER, ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF CHEVIOT, SITS A NEW POPULAR LOCAL SPOT THAT SEEMS A LITTLE OUT OF THE ORDINARY FOR THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Zen & Now, housed on the first floor of an old brick two-story house on Bridgetown Road, bills itself as a family-friendly coffeehouse, complete with kids' table and coloring books.
Owners Dave and Jackie Bechtal opened the place in September 1999, recognizing the need to help Westsiders in their quest for gourmet coffee. Fulfill they did. Many customers have confessed to Dave that they drove to the East side of town for good coffee before the opening of Zen. No more. The focus here is primarily coffee and organic teas: Limited food choices include cookies and bagels. But the coffee alone is worth the trip.
Zen uses coffee roasted locally, unlike most other coffeehouses. The Bechtals found not only quality in local roaster Grant Tomlin's beans, but social consciousness as well. Zen and Tomlin both look for coffee that is "Bird Friendly," meaning it's grown on plantations using shade-growing methods to avoid sacrificing songbirds' homes. The place offers beverages on the premises, as well as beans to go. My morning mocha ($2.50) was one of the best I've had, rich and full but not bitter.
Zen also boasts local acoustic entertainment and a tobacco- and alcohol-free environment. For a lazy Sunday morning, poring over the paper, or a weekend evening listening to local musicians, Zen & Now is a welcome West side anomaly.
Good coffee is as much about the brew as it is about with whom and where it's sipped. Cincinnati's coffeehouses appeal to a wide range of patrons, from coffee connoisseurs to those who want to just sit and linger over a hot cup. Although the national chains may be convenient, with so many homegrown choices, folks can find unique experiences at every visit with local favorites. ©