I have always been fascinated by coffee, coffee houses and the notion of taking a few minutes to pause and observe people, collect one’s thoughts, and chat with perfect strangers.
I grew up in India and unlike today, India in the 1980s and 1990s had no concept of a coffee house. So naturally, I visited every coffee house/café in Urbana Champaign, Illinois where I went to school in the year 2000. At 20, it was the perfect place to read, study, learn about coffee beans from around the world, and occasionally make a new friend. It was charming. Over the years, I have lived in New York, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago and spent countless hours, trying to find that perfect brew and the ambiance to match.
The coffee houses we truly enjoy today are remote cousins of their 17th and 18th century English and European counterparts. The London coffee houses of that era brought people and ideas together. It was where men, and only men, could buy a cup of coffee for a penny, and engage in lively conversations about politics, work, and new ideas with complete strangers. Many British institutions have their roots in these early coffeehouses or “penny universities” as they came to be known.
In 1660, members of the Royal Society met in coffeehouses to discuss, debate and exchange knowledge. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin on the table of a Grecian coffee house. The London Stock Exchange evolved from Jonathan’s Coffee-House, a coffeehouse founded by Jonathan Miles, in Exchange Alley, around 1680. William Shipley founded the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in 1754 and held its first meeting at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. The auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s also have their origins in coffeehouses. Each of the coffee houses had a distinct character and clientele depending on where they were situated in the city of London.
Today Starbucks, claims to be the champion of the concept of the “third space” – the space between home and work, where you can get a consistent cup of coffee and an atmosphere that encourages a conversation. The reality is that most often Starbucks is unable to re-create the environment needed to encourage complete strangers to chat, converse, or debate about the day’s news. The owner, or barista in my opinion, is a quintessential part in creating that atmosphere for their customers.
In Portland, I was a regular at a coffee shop in the quaint NW district where I lived. The barista, a portly, and very fashionable man kept the conversation alive and interesting. He made it his business to make connections among his customers and know more about their day. He introduced North East (New York) transplants to each other and reminded us that if we wanted to blend in, we should not carry big, almost beach size umbrellas to walk a few minutes in the rain! We made friends easily with everyone he introduced us to, and a decade later I still keep in touch with friends I made at that coffee shop. The quaint coffee shop with a porch and mismatched tables in Seattle, was the perfect spot to play chess with a stranger and then launch off into long conversations about the best board games.
It seemed hard to find these coffee houses in New York, but lately I have found a few amazing spots close to home. Muddy Water in Tarrytown, Mimi’s Coffee House in Mount Kisco, First Village Coffee in Ossining, and Black Cow in Croton and Pleasantville are a few examples of the places that offer more than the perfect cup of coffee.
Muddy Water is big, but yet cozy, with the opportunity to snooze for a few minutes on their comfy couches in the back lounge. I have made friends with writers, local moms, chess champions and had interesting debates about Trump’s latest shenanigans and AOC’s lipstick color. They have a great space to bring little kids and play board games with them. I have had the most interesting conversation about the art displayed on the walls by local artists. I felt like I had found that perfect watering hole for my lonely work life, finally!
At First Village Coffee you will find Luis discuss the perfect cup of coffee with his young baristas. They will often include you in the sampling of a new coffee, or a new savory snack they are making in their kitchen. Coffee-making is a very serious craft here, and Luis offers the most delicious empanadas, and savory treats around. My kids love to visit, as they get the perfect hot chocolate with little foam bears on their cups! It is such a cozy little spot with inspiring art, local color and lively conversation.
Mimi’s in Mount Kisco, is a cute new place, where Mimi and her barista friends make you the best cup of tea, coffee, chai and tasty breakfast burritos. She has such attention to detail, it is a pleasure to be taken care of, when you are putting in long hours of work, and she always makes it feel like home. I highly recommend her sambusa, the breakfast burrito and all the coffees and drinks. If you have not tried Mimi’s Ethopian restaurant, Lalibela, next door, I highly recommend it.
As an entrepreneur, who works remotely, with a team in different parts of the world, I find communal, “third spaces” very important and necessary part of my day.