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Posts Tagged ‘cafes’

tulips harvard square

My husband is a focused, determined shopper. Like many men I know, he is generally not interested in browsing. I have finally managed to convince him that bookstores were meant to be browsed, though he usually picks out one book and starts reading it while I wander the aisles. But if we’re at the mall, Target, or the grocery store, he’s usually on a mission: how quickly can he get in, find what he needs, and get out?

While I enjoy browsing the racks at my favorite stores, I’m finding my husband’s mindset helpful for my lunch breaks on these frigid winter days. When I don’t want to get up from my desk, I tell myself I have to – because I have a mission.

Sometimes it’s the post office, the bank or the pharmacy. Sometimes I’m on the hunt for a particular book, or a birthday card for a friend. Sometimes I’m in need of a certain item, as I was last week when my sunglasses broke. And occasionally, the mission is simply to go to the Gap or Ann Taylor or Anthropologie, and see what’s new on the sale rack.

In any case, on these days when it’s too cold to wander and tempting to stay inside, it helps to have a goal in mind, an impetus to propel me outside for a bit of exercise and a break from the computer screen. I always feel energized after I get out and about, and I love walking the tangle of streets in Harvard Square. And sometimes – if it’s just too bitter out or I have no particular errand that day – I head to one of my favorite cafes for a cuppa and a little writing time.

tealuxe interior cambridge ma

How do you give yourself a boost on these cold days? Do you find it helps to go on a mission?

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Vienna memories

hofsburg-palace-vienna

Vienna was dark. And cold.

It couldn’t have been dark the whole time I was there, though I don’t remember ever seeing the sun. It was late October, when the light changes suddenly from golden to gray, and there is – also suddenly – much less of it. The only golden color came from the trees in the grounds of the Schonnbrun Palace, and from the lighted shop windows, flaring out like candles against the covering darkness.

schonbrunn-palace-park-trees

I was tired after a long solo trip from Oxford to Salzburg, where I met up with four American undergrads whom I knew only slightly. They were sweet, but their puppy-like enthusiasm soon wore on me, the quiet graduate student with a preference for low-key travel. We all shared a hostel room strewn with backpacks yawning open, clothes hanging loosely off bunk beds, late-night fits of giggles over inside jokes I didn’t quite get.

I wandered the Mirabellgarten with them, even posing for a group photo on the Do-Re-Mi steps, and I took them to the shop I knew that sold beautiful, hand-painted eggs made into Christmas ornaments. But I begged off the Sound of Music tour (I’d done it before, anyway) to sit in a cafe named after Mozart and scribble in my journal while I sipped hot chocolate. By the time we hopped a train to Vienna the next day, I was longing for some extended solitude.

We stuck together that first night and day, settling into our two-room flat, wandering around the Hofburg Palace and getting up early to tour the Schonnbrun. After lunch, we split up, agreeing to reconvene later. The others headed off – I knew not where – and I took several deep breaths, then headed off to enjoy my afternoon alone.

I wandered around the Butterfly House, then entered a spacious cafe lined with dark leather booths and filled with cigarette smoke. Patrons – mostly middle-aged men – lingered, reading folded newspapers at marble-topped tables while sipping small cups of strong coffee. I ordered a hot chocolate, stumbling over the unfamiliar German syllables, and sat there writing in my journal, sipping my drink, as long as I dared.

Later, after wandering through tangled streets, I slipped into a dark church, flickering with candlelight and echoing with the sounds of a Vespers service, just beginning. I slipped a euro coin into a collection box and lit a small tea light, breathing a prayer for my mother, who had had surgery that week, back in the States.

church candlelight vienna

When I left the church, the streets were already dark, shop windows throwing squares of light onto the pavement. Craving warmth, I ended up at another cafe, piling my shopping bags on the leather seat next to me, sipping tea and savoring both a chocolate-covered strawberry and my solitude.

Vienna is hazier than many of the cities I visited during that year in Oxford. The images are smudged around the edges, fogged by the rain that threatened and occasionally poured down from above. I don’t remember much, if any, of the history or the new German words I learned, and I don’t have clear images of entertaining incidents, or a mental map of the city in my head.

But I learned a thing or two from that grey, chilly weekend: namely, that solitude and peace can be found in the least likely places, but sometimes you have to pursue it, to ask for it. I remembered that I don’t always have to tag along with the crowd, that it’s perfectly all right to break away and do my own thing for a while, even if it means they’ll think I’m weird. (I was pretty sure this group of students already did.)

That weekend, I rediscovered the quiet joy of walking a city by myself, answerable to no one and nothing but the rhythm of my own feet pounding on unfamiliar sidewalks. And I learned one thing that did not surprise me at all: Austrian hot chocolate (Tasse Schokolade) is delicious.

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Voyage à Montréal

I turned 30 recently, and to mark the occasion, J and I took off for somewhere totally new: Montréal. Neither of us had ever been to Canada, but since we now live just a few hours from the border, we agreed it was time. So we bought an invaluable guidebook, got a lovely hotel recommendation from a friend, and on a Wednesday afternoon, we headed north.

The weather was chillier and greyer than we had hoped, but we still spent three enjoyable days walking, museum-ing, snapping photos, trying out our (limited) French, and stopping into cafes to warm up with hot drinks and pastries. (We have been eating a lot of veggies since we got home.)

Our first snack in Montreal was a Nutella-banana crepe:

nutella crepe

Thus fortified, we headed to the Musée McCord (free on Wednesday nights), which included a multi-dimensional exhibit on the history of Montreal’s neighborhoods; a gorgeous display of First Peoples clothing and heirlooms; and a special exhibit on Grace Kelly. I am not sure what she has to do with Montreal, but the exhibit included movie posters, gorgeous couture gowns, her Oscar (!), and a slew of correspondence, including love letters from her husband, Prince Rainier (my favorite part).

musee mccord montreal

We ate dinner that night at Juliette et Chocolat, which specializes in chocolate (as you might guess) but also does wonderful crepes (and tea):

crepe juliette montreal

juliette et chocolat montreal st laurent

The next morning, we enjoyed the first of several delicious carb-tastic hotel breakfasts (muffins, bagels, pain au chocolat, yogurt and juice – I wish I’d thought to take a photo) and headed out to explore. We visited St. Patrick’s Basilica (grand, but echoingly empty), then wandered around Rue St.-Denis and the Latin Quarter for a while before heading to Old Montreal to tour the Basilique Notre-Dame:

notre dame montreal

After all that touring, we were famished, so we stopped for pastries and tea at the charming Olive + Gourmando in Old Montreal. (It’s named after the owners’ cats.) I could have stayed all afternoon.

olive & gourmando montreal

Montreal 072

Later, we explored Rue Ste.-Catherine, a major shopping street, stopping in at the Argo Bookshop. It’s tiny, but crammed with wonderful books. I fell in love right away (and restrained myself from buying dozens of books). The bookseller was kind, if a bit gruff – we heard groups of fraternity guys screaming on the street outside, and he said with a sigh, “That’s why I prefer literature.”

argo bookshop interior montreal quebec canada

The next morning, we took the Metro to Marché Jean-Talon, a huge, beautiful open market packed with gorgeous produce:

marche jean talon montreal

Montreal 088

We strolled the aisles for a while, then bought a pint of strawberries and sat down to eat them while listening to a violinist play.

After a walk through Little Italy and another Metro ride, we ended up at La Banquise, a 24-hour hot spot for poutine, Montreal’s local dish. The standard version is French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds, but La Banquise has tons of options. J tried a version with three kinds of sausage, and I opted for La Grecque (“the Greek”) – tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta.

poutine montreal la banquise

la banquise poutine la grecque montreal

Greasy, but so delicious.

We headed to the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Montreal’s huge, free art museum) after that, and wandered through rooms full of paintings and sculpture.

musee des beaux arts montreal

Fun, but a little overwhelming – we returned to Juliette et Chocolat afterward to enjoy another crêpe. Mmmm.

strawberry chocolate crepe juliette et chocolat montreal

Saturday morning, we toured the Centre d’histoire de Montreal, a lovely little museum about Montreal’s history housed in a former fire station:

centre d'histoire de montreal quebec

Fascinating exhibits (in French and English, thank goodness) about Montreal past and present. (Much less hokey than the video we’d seen at the Notre-Dame light show, the night before.)

We’d heard about the famous pork sandwiches at Schwartz’s, but the line was forever long, so we ended up getting ours to go and eating them in a park. (Delicious.)

After more shopping and wandering, an Italian dinner at Lombardi, and dessert at the lovely Brûlerie St.-Denis, we collapsed. (So much walking, even with the three-day Metro passes we bought for $18 each – a stellar deal.)

We came home with sore feet and lighter wallets, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip and a fun chance to explore a new city.

Have you been to Montreal? What are your favorite spots there, if you have?

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Since starting my new job at the end of February, I’ve been exploring my new Cambridge neighborhood, wandering through the bustling streets lined with shops and cafes (and taking refuge in the latter on frigid days).

I was already familiar with Crema and its delicious tomato soup, but I have a new favorite sandwich shop: Darwin’s, tucked away on Mt. Auburn Street right across from the yard with all the crocuses.

darwins cambridge ma

Darwin’s has two sides: one is a coffee-shop-cum-cafe, where you can get a hot drink and a pastry and take them to go, or settle down at one of the small square tables. The other, with a punched-tin ceiling painted red, is a sandwich-shop-cum-mini-market, where you can buy fruit, veggies, beer or even day-old breads while waiting for your order.

Behind the counter, a line of cheery, flannel-clad hipsters dance around each other, chopping and slicing ingredients and assembling sandwiches, most of which are named after nearby streets or Harvard campus buildings. As you move up the line, you have a clear view of a pastry case filled with tempting cookies and other treats.

darwins interior cambridge ma

My favorite sandwich so far is the Longfellow, which involves ham and cheese, sliced green apple, lettuce, tomato and spicy Dijon mustard. It’s delicious, even if the ingredients tend to escape from the bread after a few bites. But mostly I love the funky local vibe, the friendly staff, and the cafe walls painted the colors of a Texas sunset.

darwins cafe interior cambridge ma

When I forget to bring my lunch (or we’re out of leftovers), you can often find me here, alternately reading my book and people-watching as I savor my sandwich and a cookie.

darwins sandwich journal

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Recently, Alyssa tweeted about how much she loves eating lunch out alone, “tucked away in quiet corner of noisy restaurant. I’m part of the world, but don’t have to talk to anyone.” There followed a brief conversation about eating (or drinking) alone in cafes or restaurants, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

thinking cup coffee shop hot chocolate scarf

I regularly spend pockets of time alone in cafes, for lunch or a quiet cup of tea or chai, with a book or my journal or simply my own thoughts for company. It feels less cloistered, less monastic, than eating lunch in my office with the door shut, and yet there’s a sheer curtain of privacy between me and the rest of the world. In bustling Boston, where I cram into the commuter train with hundreds of strangers and walk to work among dozens more, it feels deeply restorative to carve out an alcove of space for myself during the workday. I don’t like to isolate myself completely, but I do like a modicum of space to breathe, to write, to pause and enjoy.

Some days do call for total solitude, and as near silence as I can get. But on many others, I love feeling that tug, that connection to the beat of whatever city I happen to be in. I love observing what people wear, how they take their coffee (I used to be a barista, after all), what they do when they’re sitting alone waiting for their food, or how they interact with their friends. I love the diverse mix of people who come through cafes, all of them separate entities but vital ingredients in these massive tossed salads we call cities.

I take a lot of photos in cafes, mostly of my drink with a book or journal, trying to capture the quiet, restorative freedom of the moment. The writer-romantic in me also thrills at being part of a long tradition of cafe society, from the Lost Generation in Paris to the Beats with their coffeehouse poetry readings, to now, when many writers work in cafes with laptops or notebooks. Something about the background buzz, the rotating cast of characters, the smell of coffee and pastries, revs up the mind while (ideally) leaving it quiet enough to write or reflect.

valencia spain cafe tea croissant

Both Alyssa and I started going to cafes alone as college students, and we admitted to one another that it felt a little daring. An hour alone, with no one to answer to, feels secret, almost illicit in a delightful way. Alyssa added, “I used to get the same feeling riding my bike all over Boise when I was growing up. No one waiting for me anywhere.” That comment reminded me of one of my favorite, most visceral memories of my year in Oxford: riding my bike through town, the wind in my hair, bag slung over my shoulder, often heading toward something or someone, but completely free and independent for the moment. In these hours alone, we are still interacting with the world, and yet we belong to nobody but ourselves.

Do you spend time in cafes (or other public places) alone? Do you love it for these reasons, or for others?

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I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Cambridge. I love exploring its museums, shops and cafes, but I don’t make it over there on anything resembling a regular basis. And when I do, I frequently hop off the Red Line at Harvard Square, to meet friends or attend a reading at the Harvard Book Store. I don’t often make it all the way out to Porter Square.

But if I do, I am treated to that rare thing: a local, quirky, independent bookstore, hidden in the middle of a shopping center and bursting with bookish delights.

porter square books cambridge ma

I love the whimsical signage, the creative table displays, the wide selection of books in many genres, the laid-back atmosphere. I could browse for hours.

Not every good bookshop has a cafe, but this one has Cafe Zing:

porter square books cafe zing

(I love hand-drawn chalkboard menus. Always takes me back to my barista-college-student days at the Ground Floor.)

The last time I visited, as I waited for my husband to join me for Siobhan Fallon’s thoughtful reading, I ordered a chai latte and a raspberry crumble bar:

cafe zing chai latte dessert porter square books

Tasty treats and delicious books. What a delectable combination.

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I’m clearly in a Cambridge phase right now, as evidenced by my recent adventures there: brunch in Central Square and a wonderful book event at Porter Square Books. And thanks to a stellar event lineup at the Harvard Book Store, I’ve found myself in Harvard Square several times lately.

I nearly always arrive hungry, with a bit of time to kill between my arrival and the book event. So I wind my way down Brattle Street and end up at Crema Cafe for a snack and a hot drink.

crema cafe cambridge ma hot chocolate

A heart in my hot chocolate

It’s often crowded at the end of the workday, but if you can snag a table, it’s a cozy atmosphere with funky music, yummy soups and quiche, and whimsical designs in the foam on top of your cocoa (or latte).

crema cafe cambridge ma soup hot chocolate

There’s nothing I love more than a neighborhood coffee shop where I can curl up, sip something delicious, and read or write or people-watch as I please. (Or, as on a recent afternoon, exchange chitchat with the barista about Les Miserables after he calls out an order for “Cosette.”)

crema cafe tomato soup iced tea cambridge ma

Where do you go for a yummy, light dinner and a warm, comforting (or cool, refreshing) drink?

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On a recent sunny Saturday, J and I found ourselves with a few free hours, after I’d run a few errands and before we had to start cooking enchiladas for a fellow transplanted Texan. I’d heard rumors of the goodness of Toscanini’s ice cream near Central Square, so we hopped on the Red Line and rode over the river, admiring the sailboats bobbing on the sparkling water.

We strolled around Central Square for a while, dropping into Rodney’s Bookstore (where I found another Miss Read book to add to my growing collection), exploring the scientific, eclectic MIT Museum (which had exhibits ranging from Himalayan glaciers to slide rules to perpetual motion sculptures). And we did visit Toscanini’s, savoring our ice cream under a burgundy umbrella.

cafe luna brunch lunch cambridge ma

But the surprise hit of the day was Cafe Luna, where we intended to drop in for lunch but ended up eating brunch. Because when the brunch specials menu includes an omelet featuring roasted sweet potatoes and goat cheese, and fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes with fresh raspberries and whipped cream?

You have brunch.

cafe luna brunch cambridge pancakes

katie pancakes brunch cafe luna cambridge

omelet cafe luna brunch cambridge

Even better, we scored a table in the (open) front window, where the sunshine spilled in as we doodled on the paper tablecloth with crayons, savored warm biscuits spread with whipped honey and then dug into our entrees.

Mmmm. Delectable. We will so be going back.

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This past weekend, J and I finally crossed #2 off my 28 things list – we hopped on a bus to New York, to stay with Allison in her adorable Queens apartment and see our college friend Ben play Pumbaa in The Lion King. I’d seen the show before, in London during my first semester in Oxford, but there are no words, then or now, to describe the stunning visual effects of the animal costumes and the African stage sets. You simply have to see it. (And hear it. The music is incredible, and the woman who played Rafiki is particularly gifted. Her voice sent chills up my spine multiple times.)

Anyway, as we strolled around the city, exploring Hell’s Kitchen and SoHo and Union Square and the Upper East Side, and trying not to freeze to death (it was frigid), we ate some delicious meals. New York is full of amazing restaurants, but these are the ones we loved this weekend.

First, after seeing a fabulous Muppet exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image, we stumbled upon Il Bambino, a cozy, rustic panini shop tucked away on 31st Avenue in Astoria. I consider myself something of a tomato soup connoisseur, but this was the BEST tomato soup I’ve ever had – creamy, rich and fresh, topped with flatbread spread with pesto:

So. Delicious. (The 25-degree temps outside only heightened my appreciation.)

We also had paninis – which were yummy – but the other best part of the meal came afterward. Three words: Nutella. Hot. Chocolate. Decadently delicious:

Saturday night found us shivering in Times Square, gawking at the lights and trying to find a place to grab dinner before the show. All the restaurants right off the square were packed, of course, so Allison and her fiance, Duncan, led us a couple blocks west, to the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, where we savored Thai food at Yum Yum Bangkok. The name says it all. (No photos of that – we were on a schedule, and eating fast!)

On Sunday morning, J and I headed to the Met, to sample as much of it as we could before meeting Allison and Duncan for brunch. Last fall, Allison introduced me to Alice’s Tea Cup and I loved it, so this time we headed to “Chapter III,” on East 81st Street:

The interior is charming, and they sell teapots and tea accessories and dozens of teas. The boys had scones and we all had tea (mine was an almond blend):

And J and I split an omelet, along with this delectable confection:

That, my friends, is French toast bread pudding. With fresh berries and cream, raspberry and chocolate sauces. And oh my, it’s heaven. (I bought the cookbook. So many tempting possibilities!)

You’d think we’d never be hungry again after that, but after spending the afternoon exploring SoHo (I finally got to visit Purl Soho!), we were chilly and hungry. So we headed back uptown (to midtown, anyway), and munched on comfort food (mac & cheese, fish & chips, warm artichoke-spinach dip, cranberry-apple crumble) at Penelope. (Which is utterly charming, not to mention yummy, and reasonably priced.)

We left Monday afternoon, sated, and with many promises to return when the weather warms up, so we can sample more delicious food. (And museums and landmarks and parks, of course.)

Where do you love to eat in NYC? I’m already making a list for next time!

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Like so many writers, travelers and lovers of city culture, I’m always on the hunt for the perfect coffee shop. (I know. I’m a walking cliche. But, in this case, a happily caffeinated one.)

There exists in my head a mirage of that perfect cafe – which bears a striking resemblance to the Ground Floor, the coffeehouse where I worked in college). The Ground Floor was my cafe, the first one I ever fell in love with and the only one I’ve worked in, so in some ways, since I left Midland (and since it closed), I’ve been searching for its counterpart everywhere else.

(Enjoying a peppermint hot cocoa, at Francesca’s in Boston’s South End)

My list of criteria for a perfect cafe is exacting, and includes:

  • mellow-with-a-touch-of-funky atmosphere
  • large selection of good-quality teas
  • delicious chai and hot chocolate (much as I love the coffeehouse culture, I’m not a coffee drinker)
  • yummy pastries, sandwiches and soups
  • cozy corners to write in (tables, couches or armchairs)
  • big windows with beautiful light (and a nice view)
  • the perfect balance between bustling and calm
  • friendly baristas
  • an easily accessible location

Recently, I’ve found myself whining, like Goldilocks, about the flaws of my favorite cafes in Boston. Thinking Cup has the perfect atmosphere and delicious sandwiches, but a sadly limited tea selection. Boston Common Coffee House serves a favorite tea brand, but has a depressing view (of scaffolding, currently, though it’s not their fault). Starbucks on Charles St. has lovely views, yummy chai and cozy little tables, but it’s Starbucks, which always makes me feel like I’m betraying my inner indie girl.

Farther afield, Athan’s has the best chocolate croissants, but their sandwiches are so-so. Francesca’s in the South End has wonderful drinks and lovely light, but I’m hardly ever in that area. (Ditto for Tealuxe and Crema in Harvard Square – though I ate dinner at Crema the other night.)

(Tomato soup, fresh foccaccia and iced rooibos tea at Crema)

And then I realized how ridiculous – how first-world-privileged and spoiled – I sounded, even to myself. Like Goldilocks, I have my choice of places to curl up (though I have it better than she did, because I get to drink tea and write and people-watch). And, though none of my cafes may be “perfect,” all of them – on certain days and in certain ways – are just right.

Ever find yourself complaining about something that’s actually a boon – or is it just me?

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