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The café campus (Mar. 1996)

The word “coffeehouse” brings to mind Parisian street corners, crowded rooms where visionaries brandished cigarettes in earnest defense of the avant-garde, or basement rooms in San Francisco, where the Beatniks spouted poetry over cups of coffee blacker than their clothes. Where would the geniuses of the past, the people who gave espresso its cachet, now go for joe in New Haven?

The search begins with the Daily Caffé on Elm Street. The two f’s spell attitude here. Regular poetry readings attract the Beats’ heirs. The art, the staff, the pastries—all wear black. Blasé chic, passionate chess, and a healthy dose of existential angst blend with the smoke to create the Daily mood. This is the place to nurse writer’s block, or hash out lyrics to your next big hit.

Next in the running is Koffee? on Audubon Street. Less smoky and more inviting, its backyard tables overlook a good attempt at a lawn for the fall and spring days when the weather is nice. When it’s cold, melting into the cushiony couches for a long caffeinated chat is the perfect respite.

A quick perusal of some other options: Willoughby’s—a chain of stores good for people-watching and high-quality coffee; The Casbah—eerie and dark, but perfect for those times when conversation dies (the decor, a kind of junk-shop moderne, always inspires comments); Taft Caffe—cozy and bright, with Internet access in case there’s virtually no one to chat with in real life.

While all are nice, none has the requisite soul to be the coffeehouse. The winner is, in this sipper’s estimation, the Atticus Bookstore-Café, across Chapel Street from the University Art Gallery. It is, in a sense, the most unlikely candidate. Its lighting is fluorescent and pervasive. There are no dark corners or shadowed crannies, and the air is never thick with smoke. Coats always slide off the backs of the plastic chairs. Elbow room is slim.

Maybe it’s a trick of location. Maybe it’s the storefront windows lined with muffins and books. Maybe it’s the black bean soup. But if you want to meet a Yalie for coffee, chances are this is where you’ll go. This is the site of the intense and heartfelt conversations at Yale.

For the reunion after a semester abroad, for the first time you’ll get to talk to her one-on-one, for the furious cram session, for the first time you’ve seen him since you told him how you felt, you’ll meet at Atticus. It means nothing to say, “I saw him with her at Willoughby’s.” It means everything to say, “I saw him with her at Atticus.” Countless tears are dropped into Atticus bread baskets. Here Yalies apologize, discuss, court, forgive, and remember.

An acquaintance once said he hated Atticus, but I told him I loved the place because I always had wonderful conversations there. We proceeded to have one—at Atticus. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

The Parisians may have had espresso in Paris, and the Beats may have had java in San Francisco, but here, sometimes a bread basket and coffee is enough.

Filed under 1990s
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