Whistling Shade's Literary Cafe Review
Balzac's prolific literary output can be credited to strong black coffee, which allowed the author to write for fifteen hours or more at one sitting. While we at Whistling Shade do not necessarily recommend this regimen (Balzac died at 51), we think a good cafe the perfect spot for writing and literary conversation. An ideal literary cafe would be a quiet space filled with light-not too noisy with commuters running in and out, nor entirely desolate of patrons. It should have its own unique look and identity (forget the chains), host readings and other events, and carry free publications (eventually you'll need to take a break from all that writing). Oh, and it should serve good strong coffee.
Below are a few Twin Cities cafes which fit the bill. Our review, however, has only scratched the surface of the literary cafe topography in the Twin Cities. From the placid little backwaters of Cahoots to the urbane and artsy A Fine Grind, from the sleek Java J's where you can bring your dog and drink Surly on tap to the avant-garde sophistication of Wilde Roast (a cafe Oscar would be proud to raise a glass in) and the neighborhood friendliness of Mayday or Butter Bakery Cafe, the Cities have a wealth of coffee houses to inspire both pen and palate. If your favorite literary cafe is not listed, write a short review and send it to us at email@example.com; we will keep a Literary Cafe Review page on our web site.
Milton Square, Grand & Milton, St. Paul
I vote for Cafe Amore, on the corner of Grand and Milton where the barista serves a great iced chai. Its meeting room, behind French doors, hosts community action groups, study groups, writing groups. Both Governor Pawlenty and Al Franken have been spotted there. Like love, Amore can wax hot or cold; you may need a sweater over that tank top. One of the cafe's doors opens to the street, the other onto an atrium with a fountain, just like an Italian piazza. Make a wish and throw a coin into the fountain's pool.
- Sharon Chmielarz
165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul
Next to Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books in St. Paul's historic Cathedral Hill neighborhood, the interior of Nina's Cafe is defined by high ceilings and brick archways. This is a place suited to earnest literary pursuits: slim volumes of avant-garde poetry, hefty Russian tomes, churning out your magnum opus. The mood grows intense in November, when Nina's (debate rages over whether the name is pronounced "NEE-nuhz" or "NYE-nuhz") hosts the Twin Cities kick-off for National Novel-Writing Month and many subsequent write-ins. Beverage and food options are standard and well-executed, power outlets a bit sparse, and seating in high demand: you may end up sharing a table with your fellow book-toter.
- Eli Effinger-Weintraub
Snelling Ave. at Minnehaha, St. Paul
Student cafes, such as Lori's in St. Paul or the Hard Times on the West Bank, have their own earnest but homogenous charm. Though it is ensconced in the shadow of Hamline University, Gingko is a different animal, an eclectic cafe for coffee drinkers of all ages. The college kids are joined by a grittier twentysomething crowd that congregates about the nearby bus stop, along with artists, parents with children, friends meeting for a cuppa and a chat, and the older inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood. The overarching theme seems to be growth. Plants bask in the bountiful sunlight that pours through the east-facing windows, and a children's play area is filled with toys. Gingko's soup of the day is guaranteed to add a week to your life, and even the pastries taste healthy. The coffee, served in tall glasses, is strong enough even for the serious writer who is willing to brave a bit of noise and possibly a folk music performance; in summer, you can retreat to the (relatively) quieter back porch, which looks out on the handy parking lot. And yes, the cafe is shaded by gingko trees, which grow along the boulevard.
- Joel Van Valin
Mad Hatter's Tea House & Cafe
943 W 7th St, St. Paul
During these challenging economic times it's good to know there is place where one can stimulate the mind and soul while not making a big dent in your pocketbook. Mad Hatter's Cafe and Teahouse is just this kind of place and offers some kind of entertainment for just about everyone.
Ward 2 council member Dave Thune has owned the shop for many years and it's grown to become a gathering place for local neighbors to sit down and visit. The ambience is very low-key and after spending a few minutes in the cafe one begins to feel at home. There is a piano where you can feel free to play "Chopsticks" or Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". A book exchange is available if you are looking for something satisfying to read or want to donate your books, and the cafe is equipped with Wi-Fi access.
Literary salons are offered on Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30. The cafe hosts a local Amnesty International chapter where authors discuss current political/economic issues. The last Tuesday of the month is reserved for poetry readings; most are open mic where poets can come and share their work. These salons are thought-provoking and interesting, providing an outlet for the community to come together to share their interests.
Since Mad Hatter's is also a teahouse, it serves an eclectic mix of tea. There are at least 20 different varieties; I haven't tried all of them but the lemon solstice is pretty good. The food and baked goods are prepared fresh and taste fabulous. My personal favorite is the cranberry cardamom scone. It's perfect for eating with a hot cup of coffee or espresso. All you can eat waffles are served Saturday mornings from 9am to noon. The cafe has limited hours on Mon-Sat. Hours are from 8-1pm, Tues evenings 6:30-8:30pm. Sunday the cafe is closed. This is definitely a cafe I would recommend checking out if you are looking for something to do Tuesday nights.
- Rhonda Niola
The Black Dog
Prince and Wall, downtown St. Paul
No review of St. Paul cafes would be complete without the Black Dog, the cafe at the heart of the artsy warehouse district on the east side of downtown. Its huge beams and open spaces recall the old St. Paul of lumber barges and grain exchanges; and yet no cafe in the Twin Cities is closer to the spirit of Paris' Left Bank. Bottled beer and wine are available, if you're not in the mood for the Black Dog's strong black coffee, and the cafe has a full kitchen for breakfast or lunch. You can also catch poetry readings or music at the Black Dog, and there are outdoor tables for those fine summer evenings in the city. The only drawback is parking-particularly on Saturday and Sunday mornings, as the Black Dog is kitty corner to the Farmer's Market.
- Joel Van Valin
The Bad Waitress
Nicollet and 26th St, Minneapolis
The Bad Waitress isn't literary by intent, though it has all the requirements a poet might need to knock out a sonnet, or for a novelist to do a quick revision of that tricky middle chapter. There are big open windows to catch a lazy summer breeze, walls full of retro kitsch for inspiration, plenty of outlets to keep the laptop juiced up, ample supplies of coffee and sandwiches, and plush vinyl seats to keep the blood flowing in the butt. And when you've finally whipped those insolent words into shape, grab a beer, lean back, and wait for the folks at the Pulitzer Prize to call. Life is good!
- Michael Ramberg
Second Moon Coffee Cafe
2225 Franklin Ave E., Minneapolis
With its celestial decorating scheme and selection of vegan baked goods, Second Moon's literary vibe is "urban bohemian." During the Playwrights' Center's heyday, writers and actors leaving the Wednesday Night Roundtable often adjourned to Second Moon to continue discussing the evening's play. Come to think of it, I seldom get a lot of writing done when I go there, but it's been the site of many of my best conversations about writing and literature. Power outlets are in short supply, and while the drinks and baked goods are delightful, don't go looking for more substantial fare-head across the street to Pizza Luce for that.
- Eli Effinger-Weintraub
22nd Street and Lyndale Avenue, Minneapolis
Pale blue eyes tilt upwards, meeting mine. The gaze of a bored husky is the first contact I make on most visits to Caffetto. The dog belongs to a man living on the hill between Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues, on the crest of Uptown Minneapolis, where Caffetto draws locals who come for espresso and stay for eclectic music and the hope of a friendly face. Past visits found me sharing a stale croissant with an Iranian mathematician, playing Go Fish with a professional "speed-seduction" teacher, comparing scars with a hypochondriac jazz musician, or lamenting the job search with a kind barista.
Yet in the past decade, much has changed with Caffetto's regulars: Where the dirty vinyl booths and rickety lacquer tables were once filled with sketchers, scribblers and readers, they now teem with unsociable hipsters hunching over MacBooks. Like the husky, I, too, sit beneath the paintings of ships in the high seas, longing for the chase of personal connection at this indie cafe.
- Iris Key