Best Cafés in Boston

It’s official:  Boston has now gotten cold enough that, even though I look out my window and it’s BLUE and beautiful, I’m still shy to venture outside.  It often takes – not kidding – several hours of putting on ever-more layers before I buck up and do it.  Yes, I believe the long outdoor runs and definitely the leisurely 15-mile exploratory walks around town are on hold for a few months.  Especially since weather.com says it’s 21 (ooh, toasty) but feels like 9 (bah).

Still, I want to get out in it.  I even sometimes find that, properly equipped with a knee-length puff coat, a cold shock to the face feels kind of great.  Yes, Jeanette, you’re ALIVE!

So I think my new “outdoor activity” for winter will be café-hopping – something I would happily do any day of the year (cold or warm), but still.  Brisk walk, followed by hot beverage with milk foam piled high, sounds perfect, and somehow even more rewarding than the summer equivalent of iced coffee after sweaty stroll.

If you’re in the same mood, I’ve compiled a list of favorite cafés (so far!) around the Boston area, plus a few more I must trek to as well.  I rather think I will excel at this new winter sport.

CRÈME DE LA CRÈME

Though this first list gets a mighty big title, keep in mind it’s just my favorites.  I tend to love spots that are a mix of delicious coffee, warm atmosphere, and enough welcoming couches or open tables for me to stick around for a while.  Other pluses that will bias the following list include outlets (free) Wi-Fi, since I work remotely and sometimes must just be practical about that!  Also keep in mind that I live in Davis Square, so I’m clearly more familiar with spots on this side of the river than the other.

So, quality of coffee + people + food + vibe gets most points with me… but I’m guessing I’m not alone there.

Boston /

  • Espresso Royale Caffe (Gainsborough installment) – Neighborhood:  Northeastern? – Fantastic hipster fantasyland!  Also populated by grumpy old men (I have a video of these funny men arguing on my camera, and I’ll show you if you ask nicely), students, etc.  I have a new love for this spot for several reasons:  a fun, warm atmosphere despite the kind of big space; delicious coffee (and two free refills on cups of it – holy smokes); and something personal about the place.  I’ve had really familiar interactions with several folks who work there, and something about that charms me, I’ll admit it.  I love friendly strangers, and this place is full of them.  And free Wi-Fi, no joke.
  • Ula CaféJamaica Plain – A new favorite.  Design-y wood interior.  Lots of seating (plenty unoccupied, perhaps due to distance from major universities).  Free Wi-Fi during non-peak hours.  A sweet potato sandwich that I’m dying to try, along with other sandwiches that sound like they’ll rival it.  Also, let’s not forget the proximity to the Arnold Arboretum for an outdoor break, and to Centre St. Café (a place I plan to write about as many times as I can) for brunch and dinner as bookends to your café work.  Just a suggestion.

Cambridge + Somerville /

  • Darwin’s Ltd.Harvard Square – This spot, above most, reminds me that there are some amazing, impressive characters in our midst in Cambridge.  I spent my first 2-3 visits in long conversation with Lucy, a 70+-year-old regular who was among the first group of women admitted to HBS.  You can find her in one of the armchairs, and she will likely talk to you, even if you’re across the room.  Otherwise, this spot offers some big delicious sandwiches in the adjacent grocery-ish areas, ginormous produce to match, free Wi-Fi.  Just delightful place in general.  And I can’t resist the walk through the surrounding neighborhood on the way there.
  • Diesel CafeDavis Square – OK, this one’s kind of a gimme.  First, I live in Davis – wunderbar.  Second, every hipster or young professional or grad student near or far puts this on his/her list too.  But I think it earns its spot near the top of most lists.  Yes, I’m a sucker for a place that decorates with random things hanging from the ceiling, and that includes pool tables and photo booths while still offering lots of booths, tables, couches, etc.  Also has some great coffee and killer sandwiches.  And for how popular it is, I can usually snag a table somewhere.  Atmosphere’s great, and the crowd includes not just those I already mentioned, but families and professors alike as well.  It’s just great.  Just don’t expect Wi-Fi unless you want to pay – fair enough.
  • Petsi PiesSmack dab between Harvard and Central – Often crowded with grad students, but for good reason.  Simply lovely.  And I consider holding off on breakfast every morning, just to hold out for their breakfast couscous.  Unfortunately, the 2.5-mile walk means I’d be seeing stars by the time I got there.  Alas, their free Wi-Fi was just replaced with the kind you pay for, but a great spot for catching up with good company, or for actually being productive because of that lack of Internets.  Also, it’s high time I actually try their pies.
  • Simon’s Coffee ShopPorter Square – Yay, new favorite!  First, you all should know that it pretty much tops most lists for quality of coffee/espresso in Boston.  It’s the kind of place New Yorkers and San Franciscans are excited about.  It’s another spot, like Diesel, that doesn’t have free Wi-Fi… but that lack plus its smaller size ends up being lovely in that Simon’s then especially seems to attract the crowd who just wants to read and enjoy some brilliant espresso.  The relative lack of computers is refreshing to me, somehow.  There are also enough devoted regulars and friendly staff (especially the morning crew) that it feels more welcoming and familiar to me than probably any others on this list.  I’m coming back, stat.
  • Cafe Zing (@ Porter Square Books)Porter Square – The only installment on this list that offers free Wi-Fi and a bookstore, a grand combination!  All of the cafe seats face the outdoors (granted, a big shopping center parking lot, but still), and I always seem to find a seat even with so few of them.  Great food, quirky gifts to buy, and a decent bargain books selection also help.  The baked goods also happen to be locally made, and the espresso organic.  Well, then.
  • True GroundsBall Square – Another place that has all of my favorites in terms of atmosphere and consumption.  So comfy and wonderful.  Only one hour of free Wi-Fi at a time means I’m magically uber-productive here too.  I’ll take it!

HONORABLE MENTION

Perfectly honorable spots, mind you.  We’re just dealing with my own biases here.

Boston /

  • Boston Common Coffee Co.North End – This spot actually stands out most in my mind for the super jolly folks working the register.  There’s also a surprising number of tables for a North End spot.  I guess I expect all properties there to be tiny and have a line down the block.  Free Wi-Fi here too, and Yelp tells me the locals love it.  Perhaps worth a second shot.
  • Espresso Royale Caffe (Newbury installment) – Back Bay – You know, delicious coffee and food, good atmosphere.  But I’m not absolutely won over.  Perhaps its location on Newbury?  Perhaps because it feels more transient than cozy-up-to-your-coffee?
  • Wired PuppyBack Bay – Where to head on a hot (or super cold) day when Espresso Royale’s full.  A random recent find that actually looks to hold its own in terms of quality coffee around here.  Very little seating, though.  (btw – got Boston magazine’s 2010 “Best of Boston” Award for Best Coffee Shop)

Cambridge + Somerville /

  • 1369 Coffee House Inman and Central – I know, most locals would say it’s a crime that I put this on my second-tier list.  Forgive me, but I just haven’t been here enough times to develop a passion.  It’s absolutely the type of café I’d fall in love with – yummy local food, atmosphere, all that.  Just give me time.  Or more non-Wi-Fi work to do.
  • Andala Coffee House – Central Square – Oh, the Mediterranean food!  Airy, sunny.  Almost so empty I wonder if I’m supposed to be working there.  Free Wi-Fi.  I must give this one a shot again.
  • Blue Shirt CaféDavis Square – I do love this place.  Only trouble is that its specialty is food, not coffee (they just have basic drip).  It only lands on this list because I figured you fine folks would love to learn about more free Wi-Fi spots.  However, you need to spend $5 here to get the Wi-Fi code, which is easy to do if you want to snag one of their wraps or panini sandwiches, etc. – probably one of my favorite wraps places ever.  I just tend to only treat myself to lunch at these spots occasionally.  Also, the atmosphere is, um, kind of lacking, though they’ve certainly put up more art over the past year.  So, do go here if you’re hungry, and/or want a generally peaceful place to work all afternoon when Diesel is full.
  • Crema CafeHarvard Square – Not much to say here.  Pluses:  delicious coffee, smells great, is airy and beautiful, and the sweets in the front astound me (to look at and to eat).  Minuses:  I can’t find a spot to sit down 95% of the time – midweek, mid-morning, whenever.  Bumma.
  • Sherman Cafe – Union Square – Thank you, artsy, hipstamatic Union Square.  Just the kind of design-y (yes, second use of this new word) cafe that gets me all inspired to write and think and generally be prolific.  Cool random art.  Will have to try again to see if this gets kicked up a notch on my list.

REALLY MUST TRY

I’ve done a bit of research on great cafés around Boston now, for both quality of coffee and just interesting new finds (with a bias towards free Wi-Fi).  Here’s the current To Try list:

  • Angora TooBrighton – I found this one on a “Best Boston Coffee Shops for Writers” list (which is how I made it to Espresso Royale on Gainsborough, by the way)… sounds intriguing.  This one’s up next!
  • Bloc 11 CaféUnion Square – Apparently a sister café to Diesel.  Interesting…
  • Blue State CoffeeAllston/Brighton – Free Wi-Fi, evidently
  • Cafe PamplonaHarvard Square
  • Equal Exchange CaféNorth End – Free Wi-Fi, as well.  And their coffee seems to be served around Boston – must be a good sign.
  • Flour Bakery + CafeSouth End – I’ve heard this place is great, but my perusal of the Yelp reviews, and a peek at the place one evening makes me wonder if this is mainly for buying lunch, not sticking around.
  • South End ButterySouth End – About the same as Flour…?

While Boston might never be known for coffee in the way that New York, San Francisco, and Seattle can claim, I think you can tell I’m plenty enamored of the current selection.  It seems as though winter can become pretty darn isolating if you don’t make the effort to get out in it.  But I say that the opportunity to spend the afternoon in one of these spots, or to try another that I keep hearing about, cures all.

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One Response to Best Cafés in Boston

  1. Pingback: Neighborhood Guide: Porter Square | URBAN HIKING

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