I discovered a few things when I started hanging out in neighborhood coffee shops.* First, they’re full of weirdos (except me). Not just any weirdos, but the kinds of weirdos who look like they just emerged from the basement of their mom’s house after a 3-day “Dungeons & Dragons” marathon. Where’s your 20-sided die, bro? In your belly button? Up your ass? But that’s part of the charm. The coffee shops, not the 20-sided die. People watching is my business and business is good at a coffee shop. I’m. Watching. You. Don’t get creeped out.
Second, I get a lot of work done at coffee shops. The murmur of nearby conversations, whirring of expresso makers, and clanging of cups and mugs actually help me focus on my work, which 9 times out of 10 involves reading or writing something.
Third, I can usually get better tasting coffee in non-chain coffee shops, which brings us to Society Fair and Cafe Aficionado, which both recently opened storefronts in Arlington. The former is the second of its kind in the D.C. area, after establishing a successful outlet south of us in Alexandria. Society Fair replaced a fish-and-chips place called Eamonn’s, which is among a small handful of restaurants and bars that have started popping up along the gentrifying Columbia Pike corridor. (Eamonn’s lasted about two years until the owners realized they could make more moolah by expanding the menu beyond reheating frozen fish sticks, or something like that).
I think Society Fair will be here to stay. The new owners renovated the interior of the shop, replacing hard wooden benches with couches, plush reading chairs and coffee tables. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner – and adjoins a gourmet cocktail place called T-N-T Bar. So theoretically you can grab lunch at Society Fair, work through the afternoon (free WiFi, baby), get tanked at the bar … and then grab breakfast at Society Fair on the following morning. One-stop living.
The wife and I ordered lattes and a breakfast sandwich, featuring a fried egg, shredded turkey and melted cheddar on a buttermilk biscuit. Not bad, but not great compared to some breakfast fare we could’ve gotten from some nearby competitors. The biscuit was kind of brittle, as if it had been made from a Pillsbury tube.
However, the lattes were excellent and the service was pretty good. The barista even made eye contact with us, which I think is becoming increasingly rare among busy D.C. eateries. Customer service is tough to accurately judge when there’s only a half-dozen other patrons on a slow, sleepy Saturday morning. I’d like to see how well they keep their composure with a line forming out the door, which may happen soon with spring’s warmer weather.
Meanwhile, in an effort to encourage patrons to hang out (and spend more money), the owners laid out magazines and board games. We chose Battleship and I lost.
We visited Belgian-themed Cafe Aficionado in Arlington’s Rosslyn area a couple weekends later. There was a grand total of eight chairs and stools in the 800-square-foot space – a fact that the friendly owner lamented as he served our lattes and “breakfast” – a tasty, subtly sweet, freshly made waffle that required not one bit of syrup or extra sugar. Both of our drinks and the waffle were delicious. However, this is a walk-in/take-out kind of place for folks who work or live in the area. There aren’t many places to park, although some spaces will free up on Saturdays or Sundays.
The verdicts: I’ll come back to both Society Fair and Cafe Aficionado, the former if I need a place to work and get a good caffeine fix, the latter if I happen to be in Rosslyn and want to indulge on some fresh Belgian pastries and fantastic coffee drinks in the comfort of a closet. Meet me in the corner, where I’ll watch you walk in. Don’t forget your 20-sided die, Gandalf.
* Coffee chains are as evil as the Affordable Care Act, but I’m a Starbucks patron because there’s one on my way to work. When I’m home, I frequent The Coffee Bean, a family-owned California-based chain that has retained its high quality despite nationwide expansion. So there.