Granted, since I’m 9 months pregnant, I haven’t had coffee in a long time. But, generally, for the 4 years I’ve been living in Newport, I’ve enjoyed a specialty latte or cappuccino every now and then. And I frequent coffee shops for their non-caffeinated drinks, sandwiches and of course pastries! Mostly, I love having a place to go.
This isn’t an extensive list of what’s offered in town but here is a review of what I consider three major competitors in the area of the European style coffee shop.
The People’s Cafe
I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I first noticed this cafe was opening in an old bank. The People’s Cafe on Thames Street is spacious and utilizes this advantage to have charity fundraisers, mom’s group meetings, Sunday brunches, etc. What also caught my eye was the lunch menu with plenty of hot sandwiches, soups and specialty salads. “Could this be the local answer to Panera?” I thought. And “Will this replace Hendricka’s Cafe or Bliss Grocer in my heart?” (Both Hendricka’s Cafe and Bliss Grocer were great breakfast, lunch and coffee spots on Broadway. Well, the coffee was okay but the food was good.)
I tried it a couple of times. The first time, it was newly open and I went in the evening for a pastry. The staff was helpful but there was no offering to be had, as the croissant was moldy (yes, moldy). I turned away disappointed, but remembered that it was difficult to find a cafe which was open in the evening, let alone still stocked with fare.
I gave the spot a couple of months to find it’s business groove and returned at lunchtime. It was very clean, though it was crowded. The clientele was older but hip. The menu was not quite so ambitious as it was originally. My small companion got a yogurt parfait and I got grilled ham and cheese with a cup of tea. (There are baristas with a limited repertoire of espresso drinks but for aforesaid reason I couldn’t try any at the time.)
My two-year-old son couldn’t say much for the parfait, as he didn’t finish it, but, hey, toddlers are fickle. As for my grilled ham and cheese, it wasn’t as good as home and was overpriced. In fact, the total for our meager meals (my sandwich did not come with chips or even so much as a pickle) was around $15. The parfait was probably around $5, the tea around $2 and the sandwich around $7.
Not wanting to have absolutely no reason ever to return to the People’s Cafe, I ordered a cookie. It was like eating hardtack. I haven’t given it a second glance.
I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks, also on Thames. Here’s what I love.
The people. The baristas are the best. You’ll never meet any more interested in you personally. They talk to you like it’s their job, because it is. The more they get to know you, the more they know what you like and how you like it – also, the more likely you’ll return because you that welcoming feeling you get is part of the third place experience.
The clientele of Starbucks, excluding the tourists, are good, salt-of-the earth New Englanders and community-oriented Newporters.
The coffee. I rarely get an espresso drink from Starbucks that isn’t good. Generally, the machines are calibrated at regular intervals, the beans fresh and the baristas well-trained. The recipes are standardized and easy to modify. Also, the brewed coffee is the best anywhere. In fact, the only other place I like a cup of coffee is at Ma’s Donuts. Only Starbucks and Ma’s brews coffee in the correct proportions and have the heartiest flavor beans. But this review is focusing on places to hang out with your cup of coffee, so no further mention of the truck stop will be made.
Here is what I hate about Starbucks.
The atmosphere. If I’m going to be completely honest, I have to say that Starbucks is filthy. Yes, it is probably the busiest coffee spot, but crowds I can handle – filth, I cannot abide. During busy times – which is almost always – the counters are encrusted with dried milk; trash bins are overflowing; tables littered with papers, crumbs, spilled drinks and the bathrooms – well, let’s just say that unless I was cleaning the bathroom when I worked there, I used the public restroom in the parking lot instead.
Another thing I hate about the atmosphere of Starbucks is the advertising. Since Howard Schultz has come back onto the scene, it hasn’t been as bad, but sometimes I feel like my eyeballs are bombarded with glossy cardboard signs. They’re hanging from the ceiling; propped up in the display cases; leaning on the counter; taped in the windows; the fabric of the menu; on packaging, cups and napkins and even standing in line on posts bigger than traffic signs. It’s as if Starbucks thinks I just wandered in and have no clue where I am or how to begin to order. If that last bit weren’t the case, it certainly could be; just give me one place to look for my options, please!
The food. Not that having great food is one of Schultz’s goals, but the stuff is trucked in, stored for a few days and warmed, if desired, in a microwave/toaster. The selection is severely limited, very difficult to modify and overpriced.
Empire Coffee and Tea
Empire Coffee and Tea on Broadway is difficult to write about because I love it so much and it’s difficult to give an unbiased review. Or is it that I need to review it separately in order to give it just praise? It’s also hard to write a critique when there is nothing to critique. Those two complaints I have had have been resolved either by mere hint or the foresight of its owner/manager. For example, although Empire is the only coffee shop I know of that is child friendly, it just replaced a rickety changing table with a new changing station. (When you’re a parent of a small child, your life kind of revolves around poop so anytime you don’t have a potential crisis looming over your head, it makes your day that much better.)
There is only one barista who can’t seem to make a cappuccino for beans (You guessed my other complaint! But when this drink’s done right, which is most of the time, it’s one of the best. I will only have my favorite espresso drink from either Starbucks or Empire.), but of course I have my favorite – CJ, the owner himself. CJ takes a keen interest in what I’m interested in and offers samples of new recipes, to concoct something for me on the spot or even to “test” my cappuccino before declaring it “perfect.” Then CJ gets me interested in what he’s interested in – all the changes to Empire that I will be seeing soon.
And here is where Empire really has an edge over any other local business or even corporate Starbucks – constant and quick improvement, from new artwork and furniture to new machines and recipes. If it’s not already your favorite spot, I promise it will be soon.
Notes on Empire
Clientele: the college crowd or professionals
Food: the standard offerings – such as breakfast and deli sandwiches, muffins and scones – plus decadent desserts and mochi ice cream
Coffee and tea: the most original and extensive menu
Cleanliness and overall atmosphere: the occasional need to wipe the table or toilet seat; the most spacious and artsy, yet the most homey and conducive to hanging out
Price: the most reasonable