I haven't visted as many coffee shops as I have diners, but I've seen my share. In modern society, it seems that the local coffee shop has all-but-replaced the neighborhood diner as the focal point of the community. While I hardly lament this development, the lack of great little diners run by rough-hewn characters with hearts of gold that serve rib-sticking comfort food does mean we live in a diminished culture.
That said, the very existence of the coffee shop concept continues to provide individual entrepreneurs with an opportunity to stake a claim in the local marketplace and if done right, can make a community not only worth inhabiting, but visiting as well. A good café may never become a destination attraction, but its existence in a commercial district provides a touchstone for all who live and work in the surrounding area.
Here, then, are a few Roadside-Approved criteria for what constitutes -- in our humble opinion -- a superlative coffee shop:
Lead with the beans. After all, this is a coffee shop. When I walk in, I want to see the grand and glorious homage to the coffee bean. I want to see roasters, coffee makers, coffee icons, coffee paraphenalia, bags of coffee, cups, all-things-java.
Make great coffee. Seems obvious, but not for anyone who frequents these places whenever possible. The absolute upper echelon of coffee shops roast their own beans. Coffee should be dark, strong, smooth, and not bitter.
Provide a relaxed atmosphere. For color, take your cues from the product you sell. Also, nothing -- and I mean nothing -- ruins the ambiance more than a radio playing commercial stations. No oldies. No country. No top-40. No hip hop. Play something low key, avante guard, and a little out of the ordinary.
Sweeten the menu. The only food I require in a coffee shop is a good brownie, scone, muffin, or cookie. Sandwiches and smoothies round out the menu nicely, but only if you make them fresh. Ice cream works too, but whatever you do, do not serve a big-name store-bought brand. If you can't make it yourself (or have someone do it for you), select a locally owned brand -- something not found in every quickie mart on every corner of the county.
The seating plan. For whatever reason, I seem to have the best experiences at coffee shops that provide a long row of seating that backs up against the wall, allowing you to sit and look out into the room (This works for pubs too). Sitting there, I can either read my paper, type on my computer, or find myself in a random conversation with complete strangers sitting a few seats down. Tables in the middle of things just don't cut it for me. They look and seem to act like islands that close you off from interaction with others. Fine if you like that, but to me the great coffee shop experience involves good conversation, with friends or complete strangers. Big comfy chairs? Call it a personal preference, but I can live without them.
That's what I have for now. How about you? Leave comments. (Written while sitting in Jenkintown Java, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.)