The coffee house, according to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, is “a place where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” You might spend five or ten times what you would to make coffee at home, but that’s the fair price you pay for the loveliness of the time and space you’ve received.
Café culture was first born in Austro-Hungary, just after the second Ottoman invasion. According to legend, it all started when a man named Georg Franz Kolschitzky, who helped end the Siege of Vienna in 1683 and drive the Ottoman Empire out of Habsburg territory, found a bag of coffee that had been left behind by the Ottomans. At first, Kolschitzky thought it was camel food. But an Armenian spy named Diodato showed the Viennese how to brew coffee, and café culture soon took Vienna and Budapest by storm.
Coffee was very expensive in its early days, and coffee houses were gathering places for the conspicuous consumers of the leisure class who aspired to nobility. Some coffee houses even had show bedrooms where royals would sleep. Each morning, the royals would be awakened and dressed by servants in a ceremony, performed in front of the coffee-house customers, that could last up to two hours.
Although the poor couldn’t afford coffee (or much of anything else), the experience was — unlike many other ones — at least accessible to middle-class people. The price of a coffee was a reasonable sum for the many perks you’d get in return, including card games, discussions of literature and art, and piano music in the evenings. You could read the newspaper for free, and at some coffee houses, you could even receive your mail.
The social ritual of coffee is in the midst of an American renaissance, but it’s taken on a different form than the Viennese one. The best of our coffee houses are one-of-a-kind gems run by humble local entrepreneurs and roasters who aren’t rich. They’re places that are steeped in local culture, and their offerings reflect local wants. They might provide board games or jazz, and the good ones will have several copies of this newspaper on hand.
For my roundup of local coffee houses, undertaken in honor of the start of the academic year, I first turn back the clock to 1991, when the Haymarket Cafe opened in downtown Northampton. From day one, Haymarket seemed to distill everything the town represented and tie-dye it into a wavy, colorful interior din that turned the bi-level haunt into an instant classic.
Local character still infuses the hippie, multi-culti, all-vegetarian cuisine here (Middle Eastern shakshuka, Cuban rice, South Indian sambar, all-American baked portobello), and the new-wave smoothies like the refreshing Drinking June, with watermelon, lemon, orange, strawberry, banana, and echinacea. Haymarket is like Northampton, only more so.
Every place I’m going to mention today makes great coffee from locally processed beans. Some, including Haymarket and Esselon, roast their own. But coffee quality is generally so high these days, and people’s style preferences vary so much, that I’m not going to spend words picking out the differences. When it comes to coffee, I’m a simple man, and for me, these days, even Dunkin’ Donuts makes a pretty good cup. But that’s a coffee shop, not a coffee house.
Lady Killegrew Café, at the Bookmill in Montague, is a house indeed, a big old red house that’s one of the finest in the country. It was built in 1842 as a grist mill, and in its current incarnation, it might be my favorite place in the world to spend all day writing. Picture windows hanging off the tree-shrouded banks of the Sawmill River give such sensational views that you might find it hard to concentrate on your tasty curried-chicken sandwich, peanut-ginger udon noodles, local craft beer, and incredible selection of vintage books that awaits a few steps away.
The bookstore is the centerpiece of the Bookmill, straight out of a fairytale, and you can spend hours exploring its treasure-filled nooks. Downstairs there’s also the Watershed Restaurant, a lovely dinner place that will be covered in a future column.
Café Balagan, in Northampton, is associated with the excellent cannabis retail store next door. But the café has its own totally different vibe. It’s on the urban edge of Northampton décor and would be at home in Brooklyn or either Portland. The space is long and narrow, but a sitting area in the back with comfy sofas makes for a sweet hangout spot.
Balagan also serves beer and wine, plus a short menu of baked goods and snacks that hit the spot — marinated anchovies are my favorite — and it’s open refreshingly late into the evening, turning it into a legitimate contender in the after-normal-hours bar scene in town.
Esselon, on Route 9 in Hadley, is another true coffee house in the Viennese sense. Coming here for coffee should be a whole-afternoon plan. When I think of Esselon, I always picture the beautiful stamped-tin ceilings that are a trademark of century-old interiors around here.
Esselon is popular, and indoor seats can be scarce, but on a nice day, its expansive outdoor garden means that you’ll find a good seat somewhere. There’s a full, well-thought-out lunch menu. Twinkle lights turn the garden romantic in the afternoon, and you can relax with a wine or beer.
If you pass by Amherst Coffee in the evening, with its dim, romantic aura, you’ll almost certainly mistake it for a cocktail bar — which it also was and soon may be again. But it’s first and foremost a coffee bar, and one beloved by students and young people all over the Valley, who convene and spend hours soaking in the vibe. The nitro cold brew project tops coffee and oolong tea with creamy Guinness foam — if you haven’t tried it, here’s your chance.
There are several other notable options in café-rich downtown Northampton. If you’re in the mood for indoor bustle, Share Coffee, right in the middle of in Thornes Market on Main Street in Northampton, is a fun place to sit and sip. There’s another Share branch in a cute old house in Amherst. Woodstar Cafe is a perennial favorite that’s famous for its fresh bread and variety of well-constructed deli sandwiches. Catalpa Coffee has an attention to detail that will win over your favorite coffee geek. The Roost is a great space for socializing or solo working that also hosted a fantastic set for Jazzy Arts Night Out Northampton, one of the highlights of my summer in town. Whatever you do, don’t miss the full-scale 2022 Northampton Jazz Festival September 30 and October 1 — yes, that’s next weekend!
Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at [email protected]