Category: Charleston


The best-seller listed above, The Help, was recommended to me by my friend Kristina. It’s pretty popular presently. I think it’s a bit unfairly reviewed here, but the review provides enough information for you to get a sense of the story, if you don’t have the time or interest in reading it. I think, however, that you should read it. It took me a few chapters to get over the affected writing in the “voices” of the characters, but it turned out to be the characters that won me over.

A few of my recent trips have given me a better taste of the South than I believe I had previously. I was enchanted by New Orleans’s French Quarter while there for a conference this past November. To get to my 50th U.S. state before I turned 30, Charlie and I traveled down to Charleston, South Carolina for Easter weekend. Boy, the South sure can be grand. But I felt myself conflicted while appreciating the glory and architectural splendor of the South, all the while remembering the history of slavery that brought that kind of affluence, as well as the ongoing struggle to end the disparity between black and white. I didn’t live through the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, but why did it still haunt me as I visited the pretty parts of southern cities with a long, checkered past?

(I don’t mean to sound ignorant of the great human evils inflicted in any geographical region, North or South or West or Midwest, Stateside or otherwise. A look at the history of any place is a look at triumphs mingled with errors and horrors.)

This book took a long stroll through the kind of questions I had: How might a white person have experienced the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement in the South? How might a black person have? Was there ever good mixed in with the pain?

As I read the book, I thought of Jestine’s Kitchen. It’s an extremely popular (and rightfully so) restaurant in Charleston, famous for its Southern cooking. The restaurant is named after Jestine Matthews, the long-time household cook of the restaurant owner (and the previous generation of that family).

The reflective front window of Jestine's Kitchen

You see, as the story goes, Jestine helped with at least two generations of the family, as she lived to be 112. The restaurant’s Facebook page has a summary of her story. And the food is so good. The fried green tomatoes, the sweet tea, the fried chicken … all delicious. We loved the desserts we tried, Pineapple Bread Pudding and the Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake.

Jestine's famous Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake

But when I learned about Jestine herself and about the apparent love and loyalty between her and her long-time employers, I just couldn’t figure out how a relationship of “unequals” in many ways, socio-economically and in the power structure of employer-employee, could seem (to a total outsider of course) to have been so loving and appreciative.

Of course, I’ll never know about Jestine, but the book The Help gives a variety of examples of the potential both for wickedness and for love, compassion, and bravery that humans possess.

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Cafe Central (Wien/Vienna) - excluded from the running in this post

The Coolest 1 Coffee Shops 2 in the World 3 so far

I love footnoting, so every superscripted number here points to a caveat at the bottom of the post. They’re very important for understanding my rationale in choosing the places I did.

1) The Flying M Coffee Garage – 1314 2nd Street South, Nampa, Idaho

The picture below shows only one of the distinct areas of this roomy Firestone-garage-turned-coffee-shop-heaven. There’s an eccentric gift store area. There’s a couch and tables, more traditional “coffee shop” area, with huge windows all around. There’s a space for bands to perform. There is an area for bigger groups sitting around tables. And, finally, it has a balcony (pictured below) with work stations, complete with plugs. The one time I had the opportunity to use it, I found it incredibly easy to write there.

Flying M - The Study Loft area (in the garage), which is part of why I love it so much.

The space aside, the Flying M Coffee Garage has excellent coffee drinks, competitively priced, and the most consistently good baked goods I’ve ever experienced in a coffee house. It’s constantly alive with activity and draws an eclectic crowd in this mid-sized Idaho town.

2) RIM Café – 1172 S 9th St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My husband and I stumbled upon this coffee shop when we were looking for a late-night place to wait out a friend’s delayed plane. Most coffee shops were closed between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., which happened to be when we needed them. A Yelp! search alerted me to RIM, so we drove there. It’s in the Italian Market part of town, right down the block from the incredibly famous and popular dueling Cheesesteak franchises, Geno’s and Pat’s (Pat’s is better).

Rene, working his magic.

As my husband said, “You’ll never pay more for a latte, but you’ll never have a better one.” It’s a small, dimly lit shop, run by Rene, a man from Nice in the south of France. He’s the artist of the coffee mixes, and the charismatic heart of the shop. Patrons watch as he mixes drinks, shaves exotic chocolates into the mix, spins the concoctions around while drizzling syrups on them, and turns out potable masterpieces. All the while, he’s shouting, “I’ma gonna make it hap-pen!” and “Oh my God!” (We were quite taken aback the first time we went in, since we had no idea what to expect!) Drinks cost between $7-12, I’d say (I’ll have to check to be more precise). But it’s more of a gourmet dessert experience than a simple latte. His peanut butter hot chocolate (the Nutty Volcano) is, I can assure you, divine.

3) Tea Drops 4 – 4111 Pennsylvania Avenue, Westport, Kansas City, Missouri

I’m pretty sure you can’t get any coffee here. But the shop design, menu, and tea/tea-brewing merchandise is pretty fabulous. I’ve had bubble tea elsewhere, but it’s never as good. Of course, I like the milky versions better than the plain teas, but it’s the black tapioca bubbles that are my favorites. I love the look of surprise on a newbie’s face when their large straw shoots a chewy bubble into his or her mouth. Ha!

I cannot find a photo of Tea Drops in all my pictures, even though I’ve been there at least a dozen times. I can find pictures of me grinning with friends in the premises, but they show our faces … not the coolness of the shop.

4) South Street Café – 105 South Street, Bennington, Vermont

This is one of the places I’ve stopped while passing through and I thought, “Oh, I wish we had this. I’d read here all the time. As strangers to town, we walked in and felt comfortable. I moved it so high up the list because it seemingly had something for everyone, and used space really well. The coffee was affordable, with free refills (with their on-site mugs), and good!

The front door of the South Street Cafe - Bennington, Vermont

We stopped here on a frigidly cold day in February on our way back from a weekend in Woodstock, Vermont. We needed lunch – and I usually don’t like coffee shops standard panini or pre-made sandwich lunches. We saw on their chalkboard menu that their soup of the day was African and inquired what that meant. The barista highly recommended it, so we said “sure.” It was a steaming crock of root vegetables and legumes in a thick, richly-spiced broth. It warmed us up wonderfully, along with some tasty bread on the side. We ordered, also, a spinach and feta pastry (I believe). Together they were almost too filling.

5) Caras Gourmet Coffee – Neue Schönhauser Straße 9, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin has a lot of great cafes and they all serve really stellar coffee. Many are designed beautifully. But many serve lots and lots of different things in the category of food and alcoholic beverages. Caras is a more “American-style” coffee shop. And, because much of their menu was in English, I suspected that it wasn’t not actually German, but I think from their website that it is. Germans do that sort of thing and this was along a popular shopping street, very close to the very-touristy Hackescher Markt area.

Charlie trying out Caras Gourmet Coffee, which was near my school in Berlin.

This shop had a front seating area, as you can see above, with wide windows looking onto the bustling street. There is also a long, more narrow seating area further back where I had success finishing up my daily homework. The most popular place to sit, as I observed in nearly all German cafes, is outside. There were many, street-facing seats where people would come to sip their coffees, smoke, talk, read, and people-watch. Sehr Deutsch.

6)  [The Original] Starbucks – Pike Place Market, Seattle, Washington

There’s nothing special about this Starbucks (at least when I last visited), excepting the large gold post in the shop marking it as the flagship store for the worldwide franchise. But if you like Starbucks (and I do) and if you like pilgrimages (and I do) and if you like city markets like the one in which the shop is found (and I so do), then you’ll like visiting the first Starbucks.

7) Coffee & Co. – Laurinská 135/5, Bratislava, Slovakia

We stumbled onto Coffee & Co. in the old city of Bratislava, picturesque, cobblestoned, and very Eastern European looking. Whether we should have been or not, we were surprised at how modern it was. It was very affordable and had all sorts of fun coffee drinks (iced and hot). The bright space was equipped with varied seating areas, including booths, sofas, and chairs.

Coffee & Co. - Bratislava - So good, we went here twice in 24 hours.

I can also state for the record that our Slovakian language skills were very, very poor, but the workers were quite patient and nice to dumb tourists like us. If I recall correctly, we twice heard Lady Gaga playing in the store.

8 ) Claire de Lune – 2906 University Avenue, North Park, San Diego, California

The North Park area is a fun neighborhood in San Diego; and on our recent visit to San Diego, Charlie introduced me to the long University Avenue that runs through quite diverse parts of town. My friend Rob met us at Claire de Lune – his suggestion – and we had some time waiting for him beforehand. We tried a dessert, which was delicious, but I can’t remember what it was. The brewed coffee was quite strong and not bitter — a good sign.

I wish I had better photos of Claire de Lune.

The place had a wonderful ambiance, and its balcony reminded me a little of my favorite coffee shop (Flying M, above). I can see myself sitting in one of these chairs for hours, reading and nursing a mug of hot coffee.

9) Kudu Coffee House – 4 Vanderhorst St, Charleston, South Carolina

Kude Coffee House - I really liked the lion! There was a beautiful courtyard, too.

This coffee house seemed to have a funky crowd. The group sitting in the back corner were, I think, discussing how to use grant money they’d won. There was discussion while we were there about the set-up for a concert that would be held in the evening. We watched groups of friends talking in the courtyard, and even a dog seemed to concur that it was a great place to spend a Spring afternoon.

10) Cupcake 5 – 36 Zionskirchstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

As the name suggests, this little German shop specialized in cupcakes (of the American sort, which differ from German-style cakes both in density and sweetness). It can be found in the cutest side-street in Prenzlauer Berg (northeast of Berlin’s city center), right across the street from Zionskirche, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught Confirmation for a time.

This photo cost me at Cupcake in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin!

The coffee was good, too, although I thought things were overpriced. * Please read the related caveats below. I want to emphasize: this place was amazingly cute, but I hope their staff has changed.

Honorable Mention: Small World Coffee – 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton's most popular coffee shop (Photo taken in the breathtaking Spring)

Caveats:

1 Okay, my taste for coffee has been strongly shaped by Starbucks. So, I often prefer the taste of Starbucks to other coffees. But by saying “coolest” and not “best-tasting,” I’m expanding the category and making up for the fact that the Corporate Beast has won my loyalty.

2 This includes the genre of coffee shop where various coffees and pastries are the main focus of the shop (which excludes places where warm drinks may be central, but along with full meals, alcohol, etc.). Specifically, I’m excluding the grandeur of Vienna’s “coffee houses,” many of which also serve gourmet $50 meals. I’ve only been to one of those and it was great, but it’s kind of a genre of its own. That would be an unfair comparison.

3 … the world as I’ve experienced it, that is, what do I know of coffee shops in South Africa or Ukraine? Nothing. And, so, I’m just basing my absolute statements about what I absolutely know and don’t know.

4 Okay, it’s not coffee, but it’s so good that I’m including it. What do you wanna do ‘bout it? I can break my own rules. Bubble Tea makes me giddy with delight. Giddy. My favorite is a Red Bean Bubble Freeze.

5 I hope against hope that they have better staff now than when I was there. Their cupcakes and décor make a visit worthwhile even if the Evil-Photo-Scrooge 6 is still employed.

Cupcake (in Berlin) strikes me as what it would look like if Anthropologie had a cupcake/coffee shop.

6 I wanted to say Evil-Photo-Nazi. That would work in the U.S. But when speaking of Germans (although she may not have been a German; she refused to speak to me in German, even though I was pretty good at this point in my stay … See one of the reasons why I was annoyed?!), it’s best to avoid the use of such a historically-real term, even though Americans use it just to be derogatory. She made me pay 20 Euro-cents to take a single lousy photo. After I took it. What a punk. It wasn’t even a good picture. Outside pictures were free.

Charlie's iced caramel latte from Rim Cafe

In summary: I love coffee.