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In Which Dwanollah Quests at Length for the Ideal Coffeehouse and Study Spot
PAGE ONE
January 2007

When one is both simultaneously up to her eyeteeth in 1) a Ph.D. program in Literature and 2) house remodeling, it is essential to find a workplace. A study nook. A “my place” place. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to find a groovy coffeehouse where you could hang out and read and work and all that here in Los Angeles.

You’d be thoroughly and completely incorrect.

Of course, I have some very specific needs in a “my place” place. First, I don’t drink coffee, so I need my place to have good hot chocolate and/or herbal teas instead. That’s the most difficult factor. Some places that serve kick-ass coffee drinks just completely flail when it comes to any other beverages, and I’m stuck with horrible powdered junk, or choice between a few scant bags of Lemon Zinger and Orange Pekoe. Unacceptable. I also need a place with room for my computer, because it’s useless to go someplace to work on a paper and not have a table big enough for my laptop or access to plugs and outlets. Wireless is an added bonus, but, as I’ve discovered, is a hard-won commodity, even at places ostensibly geared towards writers. Of course, “geared towards writers” in LA usually means “geared towards the ten million people writing screenplays who think they’re going to come up with the next Swingers by two weeks of hanging out drinking double-fisted soy mochafrappelattes with a friend at that back table.” Which is part of the problem.

When I lived in San Diego, I had several My Places. There was The Living Room, which was close to Gram’s, right by SDSU, and while there were often the groups of airheads playing hacky-sack, I still could usually find a big table under a window and would nurse a giant mug of tasty cocoa for most of the night while I worked on “ ‘Prospero on the Top’ : Prospero’s Imaginative Constructs of Boundaries and Illusions in Shakespeare’s The Tempest” or a critical response to Wallace Stevens. I also liked Café Vesuvio, which was a bit of a schlep, out by Old Town, but had a great upstairs patio. It could sometimes get noisy when they had live music, but most weeknights were quiet, and I had a favorite table in the back corner. There were the now-defunct Quel Frommage and Bourgeois Pig in Hillcrest, and even that little place out in Coronado by the Hotel Del that served ten billion different herbal teas and had a cozy, tacky old sofa upstairs that was the perfect place to nestle down with The Canterbury Tales or selections in my twenty-pound Norton anthology. When we lived in Philly, there were any number of places all around the Penn campus if I was so inclined, and when we were in New York, we were next door to one and across the street from two more, for pity’s sake! The German population that settled Milwaukee made coffeehouses into an institution, so as long as it wasn’t too icy cold and snowing, I had several places on Plankinton and Wells to choose from. And even when we had our Downtown Pad in Los Angeles, I was a stone’s throw away from the library, which was all I needed.

When we moved to West Hollywood, I thought it’d be easy. There was even a coffeehouse, a tea shop, and several little cafes and bistro-looking places within walking distance of La Casita. I quickly discovered, though, that the places were way too scene-y to be good workspots. Sweet Lady Jane, while pretty yummy, is more about women who look like beef jerky, with their little rat-dogs, natch, sipping iced teas and yakking on their cell phones about their Louis Vuitton purses and mani-pedi appointments. The coffeehouse up on Santa Monica has lousy powdered hot chocolate. The restaurants were packed, pricey, and not conducive to a few hours planted at a table. And other nearby places like Joan’s on Third, Toast, Urth Caffé, and even Swingers were crowded, loud, social gathering spots with no My Place potential in the first place… if I’d even feel like getting togged out in Juicy sweats, giant sunglasses, and beaded flip-flops to go study, anyway.

For a while, even, I half-seriously considered buying the place for sale on a north corner of Santa Monica Blvd, turning it into a grotty little coffeehouse of my own specific design, and stocking it with milk steamers, brownies and Rice Krispies Treats, just so I’d have a place to work. I jokingly “redecorated” it several times, with various themes, and after deciding it needed a groovy, Tokyo French Bakery vibe, with weird sodas and candies, Kendra and Tim came up with a whole plan for Dwanollah’s “Happy Yummy Chocolate!” Café. But really, like that was a realistic option. Inspired, yes. Realistic? Hells no.

So since it would be at least a year before I'd have my own perfect cafe table and THTM-made cocoa all in the comfort of my own home, I had to strike out on my own for a My Place, and it would be no easy task, my friends; I fed quarters into parking meters, sampled hot cocoas from superlative to shitty, and hauled my backpack thither and yon. And now, I bring you my findings.

Susina

I hit Susina around 10ish in the morning, and was happy to see that it wasn’t too crowded. There was lots of street parking on side streets, and when I walked in, the sound system was playing nice swing music at a decent volume. The décor was decidedly French… or as close as one can get to “French” on La Brea, with a Domino’s Pizza across the street: small tables, mini-chandeliers, pastry racks and canisters, tiles in Provençal hues, marble countertops, typical French posters and chalkboard menus on the walls, all these French candy store thingies like big glass jars of taffy and gumdrops. I ordered a piece of quiche, and, of course, hot chocolate, and settled in at a highly-polished square table.

The service was friendly, but pretty slow. It took ten minutes for someone to finally bring me a slice of quiche that had been warmed up in the microwave, and it was still cold. The hot chocolate was creamy, but not very chocolatey. The quiche, however, was admittedly divine… when I finally got it back after the second try at having it warmed. I hunkered down with my laptop and books and some critical articles on The Waves while chatting people began to fill all the other tables-for-two.

This place, however, was totally Hollywooder Than Thou, and that’s what blew it for me. At the table next to me were two folks negotiating getting Jennifer Connolly for a role (“Steven really enjoyed working with her”) and at the far table were a couple of music producers with a laptop and headphones, discussing the scoring of a film. The guys behind the counter were cute but tragically hip, personifying the whole “…but I’m REALLY an actor” stereotype, and most of the customers were too, too tré LA: men and women alike had the messy/stylish “it took me an hour to get it to look this way” hair and the women were wearing those godforsaken gauchos-and-boots combos. One was clutching a copy of The Artists’ Way as she took one of the adjacent table with her skinny mocha, and that was as close to un-Hollywood as the atmosphere got. And I, craving a cozy work atmosphere (and dressed in my favorite ratty corduroy blazer and holey Converse sneakers), didn’t exactly fit in with the decidedly polished gloss. As the two women behind me started loudly braying about a party for Jermaine Dupree, I packed up my books and beat tracks.

Insomnia Café

My hopes were piqued almost immediately when I hit this place at about 11 AM on a weekday. It had the traditional coffeehouse setting I like: dark, but not too dark, shabby, towering, scuffed and mismatched furniture, bookcases half-full of old books (not just condensed Readers’ Digests that someone picked up at a yard sale, but actual novels and literature). Almost empty, there was only one couple of guys talking quietly in the coveted velvet couch loungy-area. No little rat-dogs, and, thankfully, the smelling-of-hairspray-and-cologne woman just breezed in and left quickly. And the place had a very writerly atmosphere, what with the sounds of computer keys, or the clack of a heavy café cup on a saucer. There were lots of places to spread out books and papers, and plenty of plugs for computers, and I settled myself in for a long stretch of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

However, the service was completely lackadaisical. So was the cocoa. Bleh. I also ordered a crispy-rice bar, and got one that was pre-wrapped and tasted chemically of the aforementioned plastic wrap. And there weren’t a great lot of things to choose from.

Parking was fine; there was easily-accessible street parking on Beverly. And they have Internet access, too. But the sucky food and cocoa kinda killed it.

Novel Café

By name alone, I was willing to bet this’d be the place. My friend Harold turned me on to it a few years ago, and, located in Santa Monica, the Novel Café is less Hollywoody, more Bohemian, a little rougher and less glossy, from the art for sale on the walls to the tables and chairs. It’s also a used bookstore, but it’s really only moderately conducive to book browsing, with the shelves (usually blocked by tables) scattered around the perimeter of the downstairs. It was crowded too… lots of folks with laptops and backpacks. I was lucky to score a big table downstairs with decent access to an electrical outlet.

The server was friendly, if a little overwhelmed, but the kitchen was closed, so my selection was limited. They do breakfasts and sandwiches, but, with the lack of kitchen food, I stuck to my usual hot cocoa and tried a slice of chocolate-something-or-other from the pastry case. The hot chocolate was better than most of the selections available at non-gourmet cafes, and the cake was fine. And yes, there was Internet access. The parking situation was okay… busy, but again, I was lucky enough to get one right in front, and fed the meter a couple times. Overall, though, the place was a too busy to make a great work spot, at least not around lunchtime. A good place to hang out and chat with friends, yes. Get hardcore serious work done…? Not without my iPod and headphones. Plus it’s a bit of a long haul from La Casita.

Cow’s End.

I had to check this place out when we were living in the Venice beach pad for several months, although I was dubious about its potential, what with the beach rats and their dogs crowded around the outside tables. Again, wireless internet is available for a fee, and I climbed up the rickety stairs with my predictable hot chocolate and Rice Krispie bar to a rocky-back-and-forthy little table and attempted to set up my computer and write without shaking the table and everything precariously balanced on it. As the noise level grew, so did the hot and stuffy factor; even on a late spring morning, the upstairs was gross. The hot cocoa was grim, and the Rice Krispie bar was only slightly better, and really, why didn’t I just walk three doors up to the Starbucks at this point, because at least the hot chocolate there is decent by comparison. *sigh* I’ll head back to the apartment and work there, thank you very much. The view’s better.

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