Il Literati Café
Again, one of those places that, if I was going just by name alone, I’d’ve thought it’d be perfect, but… not quite.
The café is adjacent to the restaurant (where I had lovely Eggs Benedict once for brunch), and it’s a bright, sunny space, with the usual scuffed-wood floors and tables. There are lots of neatly framed and matted black and white photos on the walls… no, not of book covers and authors, but rather, a postmodern Los Angeles twist: movie versions of books. That sorta crystallized my feelings about this place. It’s too… too something inauthentic. Despite the name, it certainly doesn’t feel like anyone wants you to hang out here and read or write, but rather, just give you the impression that it’d be the kind of place that might attract someone who was LA cool and wanted to read or write sort of as background stage-set décor for the real non-reading or -writing action or something. It’s noisy, and the tables are rickety and crowded too close together to accommodate all of the frazzled businessmen doing lunch. Navigating this place with both a backpack and a plate is a serious hazard. There’s a TV hanging in one corner, tuned to the news. There’s a line of people snaking around the door. There’s valet parking.
The hot cocoa was fine. Nothing special. The scone was also fine. Nothing special. The service was pretty lame; there were about twenty people behind the counter, but they still couldn’t seem to pull it together. And when you have to explain to the girl helping you precisely which one of the pastries displayed in front is a “scone”…? No, no, not that one, that’s a muffin… the one next to it. No, not the blueberry, the chocolate chip. *sigh*
It has the same stuff as most cafes and coffeehouses – shelves of Espresso Makers for One on sale, imported flavored syrups, all that usual crap – but somehow, it’s not cozy or welcoming in here. At least not for anything involving studying or writing.
I couldn’t resist a place that shared a name with one of my favorite old “my place” places, now, could I? Especially not when I saw that the interior reminded me a lot of the old Bourgeois Pig in San Diego: dimly lit, deep and rich colors, funky accents, mismatched paint-scarred tables and chairs, local art for sale on the walls, a long counter accented with glow-in-the-dark lights, and a distinct arsty, High Times magazine clientele.
On my first trip there, the service was great... the girl behind the counter chatted as she mixed me up a hot cocoa (Ghirardelli powder, which is okay... not gourmet, but certainly better than instant!) and was friendly. This surprised me, however, when, about a half-hour later, I heard her talking quietly to a coworker about a mutual friend who’d just (I think) committed suicide a few days previously. Thanks for not taking it out on the customers, honey. That ain't easy.
I hunkered down at one of the big tables with my stacks of Künstlerroman critical texts, three-ring binders of critical articles, and scrabbles of notes, but the light was so dim even at 10 AM that I ended up moving to another table closer to the front door. Even that wasn’t much better, and I felt myself going nose-to-page or nose-to-computer screen a little too much for my comfort. Still, it was quiet and cozy for most of the afternoon (they kept the volume on the music low), and, as an added treat, there’s a great book-and-magazine stand next door that I got to browse on my way out. (There’s also a damned good Italian restaurant on this same block, with great pizza.)
In subsequent months, The Pig has been the site of a few group write-ins; it’s almost at a perfect half-way point between me, Parlance and Kendra, so it was no hardship for all of us to gather at one of the big, scabby-painted tables and pressure each other to finish a story, a chapter or a paper. The service is usually friendly, although sometimes absent-minded, and, although the food selection is limited and of a certain kind of friend-fixing-you-a-sandwich-in-her-studio-apartment-kitchen quality, it’s still fine. In fact, I credit this place with my discovery of Veggie Crisps, one of my new snack addictions. It also is one of those neighborhoody places where lots of locals drop in for a cup of coffee or an hour of newspaper riffling. Like the Pig in San Diego, you’ll see a paunchy businessman in a light blue button-down shirt from Macy’s sitting next to a pretentious yet scruffy artist type with what That Semi-Cute Guy Chris once immortally described as “alternative coffeehouse stink.”
Bourgeois Pig is one of the few coffeehouses that actively boasted free Internet, which is a bonus, and there are plenty of electrical outlets at each table for your computer cords. But between the drive, which includes the always-miserable and super-congested part of Highland, and the lack of truly great snacks, I don’t think The Pig’ll become a regular My Place.
I was immediately turned off by the abysmal parking situation here. Clementine is located on a small side street off Santa Monica Blvd… the part in Century City that has been undergoing extensive reconstruction for the last, oh, seven years. There are about three meters in front of the place, and a couple meters a few blocks away, and everything else is permit parking for the neighborhood. I had to drive around and around, making tight u-turns on blocked-off streets, in order to finally score one of the blocks-away meters. I was good and cranky when I stumbled inside.
And my crank immediately dissipated. Clementine is small, bustling but usually quiet, with a huge front counter of baked goods, daily specials, pre-prepared meals for sale, homemade soups…. Service was excellent; not only was the server (adorable in her bandana headscarf that all the folks here wear) prompt, friendly, and great with answering questions and making suggestions, but she was also all happy when she saw I was wearing my Mo’ Better Meatty [sic] Meat Burger shirt (*pause for respectful silence*), so we chatted a lot about that, too.
Then. There was the food. Everything I tried was amazingly tasty, well-prepared, and promptly served. I got a mini-biscuit with Italian bacon, and it was perfection… light and buttery with the perfect amount of prosciutto on it. And I also tried a couple of the cookies, including a scrumptious, perfect snickerdoodle. You wouldn’t think it’d be hard to fuck up a snickerdoodle, but lots of places (ahem, Mrs. Fields) totally do. This was bliss… not too doughy, not too much of that cream-of-tartar tang, just the right vanilla flavor. (On return visits, I’ve been treated to a savory array of soups: Hungarian mushroom, Mama’s chili, sweet potato, vegetable... had heavenly sandwiches: egg salad, grilled cheese... had macaroni and cheese that I suspect possesses actual super-powers...scarfed more than my share of cookies, including awesome gingersnaps... and even discovered the Best Caramels in the WORLD!)
That would have been good enough. But, oh, the hot chocolate! Rich, with a cinnamony taste, and topped with a homemade marshmallow that got all melty and gooey… and usually I don’t even like marshmallows in my hot chocolate! Oh, yes!
I settled in at one of the small tables (a little too small for comfortable work, so I had to use the other chair to stack things), well before the lunch rush, and stayed there for a couple hours (with one meter-refill). And this place got pretty busy during lunch, with lots of locals and older folks coming in to score a table, others like me with books and laptops, and a fast-moving line of to-go orders. There were plenty of Tragically Hollywood Hip Hipsters, too, like the woman in the oh-so-trendy gauchos (why?) with, er, stripped brown and yellow boots to match. And she was pregnant. Now THAT is a flattering look for a pokey-out stomach and broad-in-the-beam butt. Or another with her “I got mine before you!!!” skinny jeans and leopard-print flats. And everyone with their Lindsay Lohan sunglasses propped just so on top of their flat-ironed heads of perfectly streaked hair. But I digress…. Unlike some of the other places I’ve tried, at Clementine, I felt like they wanted me to stay and hang out here. I got regular water refills, a second round of cocoa and cookies, a sample of the ginger-limeade (which I’ve ordered almost every time since), and ended up taking home some yummy sammiches and baked goods for The Husband-Type Man. See what happens when you give me good customer service? I spend! This place is worth the hassle of trying to find parking and dealing with the a-little-too-hip lunch crowds, and it’s become one of my regular hang-outs… as well as a good place for brunch with friends.
Ah, Urth Caffé. This is a total “the good news is… but the bad news is” place. The good news is, they have excellent food, a lot of healthy vegetarian and vegan options (like the grilled veggie sandwich, one of my favorite food options in Los Angeles, period), and a great bakery. I have yet to eat a bad thing here, from the salads to the pastries. Because their shtick is organic and natural foods, the décor reflects the theme, unfinished and natural, very casual, with a patio for outdoor seating. Also, since they are technically a coffee and tea house, no one there seemed to have a problem with me and my laptop setting up camp for a couple hours.
The bad news, however, is that Urth Caffé (specifically the West Hollywood one by where I live) has been a total sceney-scene hottt happenin’ place for years; I’ve caught mention when I’m reading the inevitable US or People on an airplane about Jake Gyllenhaal or Nicole Richie or Cameron ‘n Justin grabbing brunch or coffees here. It is always crowded, from the push through the patio to the line inside to the tiny tables, packed to the gills with hipsters, businessfolk, high school kids on lunch break, brown ‘n Botoxed ladies who lunch, and the whole Los Angeles gamut of stereotypes, talking loudly and sneaking cigarettes. You will likely see more Juicy Couture, Louis Vuitton, Diesel and Coach here than at the nearby Beverly Center, for fuck’s sake! Service is also pretty meh; the folks behind the counters are harried, busy, stressed, and constantly rushing around. Parking is hell, but there’s a valet if you want to suck it up and spend five bucks. I think I’ll save Urth Caffé for a noisy lunch with friends or my mom, like, once or twice a year, and try to work elsewhere.
La Pain Quotidien
Never would I have thought initially that I’d try this place… much less like it. The words “communal table” were enough to turn me off. Plus, snobby as I am, I was sure a chain place couldn’t be very good. But I ended up here when the crowd at Urth Caffé proved too annoying.
And I was so, so wrong.
First off, it's a Belgian chain, with locations in freakin' Turkey and Lebanon, for pity's sake! That makes a difference in quality compared to your Starbucks and Quizno's options. And sure, there’s a communal table, but it’s big enough and roomy enough that you don’t have to feel like you’re lunching with a dozen strangers. And there are plenty of non-communal tables, too, as well as tons of seating out on the patio. I scored a back corner table, examined the menu, asked a few questions, and ordered.
Oh, yes. The salad tasted unbelievably fresh, with a light, herby, lemony dressing that makes my mouth water to remember it. The egg salad – served open-faced, with capers, on organic bread – was amazing. And when I got to it, the hot chocolate, served in a big, handle-less mug, was perfection. So rich. So chocolatey. So everything I dream of and hope for in a cup of cocoa. I... I ordered seconds.
In fact, as I got to be a regular there, working on this paper or that chapter, I was greeted with increasing friendly familiarity. Once of my favorite servers would sometimes sneak by my table, grab a bit of cookie for herself, and ask how the work was going. Another waiter who is also a student shared his horror stories about his Poli Sci workload with me. Servers would tell me that so-and-so missed me, or the new server was talking about “that really nice woman” customer and they knew it was me, and someone else would bring me a sample of a cookie or a large hot cocoa instead of a small.
The food, too, is great. The menu is small and limited, compared to Clementine’s or Urth Caffé, but everything on it is organic, and delicious. They usually bring a basket of fresh breads and homemade jams along with your order, and it’s all delicious. The grilled ham and Gruyere is another favorite. The to-die-for hummus and baba ganoush plate is huge, so count on leftovers. I’m not as fond of their chocolate chip cookies – thin and flat and crispy – but they’re still tasty. And I think I put on five pounds in one semester on their Belgian Brownies alone. I’ve had to cut back on those!
Although... although... maybe just... just half of one? With a small hot chocolate?
*grabs backpack and car keys, and beats tracks*