OP-EDS

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January 10, 2003

Cafe Unintelligentsia opens

Espresso-based beverages, while often referred to as yuppie or gourmet, are marketed in a way that is neither. I defy anyone to find a latte, cappuccino, or macchiato being sold in a place devoid of any decorations evoking an intellectual or literary world. From the swirly words on the walls of Starbucks to the English dictionary in Chicago's own Bourgeois Pig, thinking-themed motifs are unavoidable for caffeine addicts too caffeine-deprived to make their own coffee in the morning. Coffee bars are often intellectual theme parks, the Hard Rock Café of the caffé latte set.

Here's how it works. You drink coffee, and all of a sudden you realize that all that was keeping you from writing the novel of the century was a mild case of fatigue. As it so happens, all the people around you have just had the same revelation. You all congregate around a table and, over a 50,000 calorie scone, a salon is formed. Of course, specific coffee bars have their own quirks. According to The Wall Street Journal, Starbucks expansion has actually helped "mom and pop" coffee bars by infusing the idea of them into a coffee-ignorant America. Yet hating Starbucks is the negative way in which some coffee bars define themselves. The Bourgeois Pig's sign, which forbids those who enter from bringing Starbucks cups, must ruin the day for the millions of Chicagoans intent on getting their mochas and espressos in different places.

The names of coffee bars often add to their slow-roasted flavor. The Bourgeois Pig's is self-mocking, given that its customers pay decidedly non-proletarian amounts for their drinks. Intelligensia's requires no explanation, which is not to say that I won't provide any. How much coffee would be sold by a Dull-Normal? By a Grunting Football Fans? This is a coffee bar that wants you to believe that the guy in the corner scoping out guys, as well as the girl in the corner scoping out him, are actually involved in the books they've brought.

Clearly, the marketing works. Or does it? Would a coffee bar in a GAP do worse than one in a bookstore? Might some people want a place to get together, have a few macchiatos, and discuss the fine points of an early episode of "The Nanny?" There is nothing inherently intellectual about coffee. Granted, most people are more active after stimulants, but the activity could be anything. A well-made mocha is perfect fuel for writing an essay, but it has also been known to play a role in encouraging shopping sprees that would have otherwise been much shorter.

I can think of only one coffee bar that has no intellectual pretensions whatsoever. Downtown Delicious, in New York's TriBeCa neighborhood, is the sort of place you could go to read, but you most likely would not. The most reading you're likely to do is taking in the signs labeling various muffins according to varying degrees of fat content, including, most notably, the lowfat bread pudding muffin. A muffin that logically inconsistent can't be found just anywhere. While the requisite sketchy food sits on display, burrito-ish things, primarily, the coffee drinks themselves aren't half bad. I cannot remember what, if anything, is on the white walls, but that hardly matters, given that the place was inevitably dominated by a pair of middle-aged women, one discussing her life's many woes, and the other silent. Downtown Delicious is not anti-intellectual or self-consciously dingy. It just provides the coffee and lets the customers fill the space however they want.