Urban Deluxe Readers Tell us: Five Things That Make a Coffee House Great

Colored sketch of musicians with instruments playing on the Black Dog stage.

Coffee houses are vital to an urban life on so many levels.  They get us up in the morning and ready for braving the trek to work. We meet at them to do business, maintain friendships and meet new people.  Coffee houses can also be a place where we stay in touch with local art, writers  and musicians.

Some people consider the only real coffee houses to be the indies.  Others feel that the local Starbuck’s or Caribou around the corner, or next to the office, qualifies for them.  Regardless of your view, these caffeinated watering holes bind our neighborhoods together, gives us a way to connect with coworkers outside of the office and so much more.

Personally, I view the neighborhood coffee house as the primary way to get to know what my community cares about and who lives in it.  Having had the incredible good fortune to live within blocks of a true community coffee house with top notch brew, The Black Dog Cafe, in Lowertown St. Paul, I believe I’ve been a bit spoiled when it comes to my view what makes a great coffee establishment. As noted in earlier UD entries, The Black Dog was one of the things we missed most about leaving our Lowertown neighborhood in 2013.

What The Black Dog so successfully embodied was a sense of community, through a welcoming atmosphere for everyone who lived and wandered into the neighborhood, and a strong identity we all shared in supporting our local artist in residents in

Lap top computer open on a table with a cup of coffee next to it.

My virtual office view in our beloved Black Dog Café, Lowertown, downtown St. Paul, before we moved to Minneapolis in 2013.

the surrounding lofts.  John and I still talk about The Black Dog as having the finest coffee and espresso we’ve ever tasted in the Twin Cities and lament that, while we’ve found some great coffee spots in Minneapolis, after two years we still can’t find anything to match the BD’s roast.

But there are more experiences and opinions out there than ours, so we thought it would be fun to hear from people in the Urban Deluxe community about what they think makes a great coffee house.  All the feedback we received boiled down to five traits and everyone pretty much agreed on the order of importance.  So here’s the five things that UD readers feel are important to making a good coffee house a great one.

URBAN DELUXE READERS:
TOP FIVE TRAITS OF GREAT COFFEE HOUSES

#5 / Great Music: Number five on our list is great music. A mix of live and recorded was mentioned, with an emphasis of local artists featured for both. The standout genre mentioned was jazz, though eclectic bands came in a close second.

#4 / Support for the Arts: Though music was included in this suggestion, also sited were coffee houses that supported visual arts through rotating displays of photography, paint and sculpture as well as those who feature locally made jewelry and gifts.  Many UD readers felt that their local coffee house should give them access to local artists and support their work.

#3 / Good Food: Pastries in particular were mentioned, though others felt that soups, salads and sandwiches should be on the menu.  All agreed that the small bites needed to be quality, homemade if possible, fresh and delicious.

#2 / Friendly Staff: Having a place where everyone knows your name isn’t just for bar patrons on Cheers. UD readers felt strongly that coffee house baristas who knew them and served up Joe with a smile was almost as important as the quality of their brew.

# 1 / Good Coffee/Espresso Drinks: Whether they preferred dark or light roast, espresso, Latte or cappuccino, UD readers all agreed that good coffee and espresso were essentials to any great coffee house.  Nothing, it seems, can trump the perfect cup of brew for coffee house connoisseurs.

NAME YOUR FAVORITE COFFEE HOUSE! EARN A $15 GIFT CARD

An illustration of a coffee cup and saucer.  Steam is coming from the contents inside of the cup.Urban Deluxe would love to know where you’re sipping coffee and why.  Comment on this post and tell us about your favorite coffee house! We’ll send you a $15 gift card to that coffee house IF you write the most interesting entry!   No geographical restrictions apply–just be sure to tell us what gives your coffee shop top bragging rights.

Please respond by no later than December 1, 2015 to be eligible for the gift card contest.

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The Last Art Crawl: Saying Goodbye to the Lowertown Artist Community

Photo of one of Caroline Mecklin's nudes on canvas

Lowertown artist, Caroline Mecklin, is one of the Jax Building artists facing potential eviction as upscale condos and apartments overtake nonresidential artist studio space.

This weekend heralded not only a closure to mild summer-like weather, but also the last Saint Paul Art Crawl John and I will attend as residents of Lowertown.  Each spring and fall we’ve participated in these events as spectators, art patrons and neighbors to the extremely talented people living and working a stone’s throw outside our apartment door.  This is evidenced by the original artwork that graces our home from Lowertown talent such as Rhea Pappas (now a Minneapolis artist) to Barbara Evans and Caroline Mecklin (Jax Building/4th floor.) It’s also apparent in the Lowertown-handcrafted jewelry that is a part of my everyday wardrobe.

It has been both a pleasure and a luxury to be able to watch such creativity happen around us and to bring it into our home twice a year. The Art Crawl and the live music we’ve enjoyed at the Black Dog Cafe, will no doubt be the most significant experiences we will miss as we move to the Minneapolis North Loop in late November.

It is interesting to read the local papers as “experts” and city leaders continue to insist that the art scene hasn’t changed in Lowertown, and won’t, once the ball park and bars begin to gear up in the next two years.  But for those of us who have lived here prior to the “Lowertown hype,” the change is already marked and very apparent.  Long time resident artists, such as Mike Hazard and Rhea Pappas have already left for more receptive artist neighborhoods.  And, the building that houses some the artists who John and I feel are among the most talented in the district, the Jax Building, is rumored now to be slated for the wrecking ball or refurbishment, in order to make way for–you guessed it–another luxury condo or rental community.

Jax Building artist, Caprice Glaser, spoke with us today as we visited her studio. “We hear that we will all probably have to leave,” she explained to John and me. “The building won’t house artist studios anymore.”  When I asked her how she is dealing with losing her studio space she said, “I try not to think about it.  I just come in and work on my art.”

Artists sketch and instructions on how to purchase from their studio.

A sample of some of the unique signs independent artist in Lowertown create for the Art Crawl each year.  It was this kind of creativity that drew us to the event.

If you believe that Lowertown is beyond “gentrification” because two of the buildings are designated as artist cooperatives (Northern Warehouse and Tilsner, both artist studio/residences) you may want to take a closer look into reality artists are facing down here.  The former abandoned warehouse space in the neighborhood was artist-friendly because it enabled individuals with less financial means to afford studios here.  The Jax Building in particular enabled individuals who did not want to live in their work space, to have studios.  This means that, for artists who don’t wish to, or aren’t able to reside where they work, Lowertown will likely not be a viable place for them for much longer.

Some of the artists we chatted with today also stated that they were being compelled to consider relocating because the increasing neighborhood noise was interfering too much with their creativity as they attempt to work in their studios.  No amount of designated artist funding will shield these people from the sound of construction (which, we’re being told, will be complete in about 5 years), increased

Metal table top and hanging sculptures by Caprice Glaser, displayed by a window in her stuido.

Also in the Jax Building, the studio of Caprice Glaser, a favorite Art Crawl artist. Caprice concentrates on her art rather than considering the loss of her beloved studio space.

traffic and the inevitable cacophony that comes from people patronizing an entertainment district and ball park.

Another change John and I noted in the Art Crawl this fall is that non-independent artist participation is seeping into the event.  For instance, Blick Art Supply had a booth stationed on the corner of Prince Street, in front of the Black Dog Cafe, giving out logo tote bags, almost as if the event were part of the Minnesota State Fair.  I remember when, as recent as last spring, the Black Dog reserved this prime spot for local jewelry makers and portrait painters.  It would appear that even our local cafe has gotten caught up in a movement that favors sponsors who can rent space, over the local artists displaying their goods.

As much as John and I would love to believe that the Art Crawl, and the artists we supported and enjoyed, will be here when we come back to visit, it’s hard to deny the signs that the future in Lowertown may not include them.

Lowertown Sunday Morning

Photo of the cafe paito with iron chairs and lush summer plants.

The heart of Lowertown, the Black Dog Cafe, where the baristas remember you and there were good friends to be met.

As John and I begin to sell furniture, sort belongings and pack boxes in the remaining  few months before our move to the Minneapolis North Loop, we are savoring our Lowertown Sunday morning ritual in a bittersweet fashion.  Our weekends for the past four years have been accented with Sunday meditation and a dharma talk at Clouds in Water Zen center, followed by coffee on the Black Dog Cafe patio and completed with a trip through the Farmer’s Market.

True, the neighborhood is much more populated and bustling than it was when we begin this routine, and yes, many of the familiar faces and neighbors we used to greet on those Sundays, have left for other neighborhoods which were more receptive to artistic creativity  and residential quiet.  But it is not without some pangs of sadness that we embrace our last autumn of this warm weather ritual.

Thus, we are dedicating this edition of Urban Deluxe to a Lowertown Sunday morning that will live

Photo of tomatoes lining a table at a farmer's market.

We have been told that there will be three Farmer’s Markets in the North Loop area, but we will still miss this one that was just outside our door.

on in our hearts and memories.  We share it with you in photographs.  Please share with us what you love about them, your own Lowertown experiences and anything else that moves you.  Enjoy.

Brick warehouse buildings with the sun shinning on them.

Lowertown’s beauty stems from its neglect. A forgotten neighborhood withstood the urban renewal of the 1970’s and we enjoy its beauty today in century old warehouses.

Yellow and purple mums planted in mounds in a flower bed.

A Sunday stroll in Mears Park yields views of a lovely fall garden by our friend and downtown business owner, Bill Hosko.