Being a graduate student in math certainly has its downsides — low pay, hard work, teaching calculus to hoards of unappreciative undergrads — but it also has its perks. One of the better ones is that I can do my work a-ny-where. I don’t need a computer or lab equipment or loads and loads of heavy reference books; I just need a few printed out papers, a pencil, some scratch paper, and my brain. Unfortunately, my brain is not always on board, and I have to lure it to the table with offerings of warm, caffeinated beverages. As a result, I end up spending a lot of time at coffee shops. Over a few installments, I’ll give my opinions on some of our local ones here in San Diego. My drink of choice is a latte, so my coffee comments are pretty much restricted to that beverage. I’m no coffee geek, but I can tell a bad latte from a good one. I drink a lot of tea as well, and it doesn’t take much to convince me to try out various cake offerings.
This first installment covers three coffee shops in University Heights, an area northeast of Hillcrest and Northwest of North Park. University Heights is undergoing a major gentrification and beautification. It is full of cute 1920s houses with nicely tended lawns, and the ‘business district’ on two blocks of Park Blvd is birthing new shops and cafes all the time.
Cream used to be called Korova, after the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. I’ve been going to Korova pretty much since it opened, although they’ve been through a period of major renovations, during which I didn’t visit the place often since it tended to smell like either floor cleaner or sewer water. Thankfully those days are gone, and they’ve made the place into a great place for students. There are loads of tables with work-comfortable chairs, plus they’ve got free wireless and the music — usually electronica — is unobtrusive. It is now one of my favorite spots. They also make a nice latte.
A friend told me that the coffeeshop is part of the MFA project of a UCSD art student, which would explain the ever-evolving nature of the place. I asked the barista about this and she said that when Cream was Korova, it had a different owner, who sold it when he moved to Chicago. She also confirmed the bit about the UCSD art student. A lot has been done to the building in the last year. An interior wall was taken down and more tables were added. It used to have a off-white drab exterior, and now it’s orange and tan with gorgeous murals on two walls. They are the work of the art student (whose first name, I think, is Chris) and some old friends from when he was a graffiti artist. It has a bit of an industrial vibe, but there is loads of natural light pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows that make up one wall. Very much recommended if you’re looking for a place to read or study, or just peoplewatch.
4496 Park Blvd
San Diego, CA 92116
Twiggs is just up the street from Cream. I don’t go here that often anymore, since Cream is just much more suited to studying. Twiggs is a nice spot to hang out, but I’ll be straight with you: the coffee leaves something to be desired. It’s often bitter or overextracted–your best bet is tea here, which they do have a decent selection of. Twiggs seems to be popular with go players, so much so that I’ve witnessed three different games happening at the same time. They also have a room nextdoor where they host local musicians and have open mic nights. In the evenings, especially on weekends, regulars gather around outside tables and chat, some with their dogs, some with their own brass instruments. The crowd here is older than the barely-twenty crowd at Cream, and though there are plenty of students, they don’t make up the majority.
4590 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92116
Vinbladh’s Swedish Fusion is a new cafe in University Heights, located in a renovated old house. It’s been open for a few months, but I only discovered it this week, when a friend who lives in the neighborhood pointed it out to me. He had only recently noticed it as well. They serve a good selection of savory food, though I didn’t order any, and a drool-worthy selection of pastries. Henning and I tried the Swedish Princess Cake, and it was spectacular. Layers of pastry cream, raspberry jam, and whipped cream are sandwiched between sheets of angel food cake, and the whole thing is covered with a layer of green marzipan. Light and airy and delicious. I had a latte, which was delicious—stronger and richer than Cream’s. Henning had some unique dragonwell chai tea, which smelled like peppermint and tasted great. The two people working the bar when we were there were very friendly and attentive, clearing plates when we’d finished eating and the like.
When we were there midday on a Saturday, the place was empty. A few customers came by in the three hours that we sat there, but hardly enough for them to break even, I’d expect. I picked up a flier they had advertising the place, which I’d say is a bit of a misrepresentation. They flier makes it seem a bit like a nightclub, with a photo of some hot girls in going-out clothes and claims of “sultry people,” which sounds ridiculous to me. I’m hoping that whoever wrote the flier isn’t a native speaker. Henning and I found the place very cute and pleasant during the day. We stopped by tonight to see if this is when the “sultry people” come out, and it was closed (they say they’re open until midnight every day, this was 10:45pm on a Monday). It’s a bit sad, because it has a lot of potential. Henning and I will definitely be back there to study and eat cake, but I doubt it will be around for long if it doesn’t find some customers.
Vinbladh’s Swedish Fusion
4651 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92116