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As of the New Year I have permanently relocated to Durham, N.C. from Fredericksburg, VA. While I love it here, I’m currently in the throes of homesickness, so I figure it’s as good a time as any to tackle the review of a coffee shop that has more or less became a home-away-from-home for me over the past few years: Blackstone Coffee.
Now, I have to admit – when Blackstone first opened up in Fredericksburg, I hated it on principle. Fredericksburg is a small town, I thought. We can only support so many coffee shops – and my heart belongs to Hyperion.
First of all, the two are great for very different purposes: Hyperion is where you go for a leisurely meet-up, a sunny Sunday afternoon, or to work through the textbook you keep avoiding. You grab a pastry and your favorite drink and people-watch the day away.
Blackstone, on the other hand, is where you go when you need to get. shit. done.
The paper that’s somehow due TOMORROW. The business meeting you’ve been dreading. The NO REALLY WE’RE NOT GETTING BACK TOGETHER talk with your ex. Or even the occasional afternoon when you realize you have no clue where your life is heading or what you’re doing and you haven’t slept enough and GOSHDARNIT YOU NEED SOMETHING CHOCOLATEY. These are all Blackstone occasions.
Why? First and foremost, I’m pretty sure the secret ingredient in their coffee is crack. Seriously, Blackstone coffee will get me amped up like no other – especially if it’s one of their ridiculously sweet seasonal specials. Secondly, the FOOD. Their lunch sandwiches are lovely, but once you order a breakfast sandwich (available on a multitude of bagels or a croissant) you will never want to eat anything else ever. Thirdly, the seating is a great balance – comfortable, but not comfy enough to accidentally fall asleep, and adequate but crowded enough that you just have to get work done to justify hogging a table from the other students shooting stink-eyes at you. And fourthly – it’s friendly. The staff, the owner, even just the customers – I always leave Blackstone in a better mood than I arrive in.
So yes, despite the numerous amazing coffee shops in Durham (I’m currently sitting in one…) I am still longing for Blackstone. I’m not the only one though. I have a friend who regularly requests shipments of Blackstone coffee beans – and she lives in SEATTLE.
Dear Blackstone: Thank you for your crack coffee. Thank you for your sinfully delicious breakfast sandwiches. Thank you for your staff who regularly asked for updates on the papers and readings I was working on. Thank you for getting me through the latter half of college plus two years of grad school. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. Now…could we set up a delivery system please??
What you’re drinking: If it’s fall, get a Pumpkin Pie Latte. No, not pumpkin spice – forget about that crap. Pumpkin Pie (a caramel latte with pumpkin spice) is the way to go. If you’re going for simplistic, the dark roast is always phenomenal. They’ve recently amped up their monthly specials, some of which sound just bizarre enough to be amazing, so be adventurous too.
What you’re eating: A bacon, egg, and cheese croissant sandwich. Just do it. And any day you’re lucky enough to get there before they run out of asiago cheese bagels is a good day. This fall they started serving a chocolate-chip pumpkin spice bread with cinnamon frosting which is unbelievably good (can I get a whole loaf shipped here, please?)
What you’re listening to: I’ve never lacked for good gossip to overhear here. Shhh….
What you’re reading: For better or for worse, politics is the way to go.
What you’re looking at: Staring at your computer screen. Alternatively, you’re staring at the group of retired men hanging around chatting in the middle of the day and wondering why you can’t just skip this whole career thing and go straight to retirement.
Bonuses: A rotating art display always keeps things pretty, interesting, and/or bizarre. Plus, they’re so involved in the community – case in point, the 12 oz coffee in the top photo I got FOR FREE for showing up with my voting sticker on Election Day. Plus they make a point to share your coffee-related posts and photos on their Instagram and Facebook – it’s just a fun place that clearly values their customers, and that’s a great feeling.
Today I dug out two of the precious hand-thrown mugs I picked up at the Gatlinberg craft fair earlier this fall. Having just moved into a new apartment, in the dead of winter, with newness swirling all around me, the smooth, hardy, beautifully marbled pottery was enough to bring me back to a mindset of peace. I remembered hiking in the Great Smokey Mountains in the crisp fall air, in the muggy middle of summer, drenched in dew and legs covered in mug. I remembered being a child, protected from the supreme danger of loneliness.
My mother believes that pottery is an imprint of the maker’s soul. The Tennessee mountains must hold a place deep in the soul of so many.
As soon as I walked up to Caffe Driade, I could tell that it was a very special place. Down a short gravel path off a main street in Chapel Hill, this cafe is like walking into a different world. It’s a calm, green oasis – an immediate respite for computer-weary eyes. Caffe Driade backs up to Bolin Creek Trailway – I can’t actually think of anything better than going out for a walk in the woods culminating in a lovely rest at Driade. The inside is fun and quirky – but most of the seating is outside. There’s a front and back terrace as well as a lower level, meaning you can get together a sizable group of friends or tuck yourself into a private corner table. My favorite time to visit Driade is at night – the humidity of the Carolina summer fades away, the terraces are lit up with twinkly lights, and crickets chirp around you. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine.
Wine? Yep – Driade is a full-service place. Coffee, tea, craft beer, soft drinks, and wine – something to keep everyone happy. The pastries come from Guglhupf, and they typically have a decently large selection. And yes – everything is amazing. You can get loose-leaf tea in a press pot, which, let’s admit it, is the most fun way to drink tea. A small pot is only $3, and will yield about 2 1/2 cups of tea. Lattes come in bowls – yes, bowls. That’s my kind of coffee place.
It’s worth noting that Driade doesn’t have free wi-fi. You can purchase access, but I suggest you embrace it – Driade is the perfect place to really crack down on a writing or reading assignment without Facebook distractions. Or go old school – bring a notebook or sketchbook and just let your mind wander. This is the place to do it.
One of the most fun things about Driade is that you really can’t tell who is a regular, who is an employee, and who is a first-time customer – as soon as you walk in the door, it feels like you’re family. Kids run around outside gleefully while their parents enjoy a much-needed coffee, old friends get together for long, loud, laughing conversations, and nerdy-looking scholar types pretend to study but are really just soaking in the atmosphere.
Pot of tea! Just press when it’s steeped enough for your taste!
What you’re drinking: The coffee is amazing, but the real hidden gem here is the Driade Shake, made with La Providencia ice cream – the best espresso ice cream you’ll ever taste.
What you’re eating: Get a classic croissant with jam. The simplicity is exactly what you want here. The macaroons are pretty fabulous too.
What you’re listening to: Caro Emerald, City and Colour, or Miles Davis. Just trust me.
What you’re reading: Thoreau. Cliche, yes, but it works.
What you’re looking at: You’re staring into the woods, readjusting your eyes to the strange phenomena of sunshine, fresh oxygen, and trees.
Bonuses: Live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and a rotating art display!
In my previous post about Cocoa Cinnamon, I mentioned their array of spreads and other goodies. Low and behold, I was at the farmer’s market this morning when I spotted the nut butter jars I’ve been eyeing. Apparently they’re from Big Spoon Roasters.
The answer to the question: should I try this? Yes. Very yes.
I grabbed the peanut cocoa spread, got home, and devoured it on toast. It’s like Nutella, but without the feeling of cavities forming as you eat it. The spreads are a little pricey but very satisfying – I can’t wait to try the other flavors!
Time for my first cafe review in my new town, Durham. I discovered Cocoa Cinnamon a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve more or less been living here ever since (I’m a grad student – I like to study in public places so I can pretend I have a life).
Be warned: Cocoa Cinnamon is hipster heaven. I have absolutely no problem with that, but idk, some people are odd. Built in what I’m assuming was an old auto garage (it’s in a part of town where pretty much every building was once an old auto garage – how one city could have supported that many auto garages I’m not entirely sure). Today, it’s a rare not-sweltering summer day, and the old garage doors are open, transforming the place into an indoor-outdoor airy respite that’s simply lovely. There’s plenty of seating outside, and enough seating inside if you’re ok getting cozy with strangers. The foyer boasts some nice bars for studying and a sunny window seat. The main room reminds me a bit of a daycare for hipsters and students – everyone slouching into a cushy chair or worn-in couch, nibbling at their snacks, preoccupied by the laptops perched in front of them, practicing their social skills by tentatively asking their neighbors if they could borrow a much-coveted power-outlet.
The building, along with the quirky decorations and the fliers for local events, is visually-stimulating enough to keep you from completely zoning out on your work. If your brain starts to mush, take a moment to stare out the big windows or let your mind wander over the old-school world maps they use as curtains (yeah, best curtains ever.) A week ago I was in here when who I assumed was one of the designers was giving an interview about the place – apparently the wood features are reminiscent of the flowing cosmos. Yeah, sure, whatever works – the whole place is so colorful and unique it just makes me happy, cosmos or no.
I think this place was recently voted by Indy Week as the best place in Durham to have a blind date. I can see that, but if you’re prone to paralyzing social awkwardness (um, hello) you’re going to want to study the menu beforehand – this place is intimidating. There are coffees I’ve never ever heard of. In languages I do not speak. Even just ordering a plain old coffee can be a challenge if you’re less-than-versed in coffee lingo.
BUT HERE’S THE SAVING GRACE – you can ask any barista for a recommendation and they’ll gladly give you one. And you should take advantage of that – this is not the place to play it safe. Go to a Starbucks if you want something boring. I did that on my first visit here and the barista cheerfully recommended something called a Neurovascular Coupling that was cold, bizarre, and amazing. It’s not even on the menu anymore so I have no clue what it was, but I’m ok with that. Just go for it.
But make sure you try their chocolate drinks at some point. It may sound weird to order an iced hot chocolate, but it works. I recommend a big old iced Caoba with whipped cream. It’s milk chocolate, and not too sweet to overwhelm you. It’s ridiculously refreshing and will make you feel like a queen. I messed up my order once and got a small hot dark chocolate instead of the iced drink I was aiming for, but it was amazing as well – I’ll definitely be revisiting that order in winter. Heaven in a mug. Again, the baristas can give you recommendations if you need help.
Their pastries aren’t bad – actually, I’ve discovered they have the best fruit tart I’ve ever tasted. The chocolate croissant is as lovely as a chocolate croissant could be. Sometimes they have sandwiches and wraps. The food selection doesn’t completely thrill me, but the drinks are more than enough to keep your attention, and there are usually plenty of food trucks in the area if you’re really starving.
I also just learned that they’re opening a second location across town next year. Um, yes please.
What you’re drinking: Anything made out of chocolate. If you need more caffeine then that, try an iced mocha – it has much more depth than what you’d get at a typical coffee shop. I tried an iced Middle Eastern coffee once – it didn’t float my boat, but I’m just assuming that my tastebuds weren’t quite sophisticated enough for the cardamom in it. If you’re into tea, they seem to have an extensive collection as well. Really, just open the menu and point – be adventurous.
What you’re eating: A fruit tart – the pastry is flaky and mildly sweet, the cream in the middle a perfect complement to the berries on top. They also have a pretty nice selection of chocolate bars, cocoa nibs, honey, and nut butters if you want to give your kitchen a sophisticated spin. I haven’t given their wraps a try yet, so if you have, let me know!
What you’re listening to: The playlist depends on who’s working. Once the baristas chose to play old-school Destiny’s Child. It made my entire day better.
What you’re reading: Go with feminist literature. Or philosophy. You can get away with pretentious lit here. Or grab a book off of their “revolving bookshelf” to borrow!
What you’re looking at: You’re wistfully staring out the window wishing you could enjoy the sun without the ridiculous humidity and heat that Durham seems to specialize in during the summer.
Bonuses: A PARKING LOT! And a very cheery little bathroom. Also, the best idea I’ve ever seen for coffee stirrers – uncooked fettucine pasta. It’s not in your hot drink long enough to get soggy, and it does the job with so much less waste than plastic or wooden sticks.
Do you ever fear the slipping-slope your mind wanders as it drifts off the slip? The thoughts you pushed back during the day, waiting to dance free in your dreams? The things you think of to lull yourself into comfort? Your to-do lists, your childhood lullabies, your patient sheep? Do you ever ever analyze the moment when you pass from consciousness to blackness?
Does the thought of sleep ever keep you up at night?
…than leaving your nice, steaming travel mug of coffee at home on the kitchen counter in the morning?