The Battle of the Blends

Finding a Pittsburgh coffeehouse that is right for you

by Renée Marie Cardelli

It's early evening and you have met a friend at the local coffeehouse for some caffeine and conversation. Just as you sit down, a woman declares from a microphone, 'We will be starting the program in five minutes, can everyone please move to the front to make room for more people in the back?' Coffeeshops are becoming more than just a place to grab a cup of java in the morning and head off to work. They are witness to dates, brunches, and study sessions. Frequently, coffeehouses schedule different events such a performance artists. However, what if fiction readings just aren't your cup of tea (no pun intended)? What if you are allergic to smoke? What if you are dying to share your latest poem with someone other than your best friend? Never fear, loyal coffee lover, there is a place that is just right for you and your caffeine addiction. Here is a complete guide to finding the coffeeshop in Pittsburgh that best suits your needs.

The Traditional Coffeehouse

The Traditional Coffeehouse is for the hardcore coffee lover. The coffee itself is the main attraction for this environment, and the clientele is usually one huge web of friends and acquaintances. These coffeehouses almost always offer free refills, and the customers often know the owners on a first name basis. The Traditional Coffeehouse is a second home to many people, and the friendly environment parallels the sit-com 'Cheers.' These coffeehouses usually permit (if not encourage) smoking, and chess is the main form of recreation next to card playing. Because of the clientele's daily habit of drinking enough coffee to kill a small animal, Traditional Coffeehouse visitors have seen quite a few nervous breakdowns.

The Greenhouse is a Traditional Coffeehouse in Shadyside, and its friendly atmosphere is witness to many a lengthy bridge game and late-night debate. There are no scheduled performers, nor are there art exhibits. It's the clientele that makes the Greenhouse so appealing. The multi-roomed coffeehouse was previously a residence, and it is that same air of warmth felt immediately upon entrance. The only merchandise besides beverages for sale are cigarettes, but you can treat yourself to ice cream or a pastry. The Greenhouse also sells fresh ground coffee and offers uncommon blends like Amaretto and Chocolate Raspberry.

The epitome of the Traditional Coffeehouses was Cafe Mocha in Oakland, which is now reincarnated as a Bulgarian restaurant. The physical environment of Cafe Mocha left much to be desired: it was cramped and the chairs weren't very comfortable. However, the congenial setting kept me coming back every day. Between Spades tournaments, we regulars would do homework or play our favorite CDs. It got to the point where we could go behind the counter and change the music with no rebuttal from the owners. Despite the fact that you had to cut a path through the smoke, Cafe Mocha is the perfect model for aspiring Traditional Coffeehouses.

The Chic Coffeehouse

The Chic Coffeehouse caters mostly to young professionals and is more commercial than the Traditional Coffeehouse. Often these coffeehouses belong to chains, and their politically correct environments seldom permit smoking. They offer many different types of beverages such as steamed milk with Italian syrups. But, the Chic Coffeehouse almost never has free refills. They also serve a variety of overpriced but absolutely delicious gourmet desserts, and they frequently sell souvenirs such as T-shirts and coffee mugs with their logo. In addition, the Chic Coffeehouse often closes relatively early (around midnight). Starbucks is a national Chic Coffeehouse. With seven Pittsburgh locations, Starbucks appeases a plethora of coffee cravings. More than simply a coffeehouse, Starbucks offers customers 'everything coffee oriented' from travel mugs to French Coffee Presses. An added bonus at the Squirrel Hill Starbucks are acoustic performers every other weekend, which almost (but not quite) puts it into the Artsy Coffeehouse category.

Other Chic Coffeehouses include Tuscany on the South Side and Kiva Han. There are two Kiva Han coffeehouses in Oakland which offer merchandise such as T-shirts and expresso machines. The Kiva Han on Forbes and Meyren closes unusually early: doors are locked at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. This illustrates the premise that coffeehouses in more urban settings tend to close earlier than those in shopping districts.

The Coffee Beanery in Shadyside is the epitome of Chic Coffeehouses. An enormous selection of gourmet coffee is for sale by the pound, and the non-smoking environment has an 'expresso bar' along with a decent selection of food. There are no performance artists, nor do they offer merchandise -- their exquisite beverages are the main attraction.

The 9 to 5 Coffeehouse

Geared specifically toward suburbanites who come downtown simply to go to work, there is a 9 to 5 Coffeehouse approximately every 30 feet in downtown Pittsburgh. For those people who don't want to be even more on edge while fighting traffic, the coffee lover can opt for a cup of decaf at The Bagel Factory across the street from the Westin William Penn Hotel. For the white-collar worker who wants to go to his office sharp- minded, he can swing past Tuscany at One Mellon Bank for that extra energy boost. (*Note for more punctual professionals: Tuscany is busiest between the hours of 7:30- 9:30 a.m., so you should allot yourself a few extra minutes to get to work on time so you don't end up with an infuriated boss. It would just ruin a good cup of coffee.) For the lunchtime downtown crowd, there are five Bruegger's Bagel Bakeries which offer free in-house refills of coffee. For the more posh business meetings, La Prima Expresso Company on Liberty Avenue offers a delicious lunch menu with a variety of soups, sandwiches, and salads.

The Nethead Coffeehouse

The Nethead Coffeehouse is for those addicted to both caffeine and computers. Also known as 'cyber cafes,' these coffeehouses are adorned with computers that allow a person to substitute reading email for reading the morning paper. The Nethead Coffeehouse is usually smoke-free, and this genre of coffeeshops usually doesn't offer exotic types of beverages. Computer usage is charged by the minute, and a visitor has access to the Internet, email, computer games and word processing. The clientele ranges from students who live off-campus to beginner Web surfers.

Java Jeff's in Squirrel Hill was the first cyber cafe to infiltrate Pittsburgh. However, Nethead Coffeehouses will be sprouting up all over the city as the information superhighway expands. Java Jeff's only uses IBM PC's, and at the rate of nine cents per minute, a user can enjoy Telnet, Internet Explorer, PCN, Agnet Newsreader, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D and Microsoft Word. You can also check out the new Interstellar Café on the South Side. Self- proclaimed 'Pittsburgh's Sci-Fi Cyber Cafe,' this Nethead Coffeehouse offers a fruit juice and expresso bar, desserts, vegetarian salads, and sandwiches. If that isn't enough to be a Web-surfer's dream come true, the Interstellar Cafe even has indoor smoking while you work on one of their five PCs or two Power Macs.

The Artsy Coffeehouse

The Artsy Coffeehouse is the central gathering spot for tormented poets, hippies-turned-yuppies, and philosophy majors. These coffeehouses give up-and-coming artists the chance to show off their talents by sponsoring poetry readings and musical performances. Along with getting a side order of entertainment with your java, the Artsy Coffeehouse also achieves a very cozy decor by hanging local artists' work as wall decorations. These coffeehouses are a nostalgic link to the late 50's: performances in coffeeshops originated when Jack Kerouac's cult of beatniks would don black turtlenecks and read poetry. Today, the black turtleneck has given way to neon hair, but the Artsy Coffeehouse still has remnants of the artist haven of the past.

One of the most popular Artsy Coffeehouses is the Beehive in Oakland. Located within walking distance of both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, the two-story coffeehouse offers a broad menu of cultural events. Bands perform twice a month; poetry readings are every Thursday; there is a Saturday night improv group; and play readings are held on Sundays. If your definition of culture is in the yogurt section of Giant Eagle, they also have a built in movie theater and a new pinball room. This is not to be confused with the South Side Beehive, which fits the Chic Coffeehouse category. The Stonewall Coffeehouse on Walnut Street in Shadyside is a laid-back Artsy Coffeehouse. The atmosphere is home to a new artist exhibit each month which is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Print Group. Also, Stonewall Coffeehouse has an active book exchange program in the spirit of the old Stonewall Bookstore where you can 'Bring a book, take a book.' Lastly, a corner seating area adorned in pillows is reserved for those who want to chill out and ponder life comfortably. As long as you subscribe to the faith that caffeine is good, Pittsburgh can offer you a coffeehouse with your own brand of comfort.

Author's Picks Coffeehouses in Pittsburgh

Name / Location / Indoor / Average Cup / Refills / Hours / Smoking / (House Blend)

The 808 Ivy, Yes $1.00 One half price Sun-Thu 7a.m.- Greenhouse Shadyside refill 1a.m. Fri-Sat 7a.m.-3a.m.

Beehive 3807 Forbes, Yes $1.29 One half-price Mon-Fri 7a.m.- Oakland refill midnight 1327 E. Carson, Sat 8:30-midnight South Side Sun 9:30 midnight

Stonewall 732 Filbert No $1.23 None 7 a.m.-approx. Coffeehouse Shadyside 1a.m. daily (depends on customers)

Kiva Han 420 Craig, No $1.23 86 cents Mon-Thu 7a.m.- Oakland 11p.m. Fri 7a.m.-midnight Sat 8a.m.-midnight Sun 8a.m.-11p.m.

61C Cafe 1839 Murray, No $1.20 One 35 cent Mon-Fri open at Squirrel Hill refill 7a.m. Sat and Sun opens at 9 a.m. Sun-Thu closed at 11:30p.m. Fri and Sat closed at 12:30a.m.

Starbucks 6304 Forbes, No $1.18 None 6a.m.-11p.m. Squirrel Hill weekdays 6a.m.-midnight weekends The Coffee 5541 Walnut, No $1.05 One free refill Mon-Thu 7a.m Beanery Shadyside 11p.m. Fri and Sat. 8a.m.- midnight Sun 7a.m.-11p.m.

Tuscany 1 Mellon Bank, No $1.23 10 cent refills Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.- Downtown with cup 5 p.m. 1501 E. Carson, South Side

Bruegger's 26 Market, No 95 cents Free in-house Mon-Fri 6 a.m. - Bagel Downtown 6 p.m. Bakery Sat 7 a.m.-3 p.m. La Prima 602 Liberty, Yes $1.07 25 cent unlimited Mon-Thu 7 a.m.- Expresso Downtown 10 p.m. Company Fri 7 a.m.-mid Sat 10 a.m.-mid Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Interstellar Cafe 1224 E. Carson, Yes $1.35 One free refill, Open 24 hours a day, South Side 50 cents after that 7 days a week