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Encore: One person's guide to local coffee houses

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - It’s almost become a bit cliche. When neighborhoods begin the rebound process, a business that helps in the transition is the local coffeehouse. Any urban blog will tell you the same: A coffeehouse is one of the harbingers of good things to come, especially when run independently. When the chains come’a’callin’, the transition’s complete and the neighborhood’s well down the road to gentrification, with all the good and bad that comes with that term.

As a resident of the South Grand neighborhood, there’s no lack of coffeehouse options, with the world’s biggest chain, Starbucks, not yet on the block. But a variety still exists. A walk up to Grand brings you the St. Louis Bread Company, MoKaBe’s and Gelateria Del Leone. Walk a few extra minutes and you’re at Hartford Coffee Company. It’s 20 minutes door-to-door for Foam or the Mud House with a good, healthy walk underneath Cherokee’s pear trees.

Grand’s long had a coffeehouse culture, some shuttered but still memorable in their own, oddball ways.

Take SoHo, for example. In an art deco building at the corner of Grand and Hartford, SoHo was an early cyber cafe, a bank of computers set up along one wall of the space, now a Medicine Shoppe (downstairs) and fitness facility (up). In the ‘90s, though, the space was overrun by young, caffeinated folks, engaging in conversations on early bulletin boards, sipping coffee drinks while falling in love with the new obsession of the ‘net. Calvin Case, who once ran The Loop’s Wabash Triangle Cafe, managed the joint and kept conversations going with the shop’s small batch of regulars.

As befitting any good coffeeshop, SoHo had some quirky characters roll through. On some nights, I’d grab my turntables and Cal would keep the place open a little bit late, giving me my first tastes of DJ’ing outside the house; not sure that Cal’s frequent requests for Al Stewart sets pleased all the folks, but those computers sure were a powerful draw; an extra spin, or two, of “Year of the Cat” wasn’t going to chase anyone away.

Down the block, the Gothic Coffee Shop offered a home-away-from-home for, no surprise, goths. For the run of the shop’s lifespan, Grand was routinely dotted by young folks striding down the block in black dusters and knee-high Doc Martens. The culture of the small goth scene in St. Louis has always been nomadic, moving from club to club as some closed and others decided that goths just don’t drink enough to keep theme nights going.

At the Gothic, though, there was never an off-night for fans of darkwave music, role-playing games and an all-ages vibe that definitely drew a sizable crew of under-21 rabble-rousers and fashion rebels. It was a strange place to get work done, whether it be grading or writing or what-have-you. The conversations were “clubby” -- these weren’t regulars, they were super-regulars -- and the music was a weird mix, selected from an old-school jukebox that would’ve looked at home at a backroads diner. Weird spot, much missed.

These days, Gelateria’s my new go-to, a joint that features good music, a stellar selection of tea and great places to tuck away and hide, if that’s your choice. We’ll let Gelateria kick off our conversation of some fine spots around town, including, gasp!, at least a chain, or two.

Gelateria Del Leone

3197 S. Grand Blvd., 63116

314-776-3500; thegelateria.com

My reasons for never visiting the Gelateria until about two months ago are slightly complex. For starters, my time on Grand dates back to buying a baseball glove in the sporting goods store that lived here in the 1970s. It was somehow too much to sip an Earl Grey in the same place where I once bought soccer cleats and shinguards; odd, but true, so I’m thankful to have gotten past this. And the name of the place tripped me up. The Gelateria? Maybe for fancy people, or so I thought. As it turns out, the place sells a fair bit of gelato, especially in the evenings when Grand is taken over by diners, who stop by for a portable dessert.

During the day, though, the Gelateria’s just a great coffee shop, with four plush seats it the front windows the best spots to daydream, or to eavesdrop. Lots of people seem to find this place for a second date, and so it’s a pretty plum space to put your amateur psychology degree to work.

The upstairs space reflects the look of a South City apartment building, with lots of nooks and crannies for people to sit with a laptop. It’s quieter than the downstairs, almost too quiet, at times. If you like to tap away at the keys and still enjoy some gawking, the first floor’s the place to be.

Recent and hip music is the rule of the PA and it’s pleasing stuff, with just enough edge to keep you from drifting off into the ethereal haze offered by a lot of coffee shops’ sound systems. The staff is friendly, though somewhat physically removed from the action because of a taller-than-normal counter. It’s a great coffee shop, a place where that street-level interplay of civics and culture comes alive.

The Mud House

2101 Cherokee St. 63118

314-776-6599; themudhousestl.com

This spot also offers great music, though it can be a more bumpin’ experience on the weekends, when occasional funk mixes kick in with the busy atmosphere of a weekend rush. In fact, the Mud House was a little bit of a record shop for a good long while, until the bins found near the register were walked down the block to the Mud House-affiliated Dead Wax Records. These days, some local releases are still sold on-premises, with many of the artists involved seen at the shop on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

While music’s a neat draw, it’s not the only one. With a full menu, neighboring vegetable garden and large kitchen, the Mud House isn’t just a coffee shop with a half-speed approach to offering food. Instead, it serves as a real destination stop on the South Side, with the nearby antiques stores providing a lot of the patronage on the weekends, when the Mud House really becomes a lively spot.

Mid-morning of a weekday, however, is when the regulars are in force. You see the same faces, day after day, to the point that you notice when a familiar face is missing. Stick around long enough, you can figure out who in the neighborhood just starting dating, or who maybe is grabbing a cup of coffee on their walk of shame. Tables are pretty close, and there’s a large communal one to really share the good word, so the chatter about Cherokee Street happenings is a part of the Mud House’s offering, free and not on the menu.


120 S. Kirkwood Rd. 63122

314-821-0087; kaldiscoffee.com/pages/location-kirkwood

A friend of mine, a commercial artist, does a lot of his work here. So when we meet to talk about projects, it’s usually at this outpost of Kaldi’s, which exists in one of those developments that mix and match suburban and urban elements. Urban in the sense of having multiple floors; suburban in that the businesses are pushed back from the street, with parking.

“Charm” is a word that could be applied to all of downtown Kirkwood, with lots of mom-and-pop businesses, providing all kinds of retail, services and dining. Kaldi’s, here, feels like a proper part of that mix, providing light meals, a place for casual business meetings and a work spot for plenty of white-collar and creative types.

It’s probably my imagination only, but at times every other person in the place is a fit woman, age 35, in name-brand workout attire, with/without a baby stroller. Again, I’d need to go back a few more times to test this theory. Kirkwood’s just far away from my running paths to keep me from living at this Kaldi’s, which some people seem to do. Can’t blame them, as Kaldi’s, around here, in Columbia and in KC, are always inviting and welcoming and bright and buzzing.


1 South Old Orchard, 63119

314-918-7765, www.starbucks.com/store/15835/

While I know people who spend a decent chunk of their weekly income at this chain, I’ve tended to not be among their number, maybe visiting and patronizing a Starbucks about 25 times, ever. And well more than half of those times have come at this location, just a few blocks from Webster University, making it an easy place to catch up on grading, or to have a quick meet-up with students. Even as a very-occasional visitor, you can sense that the place has a mix of regulars, which can go a long way in making a place feel lived-i, or authentic.

Especially in the afternoons, this is a young person’s hangout, as different groups arrive from Webster U., Webster High and, for sure, Nerinx Hall, which is just around the corner. The Webster Conservatory is well represented, too, with those students having classes in adapted storefronts in what had been a struggling Old Orchard Center. Starbucks and its young clientele no doubt liven up its corner of the world.

Feel a little guilty for buying fancy tea drinks at a chain? Yeah. It can happen. But there’s also something fun about running into Craig Hawksley. And at Starbucks, the only truth I know is that I’ll find the veteran actor there with each visit; we’ll exchange some good words before falling into the digital worlds of our laptops. Moments like are a form of community, too, wrapped up in a big, green-and-white bow.

About this series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/

The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.