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By the Books

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 1999

  Richman Review

At last, it's the quiet time of the year, the best time outside of a beach vacation to curl up with a good book. But what's a good book without some delicious snack at your side?

Whether you're buying or bringing your reading material, bookstore cafes are just right for your interlude. For one thing, their lighting is designed for reading. Second, they're open all day, so you can find a sandwich or bowl of soup between normal meal hours. And bookstore cafes are generally quiet-not as hushed as libraries, but I don't know any libraries that will tolerate even a bran muffin.

Each cafe, like the bookstore that houses it, has its own character. Chain stores tend to serve chain food: pre-made sandwiches, mass-produced baked goods. And their prices are likely to be low. The independents have food made to order on the premises, and the menu is wider.

At least so far, doesn't serve lunch.

Barnes & Noble Cafe
Georgetown's Barnes & Noble Cafe is like a college library, but one that allows snacking. On a recent Sunday afternoon nearly every table was spread with books – textbooks, science books, the complete works of New Yorker editor David Remnick. Even lunchers sitting in groups were reading, taking notes, typing on laptops, some wearing headphones, one wearing no shoes. Only a few were talking, and most of these seemed to be part of study groups.

The cafe is a restful forest-green place, a second-floor expanse that looks like a handsome B&N without bookshelves. The chairs have cushions – though the banquettes are bare wood – and the row of stools against the back windows over M Street provides a grand view of Georgetown. It's such a gracious cafe that people bring not only their books and newspapers, but sometimes their own lunches, and nobody challenges them.

The food is what you'd expect: a self-service selection of pre-made sandwiches ($5) on baguettes that seem fashioned from Wonder Bread, with no-fault fillings such as grilled chicken with provolone, heavy on the iceberg lettuce; or vegetarian wraps ($5) in spinach-green tortillas. The soup is better than canned, not as good as homemade, and portioned generously for $2.50. But the focus is really on coffees (Starbucks) and teas (Republic of Tea), yogurt and bagels, plus plenty of studiers' rewards in the guise of cookies, fruit tarts, poundcakes, muffins, coffee cakes and eclairs. Bestseller material: the moistest, chocolatiest of brownies, crackly-crusted and piped with . . . more chocolate.

Borders Books Music & Cafe
The cafe inside the downtown Borders makes no pretense of being a full-blown restaurant: It's a gathering of small round tables for two, stretching along one side of the store's first floor. That said, it packs a surprising array of food in its small service counter. Coffee is this cafe's strong suit; in addition to the usual, there are such creations as Coco Loco (espresso, white chocolate, steamed milk and vanilla) and machines to keep the frozen mocha and chai churning. For breakfast, there are croissants, bagels and huge scones with a crumbly texture almost like shortbread. The standard-issue sweets cover the range of muffins (chocolate chip, lemon poppy seed, all the classics), cookies and biscotti plus a fancy layer cake and variations on a baklava theme. Borders' cafe, like its bookstore, caters to tastes both plain ( potato chips) and fancy (European chocolate bars).

While the savories run to predictable ham-and-cheese on a soft roll or in a greasy croissant, deli turkey or a tangy but dry phyllo-wrapped spanakopita, this is the only bookstore I know that sells lasagna, either meat or vegetarian, and it's comforting and bland enough not to distract you from your reading. The focaccia, though, is topped with tomatoes, black olives and a sharp hit of hot green chilies. And the vegetable soup tastes homemade, chock-full of chunky fresh produce. It all comes at what seems like a typical Borders bestseller-discount ($2.95 soups, $4.50 sandwiches with chips).

Given the noisy cash register, some talkative patrons and the clatter of plates and cups, this cafe couldn't be mistaken for a library. But it does have friendly and witty counter service-bookish staffers, to be sure.

I dream of a snowy afternoon, reading on the chaise longue at Footnotes and taking occasional nibbles of my Colette sandwich (pate and brie on a French roll, $6.50). I'd settle for a morning Hemingway (smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, $5.75) on a threadbare sofa, or even a baguette with decent – not prepackaged – turkey, sliced green apple and onion under melted cheddar ($5.95) at a small table. For the roasted vegetable sandwich with hummus ($6.50) or meal-size salads ($5.75 to $6.50), I think of beach reading, and I plan to bring a niece sometime for a Dr. Seuss sandwich (PB&J, $3.95). The food is prepared to order and the soup – red bean with rice when I tried it – was vegetarian and made in-house. The dessert selection is homey: gingerbread, lemon bars, cheesecake and brownies. Not only are there all the espresso drinks and teas you can imagine, but Footnotes has a real wine list.

The cafe draws an artistic-looking group, at least outside the business-lunch crush. In one corner, everyone is under 25 and wearing black. On a sofa, a romantic twosome are reading a children's book aloud to each other. The sound system plays Good Music, muted. And Footnotes sets a rather elegant table at teatime, if you order ahead: a $12 array of crustless sandwiches, scones with creme fraiche and pastries presented on tiered trays. Luscious? No, but it looks impressive. As for me, I'm happy with the oversize cup of good, strong everyday coffee.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe
Lamb chops and books may not be a natural match, but the double-cut lamb chops at Afterwords Cafe are as delicious as any novel, and at $14.25 with a green vegetable and a big mound of skin-on mashed potatoes worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, they're a bargain (though the potatoes as a side dish for $2 are more so). Afterwords doesn't fit the usual mold for a bookstore cafe; it's a complete restaurant tacked on to the rear of Kramerbooks, and it has waiter service. The benefit it reaps from its bookstore relationship is that it's open late every day, and all night on Friday and Saturday. It also serves brunch all day on weekends, and offers 15 minutes of free e-mail at the bar – perhaps to check whether Amazon can get you a title Kramerbooks doesn't stock.

The tables are packed tight in this glassed-in dining room. Space is so short that the restrooms are two flights up. Still, it aims for broad appeal, with a pages-long menu that ranges from veggie chili (loaded with fresh vegetables and black beans, $4 to $7.75), to massive bowls of pasta well endowed with toppings ($9.75 to $12.25), to sandwiches too big to handle with a book in one hand, to fancy trendy entrees such as pomegranate chicken. There's a full bar, a long beer list and plenty of wines by the glass for under $6 (though they're not as interesting as the beers). If you want quiet and a bookish environment, come for breakfast or in mid-afternoon; late in the evening there's live music, Wednesday through Saturday. You might worry about the greasy home fries ruining your newspaper and your digestion, but the chicken-and-cheese quesadilla ($8.75) is big and irresistibly gooey, and the hangar steak sandwich, though chewy, is thick and flavorful ($9.75). Desserts are as massive as a Tom Wolfe novel. No wonder this cheery, sunny cafe is a perennial bestseller.

Politics & Prose Coffeehouse
This basement cafe has the best qualities of a surrogate home and an extended family. The plush Victorian sofas and slightly baroque dining chairs are occupied by parents and children, students with yellow highlighters, newspaper readers and occasional budding artists with pads and colored pens. The counter looks like an overfilled cookie jar, with rows of giant cookies and such hand-crafted cakes as sweet potato and bundt, as well as cherry and apple pies – whose quality seems high until you get to the crust. For breakfast, there are croissants, muffins, bagels and fresh-squeezed orange juice. The lunch and supper menu starts with soup – fresh-made, the likes of spicy black bean – and goes on to sandwiches and salads ($5.95). There's a vegetarian tendency – hummus with raw vegetables – and salads center on tuna or chicken. Pastas show up as salads, either tossed with tuna or Asian-style with peanuts and minced carrots. They're all served on big oval Fiesta-ware-style plates with mountains of excellent, sharply dressed greens and slices of good baguettes.

Like the bookstore surrounding it, Politics & Prose's cafe is homey and tasteful, its coffee served in handmade pottery mugs and its walls decorated with a lush array of calendars. You bus your own tables, and no credit cards are accepted. Just like home.

Barnes & Noble Cafe – 3040 M St. NW. 202/965-9880. Other locations: Potomac Yard Center, Alexandria (703/299-9124); 4801 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda (301/986-1761).

Borders Books Music & Cafe – 18th and L Streets NW. 202/466-4999. Other locations: All area Borders stores have cafes; their menus vary.

Footnotes, A Cafe – Olsson's Books and Records, 418 Seventh St. NW. 202-638-4882. Other location: 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (703/465-2910).

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe – 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/387-1462.

Politics & Prose Coffeehouse – 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/364-1919.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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