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, Amazon.com doesn't serve lunch.
Barnes & Noble Cafe
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
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.
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
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
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.
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