Caffeinated Writer: Shaw’s Coffee

You know you’re in The Hill the moment you get off the major roads and enter the Italian-heritage neighborhood of St. Louis. Suddenly all the restaurants and other businesses have Italian names, the crosswalks and fire hydrants are painted red-white-green in the colors of the Italian flag, and you are suddenly aware that everywhere around you is good food.

In the middle of this is Shaw’s Coffee, a charming little coffeehouse in what used to be the Riggio Bank, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s even a private room with comfy chairs for four in the former safe deposit box. The ceiling is either the original restored tin ceiling with starred imprints or a very nice facsimile, and a few items on the menu reflect the Italian ambience of the neighborhood.

The rest is very much coffeehouse, with greenery (including full trees) more reflective of the tropical regions from which the coffee comes. I’ve rarely seen such a wide variety of coffee origins: you can get a whole bean bag from all across the Americas, the Pacific Rim and Africa, and the menu lists them by country of origin.

The drinks themselves are fairly standard, with a caffe mocha made with Ghiradelli catching my attention because I’m a sucker for an afternoon mocha. They have the usual Americanos, macchiatos and so on, with matcha and chai featured on the tea menu. But the beans make it special: they roast their own in the dark European style, and if you’re adventurous enough to roast your own, you can get green beans from them.

The regular menu is supplemented with Italian and French sodas, smoothies, and frozen coffee drinks. Actual food options are pretty slight: there’s quiche and kolaches (from St. Louis Kolache) on the menu and a few pastries, but it’s definitely not a lunch place. There are pastries provided by Sugaree, including scones and muffins, bagels from Companion and the cannoli are made fresh in house.

I chose a cannoli, in deference to the neighborhood, and an iced mocha that really hit the spot on a warm summer afternoon. The cannoli was lightly chilled but not frozen, which has been the case for many coffeehouse cannoli in the past. The ricotta was perfectly balanced in sweetness, though without the cherries and mini chocolate chips I prefer for my cannoli. One side of the shell was coated in chocolate, and of course it fell apart when I ate it because cannoli.

So as a coffeehouse where you might meet to chat, it gets great marks. But what about for writers?

Seating was available despite an inexplicable amount of dining room space taken up with a huge display of coffee bags and what looks like an older counter – perhaps for the whole bean sales? It’s hard to say. There’s also a nifty display of a giant coffee roaster, which looks too old-fashioned to be of use, but what do I know?

At first I was dismayed at the seating, as the tables clustered near the barista counter were those dreadful cafe-height glass tables. Now honestly: I know some people are more capable of perching on those stools than others, but does anyone actually prefer them? I can’t sit in them with my joint issues, but even when I was young and spry, I always disliked them. My nightmare scenario is showing up for a reading or signing and facing one of those damned stools on which I must perch like a damned bird.

Fortunately, that was only a handful of the tables. The other half of the coffeehouse was very pleasant, with a plethora of small tables and comfortable chairs. There are two booths in the front windows with padded benches, for those who want to look out on the neighborhood while they sip their coffee.

The wifi is free and mostly reliable, and the music was low and unobtrusive, but also familiar: Billy Joel, Meat Loaf, songs of my youth. You will definitely get to hear every detail of the next table’s conversation, but it’s low-key enough that it’s not overly distracting (and that’s why God invented earbuds).

In all, I enjoyed Shaw’s Coffee and got actual work done. It might lose a few points if those cafe-height tables were the only seating available, but gains them back for the other side of the room and the nifty vault room. It does lose a few more for closing at 4 p.m. in my ongoing search for non-Starbucks coffee available after sundown. But it gains a lot of points for ambience and energy, for a startling variety of coffee choices, and being the only coffeehouse i’ve visited yet to have cannoli. Bene!

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