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April 07, 2008

The Perfect Cafe

And it begins again, my unremitting search for the perfect working cafe.

It's like looking for the perfect bag or the perfect coat. There are too many variables--many of them invisible even to you, so that when you go to have the bag or coat made, finally, you screw it up.

I don't work well in the quiet of my own home, alone. I only do intensive line editing well in the quiet. I need some noise, activity, and other people to help me concentrate, strangely enough ... but not TOO MUCH noise and activity.

During my MFA studies, when I had to write several hours a day, I went on a three-year search for the perfect cafe in San Francisco--where the choice is wider--and narrowed it down to about three that I cycled among. None was perfect but the three served my purposes. (Morning Due, Petra, and Revolution. Petra is now too packed all the time and Revolution--which has been renamed--ditto. But fortunately, this all happened after my MFA was done.)

And now that I'm in the East Bay, and the SF Mission is more crowded than ever anyway, it begins again. I just spent the last half an hour going from cafe to cafe in Oakland's Piedmont district (I hit three) before giving up and returning to my home turf on the north side of the lake. One cafe, which is pretty good, was packed. Another was a tea house with NO OUTLETS! A third was fine but had none of the drinks I wanted and enforced a two-hour parking limit on the tables near the outlets. No Thanks.

My criteria are:

  1. Convenient opening hours, especially in the evenings
  2. Free, reliable wireless internet
  3. Sufficient tables within reach of an electrical outlet and tables mostly near the wall
  4. Real food, i.e. sandwiches and salads and (preferably) omelettes, not just bad pastries
  5. Comfortable tables and chairs, i.e. not shaky or made of wrought iron
  6. Bright and sunny
  7. Music but not too loud
  8. Not too crowded but also not completely empty
  9. Atmosphere friendly to people like me who hang out all day and mildly discouraging to the mentally ill

Obviously, some of these criteria depend on others. for example, a place that has only one outlet and two tables near it is fine as long as those tables are always empty. The otherwise perfect cafe will become intolerable if it turns out to be the sort of place that crazies hang out in. This may sound intolerant--and it is--but I don't go to a cafe to get stared at for two hours solid, or to have to block out somebody sitting next to me and muttering about their socks and occasionally glaring at me for no reason.

Basically what I'm looking for are the conditions that conduce to enough mental stability (in me) to allow me to write. This is difficult, but not as difficult as it may seem at first glance, because that's the basic purpose of cafes: to create conditions conducive to mental stability so that people can read, study, converse, and otherwise relax productively.

So any Oaktowners out there have any suggestions?


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Hey Claire, maybe this isn't very pro-Oaktown, but having lived in Oakland throughout my MFA studies, my writing cafes were all in Berkeley (probably a habit from my undergrad years). I spent my weekend mornings and some weekday evenings at Au Coquelet on University and Milvia, and this was cool for me because it had good sunlight, and while bustling, rarely ever disruptive. They have pretty good food there too.

good thinking, barb! i've been there a few times and i like it. i'm not conditioned to "use" berkeley yet, but now's the time, i guess!


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