Cafés for Writers: A Review of Bloc


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Bloc Cafe street sign

I promised I’d review the area cafés I’ve tried for writing purposes, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. Today, I’ll start making good on that promise. I’m at Bloc in Union Sq., Somerville. I used to come here once/week for a writers’ meetup, back when it was known as Bloc 11, but driving in from Beverly proved too daunting a task. It’s been several years now since I was last here, but I’m pleasantly surprised that all the good things I remember are still good, and the bad things are not as bad as I thought.

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Bloc Cafe vault seating

First, the seating: I remember Bloc 11 being very crowded at the meetups, but in fact this was an artifact of the meetup taking over the cramped front of the café, close to the windows. In fact, there’s a vast amount of space in the rear, including a former bank vault converted into cozy, semi-private seating. The metal chairs are hard, and the café tables are wobbly, but the built-in wooden benches in the vault and rearmost room are more stable and comfortable. They also have picnic tables outside, and it was even nice enough today that a few people were making use of them.

Second, the food: I remember the sandwiches being excellent, and I am not disappointed. I’m contentedly munching on a Safehaven, consisting of goat cheese, avocado, roasted fennel, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar, which I chose to have on a honey wheat bagel. That was a bit of a mistake. The sandwich is so hugely thick, I can barely stuff it into my mouth. The fennel is delicious, sweet and crunchy, the perfect counterpoint to the smooth, soft avocado and goat cheese. Note: I’m not a vegetarian, I just love good vegetables, and this sandwich really delivers. A nice pasta side salad with chunks of cucumber and pepper in a slightly spicy vinaigrette complements the sandwich nicely.

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Bloc Cafe counter and menu

My mint matcha latte is pretty good, frothy and not too sweet, but slightly overbrewed so that it tastes a bit mossy. Still, it’s better than most matchas I’ve had around here. I should try the chai latte to see if it’s still as good as I remember.

There’s internet available, but you have to pay to use it, so I’m leaving it turned off for now. I kind of like this; if I really, absolutely have to look something up, I can use my phone. Meanwhile, I can write distraction-free.

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Exterior seating at Bloc Cafe

The background music is eclectic and funky but not intrusive. I am loving all the elbow room I have, lots of space to sprawl out with my plate and my laptop. I’m expecting friends to join me any minute, and I had no trouble snagging a larger table to accommodate us all. My one complaint is that the temperature is a bit chilly. It’ll be nice in the summertime, I suspect. I may come back here and hide in the vault when I really need to focus on something.

The location is good, though not perfect. It’s a slight hike from Central Sq., but the 83 bus comes right through here. Hub Comics is next door, and if you want something more substantial than a sandwich or salad, there are plentiful excellent restaurants all around. I’m sad to see that locavore favorites Sherman Market and Sherman Café are both gone, the former replaced by an ice cream joint that I may go try when I’m done here.

Overall, a good choice for a place to get some serious work done.

Rating Cambridge-area Cafes for Writer-Friendliness

Phew! After more than a month of being nearly continuously sick, I’m well enough to get out of the house, go to a nice cafe, and write. Which reminds me that, now that I’ve moved to Cambridge, I’d intended to start rating the cafes I go to for ideal writing conditions. First, I should define those conditions:

1. Quality of fare: If you’ve read A WITCH’S KITCHEN, you know that I love food. Any cafe I go to should have good food and drinks at reasonable prices. I’m not talking four stars in the Michelin guide, but I want better than brownies and donuts.

2. Comfortable space: Are there plenty of tables? Are the chairs comfortable? Tables large enough to stretch out in? Can I meet friends here? Are there outlets I can plug into? Is it warm? Are there windows where I can look out at people passing by? Not too noisy, not dead quiet?

3. Free wi-fi: This is a mixed blessing. Sometimes I spend entirely too much time faffing about the internet and not writing. Other times, I really need to get online to research things. But there’s no way I’m going somewhere I’ll have to pay extra for connectivity. This, incidentally, means no Starbucks except in very dire circumstances.

4. Accessibility: Is it easy to get to by bus or subway? Along the bike path? Easy walking distance from home? How late is it open?

The gold standard, for me, was the Gulu Gulu Cafe in Salem, MA. It has excellent food (though they sadly no longer offer ghost pepper salami), fabulous lattes, and an eclectic selection of beer, cider, and sterner stuff. The Gulu is large enough that you can almost always get a table (except in October), their smallest tables are still large enough to handle a laptop, and a plate of food, and their large common table offers more sprawl space if you’re poring over manuscripts. It has enormous glass windows, offering a great view of downtown Salem and its wonderfully diverse citizens. Inside, there’s always artwork by local artists, as well as whimsical murals in the back hall and the bathrooms. Best of all, they’re open from 8am to 1am or midnight, every day. The downsides: I had to drive there, even when I was living in the next town over, and they have live music every night except Tuesday night.

So now I’m searching for a new favorite cafe. Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, and Arlington have so much to offer! It should take me a good long while to work my way through all of them.

Today, I tried two: Cafe Zing and Panera in Porter Square.

Cafe Zing is located inside Porter Square Books and occupies just a tiny corner of the space. They have great food: delicious pastries, excellent Vietnamese fresh rolls, and pre-made sandwiches from sister Kickstand Cafe in Arlington. Today, I had their fresh mozzarella and pesto sandwich on a baguette and a tall glass of ginger lemonade. Both were quite delicious, the sandwich fresh and tasty, the lemonade not overly gingery and quite refreshing. However, Cafe Zing has very little table space, and while it does offer free wifi, it actively discourages people from parking and writing for hours. So while it’s a lovely place to stop in for a book and a bite, it’s not a good choice for writing time. Cafe Zing is open 7am-9pm weekdays, 8am-7pm weekends.

Panera Bread is the exact opposite. I had a cup of tomato soup and a chai latte. The latte is not bad, but the soup was terrible. Only ate half of it, and I paid as much at Panera as I did at Cafe Zing. However, Panera has tons of space, including a basement room that was nothing like full and offers seating with outlets liberally scattered around the room. It’s a cozy space with a faux fireplace and mellow background music. Good if I want someplace to hole up for hours, as long as I don’t have high expectations for the food. Panera opens at 6:30am and closes at 9:30pm, 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

My old standby in the area is the Blue Shirt Cafe, which has decent food at reasonable prices, free wifi, and a nice view out into Davis Square. However, the tables are small and the chairs uncomfortable. Also, after years of haunting the place, I’ve gotten bored with their menu. A close second is the Kickstand Cafe in Arlington Center. Great food, including the best green tea latte I’ve ever had, but always incredibly crowded because they’re the only decent cafe in Arlington, plus they close at 7pm.

Got any suggestions for good cafes in the area? Let me know!