Too much coffee?
Chico’s many cafés have all the bases covered
What do you look for in a coffee house? Do you need high-octane, NASA-grade espresso to fuel your high-amperage lifestyle? Are you looking for a place to meet chicks (or dudes)? Or do you just want a quiet place to study where you can sip your decaf chai in peace and everyone will leave you alone?
Whatever you’re looking for in a java joint, Chico is likely to have it. What follows is a highly subjective review of some of the town’s finest (and not-so-finest) cafés.
First, the ground rules: A café's appeal comes from three factorsthe quality of its coffee and snacks, the price of same, and the overall atmosphere of the place. These are the criteria that were taken into consideration when the CN&R sent a reviewer (a staff writer and bona-fide expert in the art of café sitting) on an exploratory tour of the town’s may coffee joints. We couldn’t hit all of them without becoming slightly psychotic from too much caffeine. The tally of the places we did visit (and a few others) are shown here, organized by geography and listed in order of the reviewer’s favorites.
The Naked Lounge
118 West Second St.
Purchase: Double cappuccino and some kind of fancy pastry
Soundtrack: Ella Fitzgerald
The Naked Lounge is, at least in the humble opinion of this reviewer, the gold standard of Chico cafés. All types of people go to the Naked, from downtown lawyers to bleary-eyed hangover victims. They all have one thing in common, however, and that’s that they know good coffee when they drink it. Naked’s house coffee, a Guatemalan blend roasted by Café Moto in San Diego, is superb—dark, flavorful, aromatic and yow, what a kick.
The décor is hip and interesting, with puffy chairs and big couches that are a joy to sink into.
Looking like a hip East Village loft, the Naked may be a bit pricier than some of the other cafés, but the great coffee and comfy atmosphere make up for it. A good place to take a date before a movie (they’re open until midnight), a great place to study, and the only place to take snobby, out-of-town friends who think Chico café culture is what grows under the counter at IHOP.
A word of warning, however. The Naked Lounge has two chairs near the window that are shaped like big, fuzzy pumps, and you can always get a laugh watching people try to keep from falling off the things. No one—and I mean no one—can possibly look cool trying to drink coffee on an oversized shoe.
Has Beans Coffee and Tea Co.
501 Main St.
Purchase: House coffee and a slice of banana bread
Soundtrack: First Rolling Stones album
Has Beans has developed quite a regular following over the years, and with good reason. The staff is nice and cheerful, the coffee is good, and the people-watching opportunities are the best in downtown Chico. Situated across from Downtown Plaza Park, Has Beans has plenty of window space to watch the comings and goings of our colorful citizenry, and is also open until midnight. The café roasts its own coffee in Redding and sells it at a great bargain for $1 a cup with two refills included. The House organic is smooth and mellow without being wimpy, and there are four or five blends to choose from at the self-serve coffee bar.
Has Beans is quiet and well-lit, making it a good place to study. It also has a little area for kids to play board games and make Lego models. Voted (by secret ballot) as the best place in town to use as headquarters from which to plot the revolution.
Purchase: Solo macchiato and The New York Times
Soundtrack: Toots and the Maytalls
Everyone thinks they know everything about Starbucks. Critics will tell you that the Seattle-based company is run by a race of underground-dwelling trolls who like to steal children from local orphanages and put them to work milking hormone-injected cows to make genetically modified latte foam. But if Starbucks is so evil, then why is its coffee so good?
The downtown Chico Starbucks is just about the same as any other Starbucks you’ve ever been to, so a review is mostly superfluous. But there is one thing about this particular Starbucks that can’t be ignored. The acoustics in the place are terrible, meaning that you can clearly hear a conversation taking place on the other side of the cavernous room, and the roaring of the espresso machine echoes constantly from one brick wall to the other, making it extremely hard to concentrate. In other words, you can probably find a better place to study.
101 Salem St.
Purchase: Large mocha and a veggie sandwich
Soundtrack: Amin Tobin (jazzy trip-hop)
Ahh, the Max—a quintessential student café if ever there was one, complete with weird music, surly counter help and an omnipresent gaggle of lit students discussing poetry and Shakespeare. This is the place to go to meet like-minded weirdoes and grab a quick bite before class.
The coffee is good (though the Max seems to have a tendency to screw up the orders), and the sandwiches, though pre-made, are surprisingly edible thanks to the yummy, homemade-tasting wheat bread. Also a good place to pick up on dateable people that you might not find in Chico’s overly hyped bar scene.
Helen’s Donut Nook
807 Main St.
Purchase: Small coffee
Price: 55 cents
Soundtrack: Daytime TV behind the counter
OK, so the coffee’s lousy and the only other customer in the place is likely to be some guy in the corner mumbling about how the CIA stole his prosthetic leg. But sometimes you need a place to hide out and act weird, and Helen’s fits the bill. It opens at 4:30 in the morning, which is a plus if you’re heading out of town and want to grab a quick sack of donuts and a Thermos of weak but scalding hot coffee.
Others worth checking out:
Moxie’s Café & Gallery
This is the coffee house where the local lefties gather and hatch plots to overthrow the corporate elite or the developer-controlled Chico City Council. Like a true bohemian hangout, Moxie’s (it’s named for the owner’s good dog) often features live music and the occasional poetry reading. A Marxist/Lennonist (as in John) feel. Window seats are excellent for watching the sidewalk passersby.
Upper Crust Bakery & Café
130 Main St.
Like Moxie’s, the Upper Crust attracts the town’s liberals—only in this case it’s more the middle-class, SUV-driving lefties. Besides coffee and your standard fare of coffee drinks, the Crust offers top-notch pastries and healthful lunches.
The Daily Grind
119 West Second St.
This is the place formerly known as Perche No! and we can’t ignore this one if for no other reason than its great name. The Grind offers the usual coffee and drinks as well as a darn good brown-bag lunch.
Near student housing
951 Nord Ave.
Purchase: Mexican mocha
Soundtrack: Big Star
You won’t find a cooler, more laid-back café in all of Chico than the Mondo. Despite its off-the-beaten-path location, or maybe because of it, the Mondo seems to attract a hip and eclectic crowd. There’s a patio to kick it on, or you can lurk out in the back on a ratty old couch, playing chess or Scrabble with your favorite café buddy.
I don’t know how good the house coffee is (refills are 50 cents), but the way-rad Mexican mocha is worth a trip in itself. Spiced Mexican chocolate with a shot of espresso and steamed milk—man, that’s good.
The Mondo is a good place for heart-to-heart talks, reading the classifieds or recovering from an embarrassing episode the night before. It also sells arts and crafts made by talented locals.
642 West Fifth St.
Purchase: double café Americano made with French roast coffee
Soundtrack: 107 FM “The Point”
Either this place is a well-kept secret or I was there at the wrong time. Though it has excellent coffee and a good selection of fancy but affordable sandwiches, the place was absolutely empty on this reviewer’s visit.
Located in the heart of the student housing district, Café Paulo is clean, quiet and respectable—another shocker. Out of all of Chico’s cafes, I would have thought this one would be the least likely to stock the Wall Street Journal, but there it was. So much for preconceptions. The coffee is roasted on-premises, and Paulo has a good variety of pastries and Italian soda flavors and also sells day-old muffins for you cheapos out there.
Sin of Cortez
1105 West Fifth St. (They’re moving into a new location at 2290 The Esplanade.)
A cousin to the Naked Lounge (same owners), the Sin offers great breakfast and lunches, though perhaps a bit pricey for most student budgets.
East and North Sides
664 East First Ave.
Purchase: Large house coffee and a piece of coffeecake
Soundtrack: Contemporary artists doing Cole Porter’s greatest hits
One of Chico’s most popular cafés, the Perk serves up excellent coffee in a classy atmosphere. Professionals and students make up most of the clientele, and you often see businesspeople working on laptops or conducting interviews there. The magazine selection, consisting of titles like The New Yorker, Fortune and Outside, give a pretty good indication of the kind of people the place attracts.
The bright and sunny location makes for a good place to work or study, and the counter staff is good looking and hard working. Bidwell Perk also has the best selection of pastries and light foodstuffs of any of the cafés reviewed here.
Steam & Bean
1354 East Ave.
Purchase: Small coffee
Soundtrack: “Z-Rock” radio, 106.7 FM
This place may look like a quiet little retreat in the midmornings and afternoons, but watch out! In the mornings, after school, and at lunch, the whole plaza is overrun by a horde of hungry kids from PV High.
For some reason, Steam & Bean reminds me of a Southern California café. Maybe it’s the tile floors or strip-mall setting. Anyway, the coffee is top-notch. After sampling the house blend and French roast (coffee is self-serve), I opted for the deceptively smooth, extra-dark Colombian. This is one of those cups of joe that sneak up on you—creeper coffee, in the parlance of our times. You won’t know how strong it is until you figure out that that strange noise you keep hearing is the sound of your teeth grinding together.
Higher Ground Coffee House
1288 East First Ave.
Purchase: Iced Americano
I don’t know if it’s the name or the religious-inscripted art on the walls, but I got the idea this was a Christian-run place. The regulars at Higher Ground seem to consist of a women’s bridge group and some Christian intervention counselors. The décor consists of a jungle of fake trees sporting white Christmas lights and a carpet with a hypnotic floral design that starts to move if you stare at it too long—or maybe it’s just the product of drinking too much coffee.
Speaking of too much coffee, the two women behind the counter were unnaturally perky (and really nice), leading this reviewer to believe that they were either hopped up on iced mochas or had recently received a double-dose of that good old-fashioned Christian love. In any case, if you’re after a great cup of coffee in a wholesome but slightly surreal atmosphere, check out Higher Ground.
752 East Ave.
Purchase: Small mocha and half turkey sandwich
Cuppa Chico is a family style, neighborhood-meeting-spot kind of place. Situated in a converted residence across from the North Valley Plaza, it offers a made-to-order lunch menu and a quaint outdoor garden to sit in. The counter staff are genuinely nice and like to chat with both regulars and first-timers. If I were a 30-something housewife in a crafts club or community action group, I would vote to hold the meetings here.
Where Cuppa Chico fails, at least to this reviewer, is in the quality of its coffee. The beans it gets from Sierra Nevada Coffee are wimpy and wan, leaving the brew somewhat flat and watered-down tasting. Some people like it that way—I don’t, but Cuppa’s regulars don’t seem to mind.
Then there is Chico’s version of a coffee house chain: Cal Java Coffee Roasters at 216-B West East Ave. (that’s right, West East Avenue); 1601 Esplanade; and 2845 Notre Dame Blvd. Good coffee roasted locally.
Finally, for those who live in their car, Chico also boasts two of those coffee kiosk deals—CR Beans (1835 Mangrove) and Java Detour (1055 Mangrove). Who remembers the Fotomat film processors?
There you have it. Our unofficial, abridged guide to getting your daily caffeine fix in a civilized manner. Obviously we’ve not covered them all, and sorry to those we’ve missed. If you feel left out, call the editor and give him an earful of grief. If he’s not there, leave a message. He’s probably on a coffee break.