Coffee and cigarettes

Apr 11, 2007 at 12:00 am

You'd be hard-pressed to find a society without coffeehouses. Not because of all those Starbucks everywhere, but because sitting around, drinking coffee and socializing in public stretches back centuries in our shared human history.

Long before the advent of the drive-thru latte, coffeehouses, coffee shops and cafés were the public living room of cities like Damascus, Bangalore, Timbuktu, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. They could be lavish or quite spartan in their amenities, but they all had at least a handful of chairs or floor cushions, maybe something to smoke and, of course, that lovely black nectar. These establishments earned a reputation for social dissent, since everyday people could often be more open than they could at work or at home. Here, the people, especially the working class, could think out loud, share experiences and formulate new ideas. You can guess why kings and priests had them shut down throughout Europe and the colonies.

The very best coffeehouses take a relaxed attitude when it comes to time management, one that suggests to customers, "Please sit here and chat and read and be lazy and drink coffee all evening, that's fine with us." No to-go cups, no pressure to turn tables over, no need to go home at all. Coffeehouses make a space for creative laziness.

So let's draw our line in the sand.

Coffeehouses are independent. Coffeehouses are places for talking to people, often total strangers. Coffeehouses don't care if you play backgammon for six hours. And coffeehouses still let you smoke tobacco. Far from fitting the beatnik cliché, a coffeehouse is essentially any space that fits these requirements. Here's a sampling of local spots that meet that definition.

4853 Schaefer Rd., Dearborn; 313-584-9300

Adonis is clearly the most immaculately hip place to smoke towering argeela pipes and guzzle Arabic coffee until 2 a.m. Early on a Saturday evening (and at many other points during the week), Adonis is essentially a swanky Arabic restaurant with a soft spot for powerful coffee and high quality tobacco. Guests will most likely be putting a dent in an assortment of fresh fruits or salad, all the while wandering deeper into the argeela tobacco haze. Though sipping smoke from the pipes looks casual, that's a lot of nicotine and, frankly, they'll be here all night. Fortunately the iron pitchers of coffees keep arriving and they sharpen the fog and pull you back.

But that's still early in the evening. Not long after 11 p.m. a Lebanese band takes the stage and the dance floor fills up. No matter how many coffees you throw back, keeping up with the band's percussionist is a challenge. (Be sure to ask about cover charges: They only show up on your final check and may be an unwelcome surprise.)

When guests get exhausted and the band packs up, Adonis once again becomes the natty café where smoke drifts over dark booths. The fashionable gentleman sitting in the booth next to mine said cafés like this one, with good coffee and tobacco as well as music and dancing, are all over Beirut. And when I say he was fashionable I mean you'll have to put on something nice to hang out at this place. Something dark that doesn't show coffee stains.

Café 1923
2287 Holbrook, Hamtramck; no phone;

If this old building were any more quaintly restored or hiply appointed, you'd think it was some cruel "Cool Cities Initiative" ploy. The renovated storefront, which is right across the street from Kowalski's massive iconic sausage, brims with retro-chic style.

But don't let the thick ambience scare you off. Café 1923 is actually quite comfortable, and its broad clientele draws on all the coffeehouse stereotypes: talkative loiterers, students, eccentric elders and a smattering of young people who've left suburbia for more urban pastures. There's always a New York Times lying around, smokers get their own room, and no one would ever dream of asking you to cut your loafing short. The Hamtramck writers and artists' group meets here, and some of Hamtramck's European exiles come in for a taste of the cafés they knew back home. In both ways, Café 1923 builds on a long tradition of Hamtramck coffeehouses, including Urban Break, the Shadow Box Café and Planet Ant Theatre, which started out as a coffeehouse. A city block that has arty young people, retirees and immigrants will have a healthy, functioning coffeehouse. And by healthy and functioning I mean smoking and lethargic.

The coffee is pretty solid, the kind of standard dark blends you find in the better establishments. The sandwiches are good, but eventually they will have to update the muffin selection. No one falls for "Kirkland" anymore.

Trixie's Coffeehouse
25925 Gratiot Ave., Roseville; 586-776-9002

Of all the many roles a coffeehouse can play in the life of a community, few are more crucial than that of the youth crash pad. Like a smoky rec room with no parents, Trixie's is a second (and possibly first) home to dozens of well-meaning misfit teenagers and young adults. Though there are open-mic nights throughout the week, on any night you're guaranteed to hear journals being read, see cover versions attempted and experience various performances at all hours of the day. This is a manically communicative environment. If you're not reading poetry into a microphone, you're chatting up strangers or venting with your friends.

You'll also find events that seem to thrive at independent coffeehouses where cynicism-free youngsters run things. A good example is Trixie's Indie Chick Night, a freewheeling feminist variety show that gets everybody from established artists to anxious first-timers involved, raising funds for women's activist groups in the area.

The coffee isn't fabulous, but that's not the point. The coffee, after all, is a special brand called Shock! that advertises its potentially harmful caffeine level. If you are going to serve that kind of java, it's only responsible to stay open until the wee hours of the morning to give people a chance to come down. That's why Trixie's is open way past your curfew.

Café De Marqui
204 W. Fifth St., Royal Oak; 248-398-4169

Started nearly a decade ago by a young couple from the former Yugoslavia, Café De Marqui draws its inspiration directly from 19th century European and Mediterranean café traditions. The art and sculptures create a simple but specific decor recalling the aesthetics of Ottoman-era cafes: somewhat Turkish, somewhat European, somewhat Arabic, and entirely centered around long sessions with friends and, of course, coffee and tobacco.

Keeping up this more Old World approach to café particulars means you have to serve quality snacks. The sandwiches are freshly made, not the prepackaged kind you'll find at gas stations and lesser coffeehouses. They sell a variety of salads and, yes, cigarettes.

At night the place can get so jammed and talkative that the blaring techno doesn't seem out of place. Young adults with roots all over the globe comprise the relaxed afternoon studying crowd and the folks who come to hang out with big groups of friends at night. I've never seen them advertise but, below the radar, the word is definitely out on Café De Marqui. It's the closest thing to old Sarajevo anywhere in Michigan.

Amsterdam Espresso
4639 Second Ave., Detroit; 313-887-1286

In case you hadn't noticed the return of student activism, a visit to the neighborhood around Wayne State University will quickly confirm its resurgence. Located right smack in between Wayne's campus and the Cass Corridor, Amsterdam Espresso opened its doors at the perfect time.

No, there's no hash smoked in this Amsterdam, but it's pretty heady nonetheless, stocking activist newspapers and fair-trade and organic coffee. But it's not all lefties: With Wayne becoming less a commuter college, the neighborhood surrounding it is home to more students, and the open cultural space attracts the Corridor's "unique individuals." It's hard to believe this neighborhood went so long between coffeehouses, as it's just too perfect an assortment of people not to have a non-corporate java stop. And it's plenty homey too — tucked under the Forest Arms apartment building, Amsterdam is both subterranean and streetside. The boho extroverts that work the counter will remember your name quicker than your second-grade teacher.

Café Luna
23415 Greater Mack Dr., St. Clair Shores; 586-774-5000

When the time came to choose what classic coffeehouse features to include in their new spot, the owners of Café Luna simply chose "check all": open-mic nights, ice cream, water pipes (argeela, or hookah), sandwiches, live music — not a stone left unturned. The intergenerational crowd leans young. Coffeehouses like this function as pubs for the under-21 crowd. The space is much more comfortable and open than most of the bars their older brothers and sisters kill time in.

Folks apprehensive about the chain-smoking should know that the high ceiling and ample fans help considerably.

La Friends Restaurant
10327 Dix, Dearborn; 313-297-2282

You can find the essential coffeehouse experience in surprising places. La Friends is hidden on a strip of Dix that connects southwest Detroit and lower Dearborn. Technically a Yemeni family diner, it's the kind of place to get a home-cooked lunch and watch some satellite world news on your break from work. But La Friends is so conducive to lingering that it may as well be a classic coffeehouse. The side room has floor cushions for quasi-horizontal lounging. The side-side room is strictly for hardcore backgammon and cards amid nicotine-stained community elders.

Brad Duncan is a freelance writer living in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]