If your motivational skills are at all like mine, any attempt to study in your bedroom very quickly devolves into a highly scientific rotation of social networking sites and episodes of Glee. In a perfect world, we’d all love to wriggle under our down comforters with a fat Psych textbook and a steaming mug of hot cocoa; but too often, reality renders us more likely to wake with a jolt hours later, the words imprinted on our cheeks rather than in our brains.
This is where Judgmental Strangers in Coffee Shops come into play. Let’s be honest: if you pass someone trolling Facebook in Norris, doesn’t a little part of you say, “Really?” Better to be the pretentious writer hammering away at his Macbook than the slacker sitting in a public venue yet choosing to interact via Internet instead of in person. Don’t even get me started on the clowns plugged in with headphones. First of all, do you really need the volume up high enough that we can hear every word that falls from Tyra's lips? Secondly, it’s not a guilty pleasure if everyone can see you. See, my judgment is holding you accountable to your work already.
Having partaken in a number of Reading Week “coffee crawls” (the most expensive procrastination habit since online shopping), I consider myself something of a connoisseur of Evanston study spots. Taking Norbucks out of the equation (convenient, yes, but have they ever made your drink properly?), here is my take on the top locales to get your study on south of the Arch.
BEST PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN: SHERMAN AVENUE STARBUCKS
The Atmosphere: Surprise! All of your friends are caffeine addicts. Be prepared to run into at least ten people you know.
The Menu: Consistent. We all know what Starbucks coffee tastes like: not the most delicious thing to ever grace your taste buds, but it won’t make your eyes roll back into your head as you choke it down. And who can resist a Pumpkin Spice Latte on a crisp fall day?
Free Wi-Fi?: No. But here’s an insider trick: if you sit near the windows, you can pick up a signal from Café Unicorn across the street.
The Bottom Line: Those panoramic windows are great for people watching, but unless you’ve got iron willpower, you’re likely to be distracted by the foot traffic and the homeless man shaking his cup of change. If your goal is to appear to the outside world an effectual, academic individual (while really updating your blog and checking yourself out in your webcam), Sherman Avenue Starbucks is the place to be.
BEST PLACE TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS: BROTHERS K COFFEEHOUSE
The Atmosphere: Your standard (sub)urban coffeeshop, with none of the standard pretention. It’s refreshing to look around and see folks of all ages and walks of life to balance out the usual laptop hunchbacks. The façade is a bit schitzophrenic, with a beachy, hutch-like bathroom area warring against richly painted walls and an apparently crumbling tile floor; but if you can look past Brothers K’s visual shortcomings, the overall effect is pleasant, friendly and relaxed.
The Menu: I die for this coffee: nutty and sweet enough to drink black, with 92-cent refills on the house blend. The food (typical bakery fare, plus quiche and savory pies) garners rave reviews from regulars.
Free Wi-Fi: Yes.
The Bottom Line: Located just off of the Main Street El stop – sounds far, but really a mere 20-minute walk from the sorority quad (or a three-minute intercampus shuttle ride, for the crippled or lazy) – it’s unlikely you’ll come face-to-face with your ex here. A more likely scenario? Running into your professor. Bring a friend; you’ll want company on the walk over, and a bookcase is piled high with old-school board games for when the two of you are ready for a study break.
BEST PLACE TO ACTUALLY DO YOUR HOMEWORK (BUT ONLY IF YOU CARRY CASH): UNICORN CAFÉ
The Atmosphere: Hipster central. No sweats and messy buns here; for Unicorn’s well-dressed patrons, studying is an event.
The Menu: This is the killer for me: I hate Unicorn coffee. And judging by conversations I’ve had, I’m not the only one. The muffins, scones, and breads, however, are baked fresh in the store and quite tasty. So are the “pannini”s, though the blatantly incorrect spelling on the menu is enough to make any neurotic cringe.
Free Wi-Fi?: Yes.
The Bottom Line: They do not take credit cards. They do not take credit cards. Order a (nasty) coffee and then try to pay with a credit card and you will be embarrassed. That being said, people come here to legitimately get work done, and it shows. For a worker-bee environment and an aesthetically pleasing crowd, Unicorn Café takes the productivity prize.
BEST PLACE TO CURL UP ON A RAINY DAY: PANERA BREAD
The Atmosphere: With a giant, L-shaped floor plan and accommodations ranging from bar stools to squishy armchairs, you’re bound to find somewhere in this casual restaurant that’s empty and/or cozy enough to set up shop. The bright lights and color on the walls will keep you feeling focused and wide awake through even the driest textbook chapters.
The Menu: French onion soup in a bread bowl, anyone? I thought so. Panera’s carbo-loaded menu is a breadophile’s dream.
Free Wi-Fi?: Yes.
The Bottom Line: Panera is perfect for all-day study marathons: the food is filling, the refills are free, and I’ve never been hounded by the staff. If you have a hard time tuning out mindless chatter, you might be bothered by the restaurant-style noise level; if not, it’s easy to spend an entire afternoon taking refuge from the elements in this unusually homey chain.
BEST PLACE TO INSTITUTE A REWARD SYSTEM: BARNES & NOBLE CAFÉ
The Atmosphere: Open. Relatively quiet. Not particularly accommodating to laptop users, though—there are only a handful of tables against the wall where the outlets are, and I’ve received lectures from the staff on the safety hazards of snaking my computer cord across the floor.
The Menu: Two words: Cheesecake Factory. Dieters, beware! The pastry case features irresistible goodies ranging from the savory (stuffed pretzels) to the sweet (a wide variety of cupcakes and cheesecake). The coffee brewed is Ye Olde Reliable Starbucks, complete with the elaborate drink menu you know and love.
Free Wi-Fi?: Yes, and newly so. It usually takes my laptop a good ten minutes to connect, but once I get online the network runs just fine.
The Bottom Line: Just ten more pages! Then you can get that red velvet cupcake! Go ahead, you’ve earned it. Blomquist will still be standing when you get back.
BEST PLACE TO TAKE YOUR PROSPIE - ER, HOLD A STUDY GROUP: KAFEIN
The Atmosphere: For a project that requires a lot of chit-chat, you won’t be bothering anyone here. Between the open mic nights and the inevitable slew of prospies, Kafein is the loudest “study” spot in Evanston.
The Menu: Is funny, if you like to read menus. The milkshakes are mouth-watering but expensive. Remember that you have a server to tip for that $5 drink!
Free Wi-Fi?: Yes...but it’s not really free. The menu denotes a minimum $3 charge per customer—meaning that even if you just came to keep a caffeine-dependent friend company, you’re going to have to order your own or pony up the cash.
The Bottom Line: A typical college hangout. The thing is, there’s a fee to “hang out,” and no one who goes here appears to actually be in college.
BEST PLACE TO FINISH UP AN ALL-NIGHTER: EINSTEIN BAGELS
The Atmosphere: A bit crowded in the mornings. Don’t worry, that’ll jog you out of your glassy-eyed stupor as you flip through those flash cards one last time.
The Menu: How many times have you rejoiced over free bagels at a business meeting, only to get stuck with smoked salmon cream cheese because that fool who made the bagel run thought the crowd would want “variety’? Order your bagel exactly how you want it for a change. Bonus: the coffee is delicious.
Free Wi-Fi?: No. But it’s so close by that on a clear day you can tap into Northwestern’s network.
The Bottom Line: For a cheap breakfast when you have to run off to a final in 45 minutes, you can’t beat Einstein’s proximity to campus. Just be warned that the door of girls’ bathroom sticks. I once had to be rescued by a little old lady. Awkward.
BEST PLACE TO TAKE YOURSELF ON A DATE: GLOBE CAFÉ
The Atmosphere: Egg yolk-yellow walls and kitschy pop art make this Hotel Orrington-adjacent feel more like your mom’s kitchen than a full-scale restaurant. Even better, you’re guaranteed to be the only patron under the age of 30. At least you were until I published this article.
The Menu: Reasonably priced café soups, salads and sandwiches. I have yet to be disappointed by an order here.
Free Wi-Fi?: Yes.
The Bottom Line: If you’re the type of person who is comfortable spending time with you, yourself and, uh, you, consider hitting Globe Café for your next lunch outing. A friendly waitstaff, free newspapers and high-backed booths make this one of the most underrated eateries in Evanston—and a stylish place to camp out with a problem set. True, Globe is a bit more expensive than most places on this list, but if you stick to coffee and dessert you can indulge without breaking the bank. Alone time comes at a price, after all.
BEST PLACE TO MISS CAFÉ AMBROSIA: ENIGMA CAFÉ
The Atmosphere: The music is a little too loud. The staff is not quite friendly enough. The paint job and irony-free décor are a little too classy for a college town coffee shop.
The Menu: The coffee is a little too strong. The scone I ordered was a little too bland. And where am I supposed to put my dishes after I eat?
Free WiFi?: Yes.
The Bottom Line: Despite the revamped interior, this place is just a little too not-Café Ambrosia. Perhaps it’ll grow on the Northwestern community over time, but after a lackluster experience I’m not itching to give it another try any time soon.
There are, of course, a number of other options – Peet’s, Argo, Wild Tree and Café Mozart, to name a few – that I have yet to add to my repertoire. If I missed your favorite, by all means chime in with your input!