Coffee Zone: not just an escape, but a cultural junction

MOVE spends an evening in a middle-eastern café.

Published Feb. 11, 2011

There is no shortage of places to get a decent cup of coffee in Columbia. But just up the street from where Kaldi’s and Lakota sit in jest is Coffee Zone, a small place that will take you farther away than the two blocks you walked to get there.

6:12 p.m.: My arrival

I walk in to a softly lit café, with middle-eastern lanterns hanging from the ceiling and what sounds like soft Mediterranean dubstep playing over the speakers. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. A few solitary people are found here and there at tables of their own, laptops open, pouring over what could be homework or papers in the process of being graded. I set my bags down at a table toward the back. It’s near a power outlet and allows me to better get a lay of the landscape. I order a chai from the counter, which comes in a pint glass that makes me feel more like I’m in a pub, not the middle of the United States.

7:20 p.m.: Behind the counter

Behind the counter, two college-age gentlemen with heavy facial hair run the ship — taking orders, preparing coffee, tea, chai and food, all the while keeping up some continuous conversation I can only barely make out — something about pandas? I get up and order a gyro, which comes back piled impossibly high with lamb, lettuce, tomato and some of the most excellent spices. But as good as the food is, as far as I can see most people are sticking to coffee tonight. Food would only get in the way of the conversation.

8:14 p.m.: Eavesdropping

Clusters of people huddle around tables, talking in English and various middle-eastern dialects. The café isn’t loud, but the collective murmur hovers and flows like smoke in the air — not loud enough to bother anyone, but discernible to the skilled eavesdropper. The two sitting in front of me turn out to be a professor and her significant other. He sits rifling through pages of The New York Times, while she dances back and forth between her computer and stacks of papers. Behind me, a man carries on to his cell phone, iterating over and over, ”before you do anything crazy, listen to me, I wrote you an email about this…” It’s enjoyable to be in the thick of so much conversation, but I wish most of all that I could understand the two older men speaking animatedly in what I think is Turkish. The culture here is as refreshing as the chai.

8:38 p.m.: Closing time

The owner, Osama, makes an appearance before closing. He walks in, stopping by a few tables of people who seemed to know him personally, exchanging pleasantries in a yet unknown middle-eastern language, and cursing the bitter cold weather outside. As he proceeds about his business, people start filtering out, which is my cue to be off as well.

A mixture of middle-eastern culture and relaxed bohemian flair creates a very quiet, chill atmosphere at Coffee Zone. It’s perfect for studying, escaping the outside or just joining the regular group of gentlemen for conversation over coffee and American Spirits — weather permitting, of course, as there’s no smoking in the café. Coffee Zone was an excellent escape, and I think I’ll find myself getting lost here more often.

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