J is for Java
Needful Things · The Hidden Bean · City Café · Donna's · Empire Café · Xando · The Daily Grind
Caffeine junkies that we are, we can't imagine a more aptly named establishment in Baltimore than Needful Things (2921 O'Donnell St.,  675-0595). What's more needful than coffee? They've got you covered at this very attractive spot on Canton's square with a high-test house blend and assorted manifestations of the java-soaked muse, including (speaking of apt names) the Double Gutless Wonder (decaf and skim milk). The slim menu is heavy on the second most needful thing, breakfast, with plenty of bagel, egg, pancake, and french-toast options along with a handful of soups and sandwiches.
You'll find three roasts and no waiting at The Hidden Bean (1431 John St.,  225-9667). Besides your early-morning dose of java, this Bolton Hill shop also has a full complement of teas, soft drinks, and juices, as well as eight varieties of coffee you can take home and brew yourself. Once your caffeine needs are met, choose from various scones, bagels, and muffins for breakfast fare, or drop in at lunchtime for a full selection of sandwiches, cold pasta dishes, and desserts.
With a wide range of pricey dinner entrées served in its bi-level back dining room, a case full of pastries and rich desserts, and a busy breakfast and lunch trade, City Café (1001 Cathedral St.,  539-4252) is more than just a coffee bar. Located in the heart of Mount Vernon's gay-nightlife section, it doubles as a community center of sorts. But the humble coffee bean is its cornerstone, and every day, several tureens pour life-giving caffeine for the customers gathered in the café's spacious, sunny front room. Try a cup of Southern pecan with one of the addictive chocolate croissants.
Nothing, it seems, can stop the juggernaut that is Donna's (various locations)--not the inconsistent food (although we'll swear by anything with roasted vegetables); not the often, um, "relaxed" service; not the ubiquity that, in these parts, has earned that black-and-white sign comparisons to the Golden Arches. Must have something to do with the consistently outstanding java, which has never, ever let us down. As long as Baltimore thirsts for coffee, we suppose, there'll always be a Donna's. And another. And another. . . .
Before or after catching that flick at the Senator, cross the street to Empire Café (5857 York Road,  435-1200), a coffeehouse in the making with an ever-growing menu, an array of gorgeous-looking desserts, and 31 coffees from assorted corners of the world. The eclectic menu features a little Chinese, a little vegetarian, a little Old Bay--it's a work in progress. This pretty little restaurant even has its own stage (you can get on the mailing list for news of readings, discussions, and the like).
Xando (3003 N. Charles St.,  889-7076) is not a coffee bar. If you look carefully, the sign outside this new Charles Village entry in the national chain reads coffee and bar. This means that in the morning you can get a "gigante" latte, and in the evening you can get a mocha martini or pint of beer. Xando is your one-source stop for vitamins C (caffeine) and A (alcohol). But it's also a good place to nibble on a salad or a wrap sandwich or any one of a host of decadent dessert items (including make-your-own s'mores!). And it's big enough that the staff doesn't seem to mind if you just linger over a brew and read the paper.
Your table wobbles, half your cappuccino slops over the top of the cup, and several friendly dogs are vying for the privilege of sniffing your crotch. Hey, it's all part of the The Daily Grind (1726 Thames St.,  558-0399) experience. Have a cuppa, wait for a Homicide sighting, and, toward dusk, treat yourself to as eclectic a crowd as you'll find anywhere. There's orange hair, green hair, handcuffs, leather, body piercing--lots of body piercing. Gnaw on a biscotti and watch as older couples out for a romantic waterfront stroll pause in the open doorway, drawn by the coffee aroma, then get a closer look and scurry away. Maybe the new Daily Grind, in perfectly proper Roland Park (501 W. Cold Spring Lane,  235-8118), is more their cup of tea. Us, we'll stick a matchbook under the table leg, clutch our cup, and watch the parade.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201