A writing teacher once told me she did her best work in coffee shops. Given the prevalence of patrons who scribble in notebooks or fiddle with their laptops in java joints, it appears many share the same conceit.

Buy a mugful, indulge in refills, perhaps supplement the buzz with a pack or two of cigarettes, and you’re bound to at least feel creative, even if you don’t produce anything that proves it. As someone prone to loitering long enough to crave nonliquid nourishment, I’m also partial to coffee-shop cuisine. As a rule, the entree selection is sparse but the quality decent. The staff members on duty—only one or two at most shops—are keenly aware that they can’t pass the buck for a botched sandwich or cold bowl of soup.

Coffee shops are supposed to be idiosyncratic. They are meant to be cluttered, slightly dusty, and a bit inefficient. They are not supposed to be anything like Starbucks. For all those who’ve written or called seeking such a place, I’ve found one.

Notes on the Eye Opener Coffee Shop:

1/2/97:

After driving around lost for half an hour and then stumbling onto the place by accident, I ask a guy in a stocking cap and thick-rimmed glasses where we are. He’s the only other person in here, unless you count the man with his jeans rolled up sitting on

the bench just outside the entrance. The place reeks of incense. Hendrix is playing. “It’s called Mount Rainier,” says the guy in the cap. “We’re, like, a block from the Northeast border.”

There’s a chalkboard that lists the daily specials. The tuna-fish sandwich and vegetable soup are the featured items. It’s still before 10 a.m., so I get a piece of pumpkin cheesecake that’s rimmed with frosting and a mug of the organic breakfast blend. Neither the soup nor the tuna is ready yet anyway, or so says the guy in the cap. He seems cool. I think I’ll call him Henry.

1/6/97:

Vegetable soup and tuna fish are still the featured items on the chalkboard. Henry says he thinks the soup is homemade, but he’s not positive. He just started working at the Eye Opener recently.

There’s a different teapot on every table. A few have a flower sticking out of their spouts, but none of them contains tea—they’re centerpieces. On the wall hangs an old saxophone and a mirror with a glass flower border similar to the one a great aunt of mine had in her house in North Dakota. In the corner there’s a bed for a dog, and a fairly accurate depiction of the globe is painted on the floor. Nothing seems to match.

The vegetable soup has a similar design. Two potato wedges, so big they need to be cut, take up most of the space in my bowl and are surrounded by a pinch of just about everything else—a few kernels of corn, some peas, a sliver of celery here and there, a little bit of rice, a single carrot about the size of my pinkie, a mushroom slice, and a lima bean. The broth is tomato-based and spicy enough that I can still taste its pepper as I nurse my bottle of ginger beer, which I’ll take with me.

1/12/97:

I think it’s family day. Several adults are talking about the toddlers and babies who sit among them. A threesome is sitting by the window hashing out what sound like plans for a business venture. Most of the tables are occupied, and the people seem to know each other. It feels like a multicultural Mayberry.

Henry heats me a strawberry croissant in the oven perfectly, just enough so that the butter in it gets moist but not so much that the outside gets crunchy. I sample a mug of the “Mind, Body, and Soul” brew, which tastes like a mixture of the organic breakfast blend and the organic French roast. Most coffees taste the same to me. I realize that if you want milk or cream you have to ask. Vegetable soup and tuna are still the featured items on the chalkboard, though I see that a cheese sandwich is also available. It’s noisy, so I’m going to leave.

1/21/97:

It’s the day after M.L.K. Jr. Day, and Henry tells me that the shop missed a shipment from its food supplier because of the holiday. The case that’s usually brimming with cakes, muffins, cookies, and scones is empty except for a few bottles of mango juice and root beer. There are some spinach-and-feta croissants, but Henry says they’re pretty old. Vegetable soup, tuna fish, and cheese sandwiches are still the featured items on the chalkboard, but Henry says he’s out of that stuff, too.

Henry always wears a knit cap, likes to read, and has good taste in music. Today he’s into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. It’s slow, the only other customers besides me being the guy who rolls his jeans up (he’s always here; I’ll call him William) and a man in a bright orange jumpsuit who asks to borrow some masking tape. “They need a hardware store around here,” he tells Henry. “You guys could make some extra money.”

1/24/97:

I decide that the chalkboard is actually the permanent menu and that canned tuna is too often neglected by people who can afford not to buy it. Henry isn’t working, but a guy in dreadlocks makes me a wonderful sandwich. The whole-grain bread is lightly toasted and on it he puts some sprouts, lettuce, and tuna salad, which has bits of chive and just enough mayo to make it spreadable.

Henry’s colleague is talkative and, judging from his tie-die and what’s on the stereo, a Deadhead. He’s also just been through a divorce. The woman he’s talking to can’t believe that he and his wife split, although she allows that they did get married young. He says the problem was that his wife thought she could change him. Apparently she was wrong.

1/27/97:

There are some things I notice today that I haven’t before. The old-fashioned radio resting on the radiator. The thick book about antique coffee mills on the shelf behind the counter. The bundle of cattails sitting in the corner. I also never knew why the empty ceramic mugs Henry gives me to fill up with coffee were warm. It’s because they’re stored on top of the espresso machine.

I also realize that there’s too much going on here for me to ever get anything accomplished. Today I’m very much involved with my morning glory muffin. It’s sweet and moist, basically carrot cake sprinkled with toasted coconut shavings. A man I’ve seen before comes in, and William talks to him, tells him he’s been keeping busy. Turns out William’s been helping that guy in the orange jump suit who came in looking for tape.

William is keeping himself occupied in his usual manner. He’s doing some writing, a little reading, and a lot of pondering. When he gets up to refill his coffee, he talks to Henry.

“There’s a lot of voices out there crying for attention,” he says. “A lot of philosophies and isms.”

“Is my voice crying out for attention?” Henry asks. They both laugh.

The Eye Opener Coffee Shop, 3856 34th St., Mount Rainier. (301) 864-3556.

Hot Plate:

There are several things keeping Teaism from being a great coffee shop, the main one being that it doesn’t serve coffee. But Teaism does serve great food, oftentimes tailor-made to complement one of the house specialties, which, obviously, are teas. The cuisine ranges from Indian tandoori kebabs and flatbreads to Japanese seafood dishes to french toast. The fish ochazuke comes with a pot of sencha tea, the first cup of which you pour over the seaweed- and salmon-speckled sticky rice. A small pat of wasabi, along with the strong tea, gives the dish its flavor, which is lively even though the dish looks like just a boring bowl of white rice. The place’s desserts are also excellent; one friend raves that Teaism’s chocolate crème brûlée is the best dessert in town.

Teaism, 2009 R St. NW. (202) 667-3827.

—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to

banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.