Coffee Coalition

Two recent arrivals to the café scene offer pleasant respites

Our still-shiny president confessed last week to experiencing sleepless nights over the economy. But there's more insomnia at the bottom than the top, surely. Even Nixon died comfortably enough, after all. It's the small business owners who could teach a head of state a few things about long dark nights of the soul.

This fraternity boasts an especially sleep-deprived chapter, made up of those with fledgling enterprises of just a few months standing. And within this lies the noble order of new café owners, whose hearts are now as jittery and tremulous as moths. A café is a risky venture at the best of times, and 2009 is unlikely to prove among those. You have to sell a lot of cups of coffee to afford the cups, let alone the rent, and how these entrepreneurs must have felt when the first gray snowflakes of the economic winter fell on their newly painted signs one shivers to imagine.

Two recently opened local cafés which deserve to survive until they can thrive are Moondollars Café in Oak Ridge and Blackbird Coffeehouse in Sequoyah Hills.

Moondollars (presumably a play on "Starbucks") occupies a spacious site on Jackson Square in Oak Ridge, a destination the café's owners rather sweetly describe as "the sleepy town that wants to be the next Asheville." The glorious endowment of natural light in the café would seem to warrant an interior of crisp, bright neatness rather than coziness, but in fact Moondollars achieves neither. It has aimed for quirkiness but instead gives us the comfort and character of a reasonably well-appointed youth hostel breakfast hall in the Netherlands. The coffee is generally fine but unmemorable, the exception being a really excellent espresso.

The place is redeemed by the food, and the lavish friendliness of its servers. Particularly exciting is the shepherd's pie burger, a sloppy, gravied mess of good-quality warmth. Accompanied by a pleasingly dry coleslaw, it forms as good a lunch as one could wish for. Marginally less successful is a slightly underdone vegetable flatbread pizza, but this seemed more momentary aberration than synecdoche.

Beers on tap and an adjoining room for live music would seem to complete the picture of an environment closer to pub than café, and assessed by these criteria Moondollars is a great success.

Over in Sequoyah Hills, Blackbird Coffeehouse (1208 Kenesaw Ave.) offers a narrower menu geared to light breakfasts and snacks, and maintains it perfectly. But it is the coffee that is the driving force here, and there are a couple of outstanding options featured. Of course, the key conceptual failing of coffee is that it smells better than it tastes. Very few people are born with a liking for coffee, and generally one must serve an apprenticeship of a few months in youth, working towards fondness much in the way of beer-drinkers and pipe-smokers. Perhaps best among the range at Blackbird is the Vienna, a coffee, chocolate, and cinnamon blend. Lunch is mainly fresh wholemeal wraps, although with heartbreaking maternalism they will also make your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for you.

A tiny space that would struggle to seat 16, Blackbird has that ineffable aura of being a nice place to spend time, a quiet hub of gentle optimism and discreet friendliness, the kind of environment you picture yourself casually writing a novel in.

As different as the two cafés are from each other, both share faint touches of the unreconstructed hippie about the premises, and both are run by happy, welcoming couples. Yet one wonders when the owners last enjoyed a cup of coffee themselves; as their customers' net disposable income continues to shrink, surely they don't need caffeine to help them stay awake.