So many elements of the undergraduate experience coalesce within the confines of the archetypal coffee shop: caffeine-addled study sessions, flirtatious glances over sourcebooks, heated yet meaningless discussions of self-important pseudo-intellectuals. The ideal collegiate coffee shop sells more than lemon cakes and Ecuadorian brews: in its role as an informal campus meet-n-greet.
Two Starbucks, a pair of Dunkin’s and even the venerable Peet’s do not, sadly, an ideal coffee shop make in Harvard Square. The cozy interior at Starbucks is too contrived; Dunkin’s plastic tables don’t provide the appropriately lofty setting; and Peet’s’ cramped counters make it just a little too small to accommodate a true campus kaffeeklatsch.
Happily for your high school friends who ended up at Tufts, bustling Davis Square offers up a hip, inviting alternative called the Diesel Cafe, which does to java what its designer namesake did for jeans. Earlier this week, this writer joined another hungry Jew for a Yom Kippur break-fast at the popular dive, where a steady stream of college students, aging metalheads, and hip foreign types mingled over glowing laptops and copies of Kierkegaard.
With its indie sensibility, pierced baristas, and eclectic soundtrack—Bon Jovi shared the speaker system with obscure electronica—Diesel easily establishes its hipster bona fides. The pastel-painted walls and kitschy Americana (a diner clock, toy trains, a vintage gas station sign) lend warmth to an otherwise industrial setting of exposed beams and gallery lights.
The hipster image is backed up by a tasty selection of sandwiches, salads, and juices, alongside a full menu of coffee staples and pastry snacks. A five-dollar pita plate came loaded with a zesty hummus and a spread of freshly sliced cucumber, red onions, tomatoes, and bean sprouts—a healthy offering that nicely complemented the Monkey Wrench, a turkey-avocado-dill confection. At least five of the cafe’s standard sandwiches are vegetarian, and high marks go to the “Tune Up”—tuna, red onions, and tomatoes served up on savory sourdough.
But the best part about Diesel—and what gives it that collegiate air lacking from Harvard-area coffee shops—is its space. There’s so much of it! Generously high ceilings, plenty of elbow room, and a seating area where you don’t have to worry about the creepy guy at the next table seeing which blogs you’re perusing. No more hustling for counter space or squeezing into the corner nooks of the woefully small Church Street Starbucks. Diesel’s roominess can accommodate your extended blockmate circle, while its high-traffic patronage means that you can go on your own without standing out.
And the coffee itself? It’s a straight buck for a small cup, and two quarters more gets you a large. Latte drinks top off at $3.25, a steal compared to most Harvard Square prices.
“Diesel makes a damn good cup of coffee,” said a barista at the spacious Starbucks across the street. She leaned forward and gave me a conspiratorial look: “I’m a big fan.”
—Michael M. Grynbaum
257 Elm Street, Somerville
T to Davis Square
Billiards: $5/hr before 7; $8 after
Open until midnight Sun-Thurs; until 1 a.m. Fri and Sat