2/4/11: Eating Atlanta

Oh, the humble coffee house. From the corporate hegemony of Starbucks to the lowly carts that dot the city streets, coffee shops come as varied as the roasted bean juice they serve. Their caffeine-deprived patrons flock morning, noon and night to these establishments to drink, converse and thrive amid the buzz of grinders and the glow of low-slung lights.

This week in Eating Through Atlanta we compare the two nearby coffee shops Octane Coffee and Urban Grind to see which one best deserves your hard-earned money.

The environment of the coffee shop is about as important as the quality of the coffee served. This doesn’t just mean the space, stools, and other inanimate objects of decoration; rather, it also takes into account the people drinking, pouring and, in our case, even performing. The patrons who stay in-house are often an accurate sample of its whole consumer base.

In Octane’s case, the clatter of students on their laptops among chemistry-lab-style tables and the twenty-somethings at the bar discussing life, liberty and their weekend plans is manageable, leaving plenty of decibels for pleasant conversation. A word of caution: the industrial-style electronic music playing overhead may suddenly spike in the middle of your conversation (you probably needed to rave anyway).

The espresso drinks were surprisingly disappointing. A straight shot of espresso here is far too bitter and rough compared to most places, and the mocha just tastes like warm chocolate milk. What saves Octane, though, is an Ethiopian single-origin French press coffee, which is honestly the best I’ve ever had. They also offer jasmine tea, which is quite flowery, and Italian sodas among their better beverage selections. Pastries, salads, sandwiches and some nutritious snacks are available fresh for lunch.

Octane’s unconventional space takes a bit of adjusting to and is a little off-putting. The substantial seating makes it easy to find a seat for you and your coffee mates even with a crowd, though the spacing can be tight. If a roasted coffee bean decided one day to move up in the world and turn itself into a coffee house, it would look like Octane: smooth, earthy and mellow. The earth-colored walls are cast in a cozy glow by hanging, candle-like lights giving the whole room a welcoming aura, especially during the dreary days of January. The coffee and tea even came on its own unglazed wood platter.

Urban Grind’s environment is smaller and the furniture tends to stick out compared to the more coordinated Octane. The couches and chairs are similar to that frumpy one every aunt or distant relative always seems to have. However, it’s an excellent study spot, with the tables on the far wall almost always occupied by students with textbooks and a laptop next to their coffee.

The smaller size and more relaxing setting can be a little more inviting and comfortable than Octane, and the lighting set the room as a den lit by a fireplace. In fact, Urban Grind definitely has a more coffee house feel.

The espresso and the mochas are the winning drinks here. The espresso is a smooth and bold, and it’s definitely recognizable in the mocha. Their specials include two mochas: mint condition, black forest mocha and turtle mocha. The mint condition is easily their best beverage, with a strong espresso taste matched with a semisweet chocolate and peppermint.

Like most coffee houses that try to attract a community, Urban Grind hosts several events throughout the week, including movies, open mic poetry, and game night. On the night we visited, however, the goal of the entertainment and the outcome were two different things entirely, with a rather hackneyed and simply unfunny stand-up comedy group.

Overall, Urban Grind definitely beat out Octane in terms of what they serve and environment, although Octane does earn extra points for being a decent net cafe, offering coffee alongside alcohol and sandwiches.


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