The best cafes in downtown Ann Arbor to get work done

Java juice joints are as different as coffee itself. Some are great for conversation, some are dandy for working on your laptop, and others are the place to see and be seen. But for the nomadic tribes of telecommuters who find themselves climbing the walls of their apartment or house, they provide a much needed place to land during the day. So, how do Ann Arbor's downtown coffeehouses rate? Funny you should ask.

The ranking scale I follow is the same way I am ranked in my job as a teacher: 4 (highly effective, above and beyond what is expected), 3 (effective, what is expected), 2 (minimally effective, less than I expected), 1 (ineffective, something is seriously wrong here).

Note: We've limited our geographic scope –State to Ashley, William to Catherine (sorry Common Cup, Roos Roast, etc.) and the focus of the cafe. Coffee must be king, deli sandwiches and tea mere after-thoughts (sorry Zingerman's Next Door, Tea Haus, Crazy Wisdom). There is no doubt, I have missed places and people and someone will be mad at me. We can make up over coffee.

1.  Mighty Good
217 North Main Street
Mon-Sat 7am-6pm, Sun 8am-6pm

Nice, wide open spaces and comfortable couches in back. It attracts a mixed crowd – some chatter, mostly people busily plucking on their keyboards. The music is present but not overwhelming. Wi-fi password protected and fast. Aloof barista.

Accessibility: 2.5   Parking is a bit easier than south of Huron. Night owls not welcome.
Comfort: 3
Coffee: 3.5   Bring your own mug and get a discount!
Snacks: 4   Toast bar! Baked goods, some gluten free options from local bakeries.
Vibe: 3   If you're not the productive type you might feel like a bit of a slacker.

Historical significance?
It is in the Pardon block, which previously housed Mr. Pardon’s dry good store.
Will I get any work done?
Definitely

2.  Café Verde
214 N. 4th Avenue
Monday-Saturday 7am-9:30pm, Sunday 9am-8pm

Yeah, it's part of the People's Coop. But it's also its own thing. Come by bike if you can. There's plenty of parking. Come by car and it's the law of the concrete jungle. Once inside, the atmosphere is friendly, with baristas who actually seem to like their job. Live music on Thursday nights but otherwise there's an eclectic mix at a respectable volume. Lots of foot traffic and a busy lunch crowd. The wi-fi is hit or miss.

Accessibility: 2.5   Parking can be tricky.
Comfort: 3   A wee bit tight. The "community” bench allows for seating variety.
Coffee: 3   Fair trade, organic, and tasty.
Snacks: 4:   Phenomenal baked goods, sandwiches, salad/hot bar, fruit & veggie smoothies
Vibe: 3.5   Townie central. Packed to the gills on Farmer's Market Saturdays.

Historical significance:
The Eisele block, at one time owned by the Eisele family of stonecutters.
Will I get any work done?
Unlikely. Read the paper over a bowl of soup.

3.  Elixir Vitae
326 Maynard Street
M-F, 6:30am-12am, Sat 7am-11:45pm, Sun 8am-11:45pm
117 E. Liberty
M-F 7:30am-7:00pm, Sat. 9am-7pm, Sun. 10am-6pm
Note:  Different hours listed in different places online, so call first

If you're over 30 you might feel a bit out of place at the Maynard location. But a little eavesdropping might clue you into social media platforms you never knew existed. Hipper than thou music is played at just the right volume. Bathrooms are clean, yet boast highly quotable graffiti. Wi-fi is strong and password protected.

Accessibility: 3   The paking garage (bikes and cars) practically next door to the Maynard location. 
Comfort: 2.5   Mostly students sitting on the wooden chairs or the couch. Very friendly baristas.
Coffee: 4   Surprisingly excellent. They roast their own & offer Roos Roast.
Snacks: 3
Vibe: 3   Minimal decor. Very "first week at college in a dorm room."

Historical significance:
Both locations were very near theaters back in the old days. Maynard Street boasted the Majestic, and the Theatorium was located at 119 E. Liberty. If the time-lines ever collapse, we can all enjoy a nickelodeon show and coffee!
Will I get any work done?
Yeah, probably. Plenty of space and quiet enough to work.

4.  Sweetwaters Coffee And Tea
123 W. Washington St.
M-T 6am to 11pm, W-F 6am-12am, Sat 7:30am-12am, Sun 7:30am-11pm
407 N. Fifth Avenue (Kerrytown)
M-Th 6am-11pm, Fri & Sat 6am-10pm, Sun 7:30-11pm
604 E. Liberty Ave.
Mon-Sat, 6am-12am, Sun 7am-12am

All three locations are cozy, with plenty of couches, and tables and chairs of various heights. The displayed art work is better than your average cafe. Washington St. location is a bit louder with a higher ratio of business suit types and downtown regulars. Kerrytown is subdued, mostly attracting moms and neighbors (except Farmer's Market Saturdays, then it's chaos). The Liberty Street location is student central. Music is always tasteful. Wi-fi is great but all locations need more electrical outlets. 

Accessibility: 3
Comfort: 3.5
Coffee: 3 Solid if unspectacular. Good selection of teas.
Snacks: 3 Snacks ranged from baked goods to sandwiches to milkshakes.
Vibe: 3.5 Casual and comfortable. Downtown is good for people watching when you need a break.

Historical significance:
The one on E. Liberty is in the former Border’s block. The area in Kerrytown was once owned by the Luick family and their lumber company. The Germania Hotel (later renamed the American Hotel) was on the corner of Washington and Ashley.
Will I get work done?
Probably, but the noise levels tend to be high so bring headphones.

5.  Espresso Royale
324 S. State Street
M-F 6:30am-12am, Sat. 7am-12am, Sun. 8am-12am
214 S. Main Street

M-F 6:30am-10pm, Sat. 7:30-10:00pm, Sun. 7:30am-9:00pm

Both locations are mid-block on busy streets with limited parking. Baristas are polite at both locations. The State Street location is across from the U's diag so it's no surprise that student dominate. Prepare to listen to students vocalizing their social and emotional turmoil with multisyllabic fervor. The Main Street location has a more professional vibe (important people doing important things), and cooler digs. There's a chaise lounge that practically begs customers to take a nap. That is, until the moms and siblings of kids taking afternoon karate lessons at Keith Hafner's tumble in. Wi-fi is excellent, bathrooms are clean-ish and the "high caffeine" coffee will keep you awake for a month.

Accessibility: 2.5
Comfort: 3 Nice selection of padded chairs, sofas, and different size tables.
Coffee: 3.5: Coffee was smooth, not overly roasted, not too acidic.
Snacks: 3: Pastries, sandwiches.
Vibe: 3:

Historical significance:
214 S. Main Street boasted a dry good store back in the day—and it also sold coffee!
Will I get work done?
Yup! There's always plenty of people tapping away on laptops in both locations.

6. Lab Cafe
505 E. Liberty Street
M-F, 8:30am-9:30pm, Sat. 10am-9:30pm, Sun. 10am-8pm

It gets busy. And cramped, with the young, hip and financially secure. It's the kind of place that attracts clientele (as opposed to customers). Weekends seem to bring the out-of-towners. Needless to say, it's great people watching. And the space is gorgeous —like an art museum full of pictures, art deco books, beautifully displayed pastries, and fancy plates. For those who need something to mellow their buzz (or worry less about whether they fit in), Lab now serves craft beer.

Accessibility: 3 There are parking garages nearby, but on street parking will be tricky.
Comfort: 3
Coffee: 3 The coffee was average (a bit acidic for me).
Snacks: 3   Beautiful display of scones, cakes and other pastries. Definitely heavy on rich desserts.
Vibe: 3

Historical significance:
None.
Will I get work done?
Well, there is wi-fi, and there are places to sit comfortably. Maybe. But not many people were actually doing any work when I was there. Conversation volume is quite loud. Maybe you should discuss the film you saw at the Michigan Theater and skip the whole work thing. 

7. Comet Coffee
16 Nickels Arcade
M-F 7am-8pm, 8am-8pm, 8:30am-8pm

A very small space. But there are a few chairs and tables in the arcade so you can drink outside without really being outside. (You'll still be cold). Drinks are as much art as they are coffee. You might feel like your destroying something precious by drinking them. But prices are high. They also offer caramel milk and drinking chocolate, both of which sound very fancy. These folks know their coffee. The baristas were incredibly informative, describing coffee in ways that reminded me of how brewers describe their beer.

Accessibility: 3   Maynard parking garage is across the street. Plenty of bike parking.
Comfort: 3
Coffee: 4   Outstanding. Even the "coffee of the day" was a pour over.
Snacks: 3   Very similar to the pastries and cakes at lab. All looked delicious and fresh.
Vibe: N/A   Customers don't stick around long. But it's fun to watch the baristas work their magic.

Historical significance:
Nickels Arcade has been around since 1918 and is a beautiful building.
Will I get work done?
Unlikely. Maybe if you have to compose a haiku. 

8. The Espresso Bar
204 S. 4th Avenue
M-F 9am-9pm, Sat 9am-10pm, Sun 10am-7pm

My favorite iced coffee in all the land. And I love my iced coffee. This cafe atop Literati Bookstore is super comfy and super busy. The place was completely packed at 4pm on a Friday, so I had to get my coffee to go. That said, people were tap-tap-tapping on their laptops or chit-chatting with their friends. Despite the large crowd, there wasn’t as much ambient noise as one would think.\ The baristas are super friendly. One offered to make people share a table with me. And then there are the books, of course. They're making a comeback, you know.

Accessibility: 3
Comfort: 3   Plenty of chairs and tables, surrounded by books!
Coffee: 3.5    Muy bueno. Specialty coffee served up beautifully.
Snacks: 2.5   Croissants, pastries, and Mindo chocolate bites. Not a big selection.
Vibe: 3.5   A great place to meet a friend.

Historical significance:
Beautiful historic building at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Washington.
Will I get work done?
Yes. But you may have to leg wrestle someone for a table. Good wi-fi and well-placed outlets.

9. Shinola Coffee
301 S. Main Street.
Mon-Sat 7am-8pm, Sun 7am-6pm


If you go downstairs, you will find a basement space which is perfect for work or just hanging out. It's darkly lit, cavern like, and moody. Write a scary short story, complain to your friend about your crazy parent or code that program that'll change the Internet forever. This is the place! Upstairs, the barista was aloof, but down in the cellar a friendly employee asked if I was enjoying my $3 blueberry muffin. "Why, yes I am," I answered. "But could you turn down the music a smidge?"

Accessibility: 2.5   Don’t count on street parking. Or coming late.
Comfort: 3.5
Coffee: 3   Upscale and pricey.
Snacks: 3   Pastries, and some delicious looking donut thing with a dollop of chocolate on top.
Vibe: 3   People use their inside voices. And did I mention how cool the basement is?

Historical significance:
The corner of Liberty and Main is steeped in history. It has housed dry good stories, a radio station, and an art gallery.
Will I get work done?
You betcha. This place is a find for those who can't or won't work at home.

10. Starbucks
300 S. Main Street
M-Th 5:30am-11pm, Fri & Sat 5:30am-11pm, Sun 6am-10pm
222 S. State Street

M-F 5:30am-12am, Sat 6:30-12am, Sun 6:30am-11pm

Accessibility: 2.5   Both stores are on busy corners, don't count on parking right out front.
Comfort: 3
Coffee: 3
Snacks: 3
Vibe: 3

There is a reason that chains are so successful. People like the comfort of the familiar. They like to know that when they go to a place, they will get what they got the last time. There are few places that do that as well as Starbucks. So, chances are, you know what to expect before you walk in: the coffee with a slightly burnt taste, music a touch louder than wanted but not obnoxious, sturdy scones and muffins, and more drink choices than candidates in the last 30 elections. The only real difference in the two downtown locations are the customers. The State Street campus location is packed with students on laptops, backpacks flopped in every possible direction. The Main Street location is a mix of people in suits, people with kids, and, occasionally someone on a laptop (but, more likely, their smart phone).

Historical significance:
300 S. Main once was home to a Dunkin’ Donuts! The block itself has been around since the late 1800s.
Will I get work done?
If you can beat a student to a table at the State Street location you're made of tougher stuff than I am. At the Main Street location, sure, why not? But outlets are scarce and wi-fi is just adequate.




Final comments:
As part of my teacher evaluation, I should share what I've learned.

Place: The Commonwealth/Shinola basement. I felt like I returned to the womb, but without the smoking and diet pills. I will definitely be back.
Coffee: The Ambrosia/Elixir coffee called Mike's Blend. I liked it so much, I brought a bag home!
Food: Comet scones, which are from the Pastry Peddler are good enough to have two! Maybe three.

Someone once said to me that you can't swing a dead cat around downtown Ann Arbor without hitting a coffee shop. Colorful, huh? But my friend had a point—we have a lot of coffee shops. So maybe we can say that we have coffee shops like some people have cats. And there isn’t a bad one in the litter.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website, www.TeacherPatti.com as well as at bookstores in the Ann Arbor area.
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