The Skeptical Diner: Diamonds Coffee Shoppe

Despite growing up and going to college in Madison, WI, I was more of a coffee-shop guy than a bar guy until well into my twenties. Part of it was that Madison had (and still does have) a meat-headed student drinking culture that can go head-to-head with whatever Padre Island dishes up during Spring Break. But most of it was that the city had a number of great, medium-sized independent coffee houses that served decent coffee, played serious music, and would, for the modest price of a croissant and cup of joe, allow poor students to hang out for hours and study. Here I want to shout out to Cafe Assisi before it went co-op and got terrible (the Ellis Felker glory years were ’94-’96 or thereabouts) and Cafe Michaelangelo, which is still going strong. Also: Cafe Palms, in memoriam (it burned down along with the rest of the Hotel Washington complex in 1996.)

One of my favorite things about Minneapolis-St. Paul is that we have a coffee shop culture that is, pound for pound, as good as — or better than — Madison’s. Within walking distance of my place in Uptown there are at least three chain shops and three independents. I’ve found good coffeeshops in Dinkytown, downtown, St. Paul and, now, Northeast.

Diamonds Coffee Shoppe (on the 1600 block of Central Avenue) has a lot of exceedingly desirable qualities in a coffee shop. Thanks to its somewhat offbeat location and sprawling size, it’s not particularly crowded in the morning hours, so you can spread out and relax. The music is solid, skewing toward traditional but entirely respectable coffee-house fare — folk and blues, the couple of times I’ve visited. And the decor is artsy and minimalist. You’re neither hanging out in a barren warehouse, nor being stockpiled in some glossy hipster holding pen. There’s a full (but non-pretentious) food menu offering grilled sandwiches, breakfast burritos and other such easy to prepare staples. And there’s WiFi.

The last time I was at Diamonds there was also a couple reading the current edition of City Pages out loud to one another, but they were doing it quietly, and that sort of thing can happen at any establishment.

How’s the coffee? Decent. Despite being extremely sensitive to the quality of, say, beer or booze, I can’t taste my way out of a wet paper sack when it comes to wine or coffee, other than to differentiate “terrible” (10 percent of what I taste) from “fine” (85 percent) from “insanely good” (5 percent.) The coffee at Diamonds is fine. The service is friendly and competent, and the overall vibe is pleasantly bohemian. I feel like I’ve come home again.

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