10:00 a.m.: One medium chai latte, to go.
12:30 p.m.: Half a Longfellow sandwich (ham, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, sliced Granny Smith apples, and spicy Dijon mustard) on sourdough. With salt and vinegar chips in a bright turquoise bag, if they’re available.
3:30 p.m.: One chocolate-dipped butter cookie, shaped like a heart, shamrock, Easter egg, or autumn leaf, as the season dictates.
These are my usual orders at Darwin’s, the café down the street from my office. Sometimes the particulars vary a bit: I’ll add a buttery scone to my morning order, or splurge on a chocolate-glazed peanut butter cookie in the afternoon. If I’m feeling healthy I’ll swap the chips at lunch for a fruit salad, and on frigid days, I’ll often order a bowl of the daily soup, with a hunk of baguette for dipping.
I’ve worked in the same neighborhood for three years, and have been an occasional visitor to Darwin’s for most of that time. But over the last year, I’ve become a regular. And it has brought me more pleasure than I could have dreamed.
I first encountered coffee shop regulars when I served them daily: I spent a few summers and semester breaks slinging espresso as a college student in West Texas. My co-workers at the Ground Floor and I could time our days by the appearance and the reliable orders of our regulars: Tracy at 7:00 a.m. with her 20-ounce skim almond latte. Tim Baker at around 12:30 p.m. for his half-caf or “60/40” skinny latte with a shot of sugar-free hazelnut syrup. The two Beal brothers and their brother-in-law, Bob, at exactly 3:00 p.m. for their mid-afternoon pick-me-up. We’d start making their drinks when they walked in the door, and by the time they made it up to the speckled jade-green Formica counter, their orders were ready and waiting.
It took me a while to ease into a similar regular status at Darwin’s. At first, I would visit occasionally, popping in once a week or so for a chai latte or a steaming cup of Earl Grey. (I’m not a coffee drinker, though I love the smell.) Once in a while, I’d splurge on my favorite breakfast sandwich: the Mem Drive, which includes bacon, cheddar, eggs over medium, and avocado. (All the sandwiches are named after local streets or buildings.) I’d pay for my purchases on the café side, then cross over to the lunch counter to wait for my sandwich. And I would watch.
The baristas at Darwin’s are a cheery crew: scruffy-bearded hipsters, flannel-shirted college girls, artists and musicians and grad students pulling shots and making sandwiches while they figure out their next career moves. The easy camaraderie behind the bar (on both the sandwich and the coffee sides) reminds me of those long-ago days at the Ground Floor. The pressed-tin ceiling painted red and the daily specials scrawled on a chalkboard felt warm and welcoming. As I came back again and again, I started to smile back, to exchange chitchat, to participate — even for a few moments — in the life of the place. And it started to feel like home.
Like any (fiercely) independent café, Darwin’s has a few quirks: for example, the lunch rush can be entirely overwhelming if you’re not used to it. At certain times of day, you have to wait a while for your sandwich, unless you’re willing to order a ready-made special. And while there is a (clean) bathroom, it’s in the basement, down a flight of steep stairs (watch your head). At first, before I learned the steps of the daily dance, I stumbled a bit, feeling a little out of place.
But a few things drew me back, again and again. The hot, spicy chai, topped with a creamy cap of pale foam. The cozy café tables and chairs, perfect for curling with book and a sandwich (if you can snag a seat). The fresh, tasty sandwiches and baked goods. And — eventually — the smiles of the staff members who have become my friends.
There’s Ellen, who introduced herself after taking my lunch order for the umpteenth time. Fox, who loves exotic teas, striped T-shirts, and German linguistics. Al and Joe, who man the grill in the back during breakfast, and who gave me a free cookie one morning when my Mem Drive order got lost in the shuffle. And Gamal, whose warm, wide smile can light up my whole day, and who has forgotten more historical trivia than I’ll ever know.
Since Darwin’s is in my work neighborhood of Harvard Square, I occasionally run into friends or co-workers there. But I also know some of the other regulars by sight: gray-haired men with laptops or newspapers, the dark-eyed woman with the French bulldog. Students with books and papers and phones. We are all a part of the bustling life of this place.
The past year has been a difficult one for me: a layoff and a protracted job search have meant constant uncertainty, and for months, the lack of a daily routine. I have anchored myself to Darwin’s as a still point in a wildly off-kilter world, clinging to my morning chai and my lunchtime sandwich as something small and good to rely on. More recently, as I’ve worked a couple of temp gigs down the street, I’ve come to Darwin’s for that much-needed break from the office and the to-do list, trying out a new sandwich for lunch and trading friendly chitchat with whoever’s behind the counter.
As spring approaches in Cambridge, I’m switching over to (another) new workplace. My daily routine is shifting again, as the afternoon light grows stronger and the tulips poke up through the ground. But as I adjust to my new rhythm, I know I’ll be continuing my daily trips to Darwin’s. Because it’s delicious and homey and comforting. Because my blood, on some days, is about 20 percent spicy chai. Because I’m a regular. Recognized, welcomed, known. And it feels good.
Katie Noah Gibson is a writer, editor, knitter, and compulsive tea-drinker living in the Boston area. Born in Texas, she’s a lifelong Anglophile but loves to travel just about anywhere. You can find her at her blog, Cakes, Tea and Dreams, reviewing books at Shelf Awareness, or on Twitter at @katiengibson.