One overcaffeinated student, 36 coffee shops

By KIM ROBINS | January 31, 2019

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COURTESY OF KIM ROBINS

Robins drinking a soy cappuccino at Baby’s On Fire in Mount Vernon.

During my first few months at Hopkins, I tried — and harshly judged — every coffee-serving establishment on campus. As freshman year went on, my political beliefs became more radical and my caffeine tolerance higher, so I spent many hours and dollars at Bird in Hand. I began hearing about other locations that are known for coffee, and I wanted to investigate my options. 

During sophomore year, I was looking for ways to kill time while maintaining the illusion of productivity. I came across Baltimore Magazine’s list of the best coffee shops in the city. A Google search revealed that a number of websites and publications have similar lists. I took on a challenge: I would visit every single one of the best coffee shops in Baltimore by graduation.

I combined the lists from Baltimore Magazine, Yelp and Foursquare with recommendations from friends and then compiled a list of the city’s 36 best coffee shops. To date, I have been to seven of them. My litmus test for each is the same: I order a soy cappuccino and spend about an hour pretending to do homework but end up compulsively checking my email and scrolling through the New York Times website instead. This is a consistent way to gauge the food, drink and atmosphere of each establishment.

Here’s what I have discovered so far:

Bird in Hand: I won’t go into detail about Bird in Hand, because hopefully you’ve been there already. If not, go right now, and order a pumpkin muffin and one of their specialty lattes. Incidentally, Bird in Hand is the most expensive place on my list — a soy cappuccino is about $4.25 — but I suppose that’s the price we pay for convenience.

Baby’s On Fire: This shop is in Mt. Vernon, a short walk from the Eager Street Charm City Circulator stop. It’s a hybrid coffee shop and record store. Vinyl records are on display and for sale alongside espresso drinks, baked goods, snacks and small meals.

Baby’s On Fire was marginally less expensive than some other shops on my list, with a total cost of just under $8 for my soy cappuccino and peach muffin. The muffin was flavorful and not crumbly (a common problem with muffins). The soy cappuccino was smoother than most, though still a bit acidic and bitter (which is the fault of the soy milk, not the espresso or the people making it).

Baby’s On Fire is a small space. The combination of music and other people’s conversations can make it somewhat hard to concentrate if you value silence, but the noise isn’t deafening. The layout is fantastic for eavesdropping though.

Charmington’s: Charmington’s is on the corner of 26th and Howard, a relatively easy walk from campus. The establishment is well known because Barack Obama visited it once, but frankly, I was underwhelmed. My blueberry muffin was just above average in taste, and my soy cappuccino was quite bitter and acidic, with a foam that was poorly integrated with the espresso. The only redeeming factor of Charmington’s was its price. My drink and muffin were a total of $6, nearly the lowest cost of any place I tried.

Red Emma’s: Red Emma’s is known as the anarchist bookstore and coffee shop. It serves multiple roles in the Baltimore community: a restaurant prioritizing vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options; a hub for political activity and organizing; and a host venue for authors, artists and other speakers. It’s a co-op, meaning that employees jointly own Red Emma’s and dictate its policies and financial decisions.

I visited Red Emma’s often last year at its old North Avenue location, but I’ve only been to its new, larger space on Cathedral Street once. Though it’s only been fully operational for a short time, it is a solid coffee shop during the day and a proper restaurant at night, with delicious flavor options for espresso drinks. At $4 for a cappuccino, it’s on the expensive side, but I’m happy to pay a slightly higher price as an investment in a business whose model I support.

Greenmount Coffee Lab: A project of Red Emma’s, Greenmount Coffee Lab combines a standard coffee shop with an open business space. Known for its $1 hot coffee, it’s the least expensive place I’ve tried, but the quality is still high. (In all fairness, I didn’t have an espresso drink here, so the comparison isn’t entirely fair.)

I met some very interesting people there, and I intend to go back soon, despite its far distance from campus.

Will I ever make it to all 36 coffee shops? Will I just add new places to the list more quickly than I can cross them off? Or will I make the financially responsible decision and use my own espresso machine for once? Only time will tell.

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