Pittsburgh’s Independent Urban Cafe Corners


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Photo by Gabrielle Renfro

By Gabrielle Renfro

In a sunny corner of Commonplace Coffee of Squirrel Hill, 19-year-old Sofia Sparks secludes herself to work on her art and other schoolwork.

Across from her, another student adamantly types away on his laptop, papers strewn about.

Two tables away, two girls sip away at lattes, chatting and laughing, their carefree voices blending in with the pop remix tunes in the background.

Having a quiet place to do work that can also double as a social corner is essential to urban university life, and there are numerous options in every corner of Pittsburgh.

“My best days are spent in coffee shops with good friends, coffee and functioning pens, and if that’s not something to be thankful for, then I don’t know what is,” Sparks said.

According to an article from The Washington Times, the average American ingests an average of 300 milligrams per day of caffeine, and 44% of adult caffeine drinkers are between the ages of 18 and 34.

College kids are clearly drinking as much coffee as they can to keep up with their work, as well as using coffee for social means.

However, mainstream coffee chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts can become crowded and loud with other students, making it harder to get any work done in peace (not to mention too many people using the same WiFi).

Many younger people find solace in a more secluded and boutique café atmosphere that can also be used as a productivity corner.

Commonplace Coffeehouse

Just up the street from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh is Commonplace Coffeehouse on Forbes Ave. just past the intersection of Murray Ave. A sidewalk sign with hand drawn letters invites many local residents, as well as students, inside where upbeat songs mix with muffled conversation and the sounds of coffee being ground for expertly crafted espresso drinks.

Commonplace Coffeehouse also has two other locations in Pittsburgh besides Squirrel Hill. There is one on Penn Ave in Bloomfield and one on Buena Vista Street in the Northside near the Mattress Factory. There are also two locations in Indiana, PA, where the owners started the company.

While technically a chain coffee shop, Commonplace Coffeehouse roasts their beans locally and their bean roasts are always fresh. The interior palette usually consists of wooden tables, white walls and black cups.

Every barista is expertly trained and personable. They offer a wide variety of espresso drinks, unique teas and fresh baked goods. Pastries are under $2.50, and drinks usually range from $2.50 to $5.00 if you want to jazz your drink up with flavors and perhaps some soy or almond milk. Their bagged roasts are about $15.

Commonplace Coffee - Squirrel Hill
Commonplace Coffee – Squirrel Hill. Photo by Gabrielle Renfro

Of all the Commonplace locations in Pittsburgh, Spark’s favorite is the one in the Northside, lovingly dubbed the “Commonplace Mexican War Streets.” Oftentimes between her classes, she goes to this coffee shop to work or to relax off campus. She is familiar with the couple who own Commonplace Coffee, and she finds it to be a great place to zone out and paint, write or work on any other project she has.

“The North Side has a lot of struggling communities, but this place is an excellent common place for people of all backgrounds to come together,” Sparks laughs.

Constellation Coffee

Located on Penn Avenue along with one of the Commonplace locations, on the border between Lawrenceville and Bloomfield is a newer café called Constellation Coffee. It sits on the block connecting Penn Avenue to Main Street, and is easily accessible by multiple buses, including the “88 Penn.”

The look of Constellation is minimalist, with white walls and black tables. The only accents are the blue and green Acme cups and the occasional flower vase. The vibe is comfortable with most of the customers coming to either chat or work on projects. Most of the clientele are local residents both of the student variety and hip business people.

Constellation Coffee
Constellation Coffee. Photo by Gabrielle Renfro

Constellation Coffee sells espresso drinks for about the same price as Commonplace, $3 for a small latte or cappuccino, and the joint also sells some pastries, artisan chocolates and bean roasts from Ceremony. Constellation Coffee also rents out their back room for meetings and other small events, and it has hosted a “Creatives Drink” event in the past to bring together young designers and entrepreneurs.

4121 Main

4121 Main
4121 Main. Photo by Gabrielle Renfro

With a title the same as their address comes a small, hole-in-the-wall cafe and gallery right across the street on the next block from Constellation. 4121 Main is so discreet that you almost miss it while walking by. That’s because it’s smaller than a dedicated coffee shop, there are no standalone tables, only small, long tables along the walls.

Every other corner of the café is filled with fresh flowers and plants, artisan chocolates, local artist prints and unique soaps. The walls are covered in a pink flower wallpaper, and framed brush art and quotes line the walls. It is one of Sparks’s current favorite places to do her work, and she describes it is as something akin to “your grandmother’s sun room,” and she feels comfortable sitting quietly there and painting as long as she doesn’t make too much of a mess. It’s not a place to sit and have big group coffee dates with your friends; however, if you’re looking for somewhere to work quietly or read by yourself, or just to catch up with an old friend, 4121 Main is a peaceful place to sit and smell the flowers and listen to early 2000s pop and grunge tunes.

Coffees, teas and pastries are between the usual $2-$5, but if you’re looking to branch out and buy some of the goods on the shelves, those are a little pricey. Some of the chocolates are above $10, soaps are $18 and a shelf of art prints were going for $65. 4121 Main also does flower arrangements for many other restaurants, hotels and cafés. They can also do flower arrangements for weddings.

Coffee Tree Roasters

A little more accessible for students who live on campus at the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University is a café in Shadyside at 5524 Walnut Street. Nestled in the hip street housing upscale clothing retail and high-end stores like Sephora and Apple, Coffee Tree Roasters is a large and spacious café to sit and chat or do work.

It’s bright and in the warmer months, there is a garage front door that can be raised so that the interior of the place turns into more of an outdoor patio feel. There are more tables than most of the previously mentioned cafes, and it has a brighter inside than the Starbucks down the street.

Edwin Cho, 23, a recent graduate from Carnegie Mellon and resident of the nearby Bloomfield neighborhood said he often stops at this Coffee Tree location when he takes a leisurely bike ride or when he is shopping in the area or waiting on Apple Store repairs.

Coffee Tree Roasters has many locations all over Pittsburgh. Closer to the universities, there is a subsection of Coffee Tree inside the Bagel Factory on S. Craig Street as well as locations in Squirrel Hill, Bakery Square, Mt. Lebanon, Pleasant Hill and Fox Chapel.

Espresso a Mano

Expresso a Mano
Expresso a Mano. Photo by Gabrielle Renfro

Espresso a Mano is one of Lawrenceville’s most popular hangout spots and cafés, located at 3623 on Butler Street. It has a grunge feel and has a big garage door that is opened on warm days with outdoor seating. Tabletops are wooden and the inside walls are red brick, with art for sale framed on the walls. The tables are a bit compact, but if you’re lucky enough, you can grab a table and hunker down to do some work.

Sofia describes Espresso a Mano as a “destination coffee shop, fairly grunge for Lawrenceville, so it retains great character without feeling gentrified.”

It’s definitely a place to sit instead of a grab-your-coffee-and-go kind of café.

Rock N’ Joe

Rock N Joe
Rock N’ Joe. Photo by Gabrielle Renfro.

Rock N’ Joe just opened up on the 500 block of Penn Avenue in Downtown, Pittsburgh. It’s especially accessible to students at the Art Institute or Point Park University. Among tons of other chain coffee shops like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Crazy Mocha, Rock N’ Joe stands out as one of the only chill-vibe coffee shops among skyscrapers. Different from many other boutique shops however, Rock N’ Joe maintains a pop-punk music feel rather than pop music or chill-out brainfood type songs.

Chase Barron, a multimedia student at Point Park University, found out about the coffee shop from a flyer he found at school. It intrigued him as he is the lead singer of a band entitled “Chase and the Barrons,” and the pop-punk rock atmosphere really interests him.

The café also plans to have open mic nights.

“I’m hoping I can come here both to get my coffee and play here with my band sometimes. That would a super cool combination,” Chase explains.

Along with coffee around the normal $2-$5 range, Rock N’ Joe also sells pastries, salads  and house sandwiches between $5 and $8. It’s a great place to listen to rock music, get your caffeine fix and even sit and have lunch, right in the heart of downtown.

Gabrielle Renfro is a senior Multimedia student at Point Park University. After graduation, she hopes to move back out to her hometown of Seattle and work as a lifestyle magazine editor.