Coffee isn’t a choice. It has been a way of life. Ever since that fateful day my sophomore year of college when I was desperate enough for a little extra weeks during finals week, I ditched soda and sugary carbonation for the inimitable flavor and charge of that little roasted brown bean.
And whenever I travel to a new town, there three things that I have to fine in order to turn that city into a surrogate home: the local bookstore, an old bar, and an artisanal coffee shop. This blog will be a written testimony of the best coffee dens in the Holy City herself, Charleston.
Here are the basic ground rule. The establishment will be judged on the following four categories: coffee (flavor), food (variety and taste), atmosphere (presentation, seating space, music), and extra goodies (wi-fi, air conditioning, memorabilia, etc.). Also, I will exempt any national chains so as to absorb the distinct caffeinated taste of Charleston. So, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Krispy Kreme are disqualified. Without further ado, next up is…
City Lights Coffee Where: 141 North Market St., Charleston, SC 29401
Coffee: Caramel mocha coffee milkshake A concoction that I’ve never come across, the coffee milkshake (which they have white chocolate and dark chocolate as well) is dripping with caffeinated decadence and sweet tooth adrenaline. In the hot Charleston daytime, the milkshake was the perfect remedy for a dry mouth. The coffee was spot on with a soothing coffee kick buried by caramel and mocha goodness. Even though the bean itself was covered by the powerful flavors of caramel and mocha, the coffee bean was distinct and had gentle touch. Which is fitting given the cozy confines of City Lights (but more on that later). City Lights’ beverages can best be described as coffee comfort food. From the aforementioned milkshake to the assorted frappes, lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, and macchiatos, City Lights’ palette is like the Charlie Chaplin film that shares its namesake: light, frothy, romantic and ultimately feel good.
Food: Coconut Cake Sweet and with the right balance of cake and coconut flakes, the coconut cake was a soft pillow to accompany the cool blanket provided by the caramel mocha coffee milkshake. The cake wasn’t too moist or too dry and was of almost Goldilocks proportions: just right. Also available on the menu were forests of croissants, scones, muffins and bagels ripe for the plucking. Several sandwiches and panini are available as well such as the roast beef tuscan and roasted chicken on focaccia. City Lights Coffee’s food is equivalent to their coffee in that it is full of warmth and personality often lacking in the get-in-get-out coffee houses around town.
Atmosphere: With the right levels of space, wood color and tone, lighting, and kitsch, the City Lights Coffee’s interior design appears like the kitchen of the cool grandma one always wanted. Custom multicolored mugs and dishes line the upper line of the back counter, hanging just above where the coffee machinery and espresso maker reside. The main countertop hugs the majority of the room with no more than five or six tables filling up the remainder of the shop. The tight interior is a plus considering the loving personalities of the owner and employees, the colorful glassware, and the walls bedecked with custom signage enables City Lights Coffee to become Charleston’s friendly neighborhood coffee house. Where everyone can know, and probably will soon learn, your name.
Extra Goodies: Besides the standard wifi, the real extra goodies are the coffee milkshakes mentioned before. Sweet, delectable and a near perfect antidote to the onslaught of the Holy City humidity, the coffee milkshake is a singular creation of City Lights that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in town.
Final Ranking: Warm and inviting like the coffee they sell, City Lights Coffee is of a different breed from those around town. Where others feel like shops and coffee business, City Lights feels like a home. Where else does the barista behind the counter after serving people goes in the corner and practices riffs on the ukulele? No where. If one’s looking for a “usual place” for coffee, one would be hard pressed to find a better place to set up cafe roots.