Suburban café. It’s an oxymoron, right?
Many city folk would say yes, and even myself, living in the suburbs, would agree very few, if any, non-urban cafes make you feel like you’re somewhere in Europe, sipping a carefully-brewed concoction in a glass cup, and watching the people go by.
Of course, that scene is not the American ideal. On their way to work, or taking a breather, what consumers here want are good food and beverages, consistent customer service and the charms inside to make up for a landscape often filled with an unattractive strip mall and parking lot.
Two such places in Fairfax County, Panera Bread and Café in the Beacon Mall Shopping Center, and Ground Coffee Shop on Telegraph Road, meet those standards and more. (The Beacon Mall gets its name from the small airport there in the 1950's. This spot is one of the highest in the county.)
Panera arrived on the scene in 2004, serving as part of a revival of this portion of Route 1, about two miles south of the Beltway. Fairfax County and VDOT are slowly re-developing this neglected corridor that stretches for about eight miles between the Beltway and Fort Belvoir.
Some blighted spots remain while other sections have seen improvements. Some residents in Groveton and nearby communities booed the arrival of WalMart, which came without any traffic improvements at the traffic-infested intersection with Kings Hiway. On the other hand, many cheered the facelift for the Beacon Mall and the arrival of Lowe’s and eating establishments such as TGIF, Chili’s, Famous Dave’s BBQ and Chipotle.
While those places feed the masses, they do so only at lunch and dinner. These bedroom neighborhoods needed a morning place, something better than hanging out at the Roy Rogers down at the bottom of Beacon Hill Road.
6670 Richmond Highway
Panera has filled that deficit and more. They consistently deliver textbook customer service. Manager Brenda Colin trains and leads a staff of regulars like Jeno, Maria, Hannah, and Melvin. The continuity here, something the service industry sometimes lacks, is a huge plus. The staff is like family, greeting me each morning with a smile and my paper cup. Several times a month, they let me know I’ve earned a free drink or a dollar off a pastry. My favorite baked item is their pecan braid, yum, yum. I’m also a big fan of their “You Pick Two,” choosing the soup (broccoli and cheese) and the classic salad. Healthy, affordable, and served up in a jiffy.
Some cafes attract a customer base that tends to be homogenous. At this Panera location, diversity rules. The Groveton and nearby communities have adopted this place as their own. Morning regulars dot the booths and tables, some like Don, a senior citizen reading the Washington Post, some chatting, some pecking away at their computer. Groups and businesses hold meetings, families and children gather, and soloists with their laptops take advantage of the free wifi.
Panera is also highly reliable. Last month when Hurricane Irene sent coffee addicts like myself searching for that second morning jolt, some of the places in Old Town were closed. Panera, however, came through in the clutch. The lines can get long, but when they do, the staff springs into action and works hard to serve everybody as fast as they can.
Grounded Coffee Shop
6919 Telegraph Road
With our power still out at noon the day Irene’s winds knocked down power lines, we headed over to Rose Hill. Our destination was Ground Coffee Shop, a café located in a small strip mall (“The Shops at Telegraph”) where Telegraph and South Kings Highway meet. You probably know this spot more as the place where rush hour and even weekend traffic backs up. (Memo to the County – throw us a bone and widen the road at the light already).
Grounded Coffee turned three this past April. The “Washington Post” article framed and hung on the wall as you enter tells the story of Candy and Wilfrid Briffa, the couple who own and run the place. Candy handles the sales while her husband, a native of France, runs the bakery.
Recently, Candy was quoted in a Rose Hill Patch article by Theresa Caldwell as saying,
“I had a vision to create the space and make it warm and inviting.”
The Briffas have certainly done that. A comfy couch sits in front of a fireplace, and there’s plenty of room in between tables. Each wall is painted a different pastel color and small French Country touches abound. In one corner you can peek inside the bakery and kitchen. Every item you would expect – croissants, quiche, tarts, cupcakes, bagels and muffins, soups, salad and sandwiches – is available here. Their coffee is organic and locally roasted.
Plenty of regulars come here too. Briffa said they get a “a nice mix of everybody.” Last month, Evan Moss, a young local author from the Virginia Hill neighborhood, held a book signing.
So, yes, the pleasure of hanging out at a suburban cafe is often muted by its surroundings. But cafes near the subdivisions have their charms too. It’s like our mothers taught us, what counts is what’s inside.