A Penny University in Akron
Maybe it's the serene Tudor-style building, with its sunny patio, rambling rose bushes, and fragrant herb garden. Or maybe it's the games stacked up by the massive front door -- Sorry and a well-used Ouija board among them. Then again, it could be the dark library, with its oak shelves groaning beneath the weight of hundreds of books. But whatever the source, there is an unmistakable sense of the erudite emanating from spacious Café Momus, John and Kay Balas's Akron coffeehouse. It's no surprise, therefore, to find that the couple, along with their sons and partners, Andy and Ben, refer to their establishment as a Penny University, after the 17th-century English coffeehouses where stimulating debates and thoughtful conversations netted patrons an education for the price of a cup of coffee.
Not that the atmosphere here is pedantic. The main room is a soaring, light-and-plant-filled space, decked out with mismatched tables and chairs, enormous black Victorian-style street lamps, two cavernous booths just right for study sessions or séances, and a beautiful aluminum sun sculpture by Akron artist Don Drumm. (Drumm's well-stocked studio and gallery is right around the corner, by the way, and makes an artful destination for a latte-afternoon stroll.) A pianist often makes beautiful music in a sun-drenched alcove during Friday lunchtime; when live music isn't on the schedule, the house blend of recorded jazz, blues, and swing takes the floor.
An upstairs loft looks like a comfortable living room, with a worn leather chair, a jukebox, and a heavy Victorian oak sofa, and provides a private space for smokers. The loft's back wall also displays a collection of prized memorabilia from a 1997 Drew Carey Show shoot at the Jake -- a framed photo of Carey and co-star Kathy Kinney, a large Winfred-Louder sign, and the autographed "TV extra" pass that got fan John Balas into the action.
As for the comestibles, they go well beyond the requisite coffee, tea, and bottled juice drinks. Daily specials, posted by the door, include soups, quiche, and panini; regular menu offerings are mostly deli sandwiches and assorted salads. Unfortunately, we didn't show up for lunch until 1 p.m., and some of the daily selections were sold out by that time. Still, we were lucky enough to score a very good portobello mushroom and mozzarella panini, served with a pile of potato chips and a pickle, and a big bowl of tasty chicken noodle soup with thick egg noodles.
A fruit salad, attractively arranged atop a bed of greens on a delicate crescent-shaped plate, was a generous portion of watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, and red and green grapes topped with slivered almonds. All the components were fresh and sweet, although we could have done without the many seeds and pieces of stem that had come along for the ride. A platter of freshly made chicken salad, with two big scoops of shredded meat mixed with specks of carrot, basil, and rosemary, had a fine and refreshingly mellow flavor, and was served with a handful of raw baby carrots, celery sticks, and an assortment of moist mini-muffins.
We lingered over stacks of magazines and newspapers before choosing a variety of cookies, fruit breads, a juicy black-cherry-and-apple cobbler, and slabs of not overly fresh flourless chocolate torte and Bailey's Irish Cream Cheesecake to go with big mugs of well-rounded Penny University Blend coffee and a tall, iced Chilly Vanilly (a satiny, vanilla-scented brew).
In the end, Café Momus is the thinking man's café of choice.
Show Time in Ohio City
While the simple food may not win an Academy Award quite yet, Talkies owner Christine Keller has put together a coolly eclectic coffeehouse filled with lots of tasty cinematic touches. Not the least of these is the central screening room: a tall, darkly theatrical space with a large screen for watching public-domain movies and videos from the comfort of cushy upholstered chairs. (Keller doesn't keep a regular screening schedule, but generally has something on the screen three or four nights each week.) Other Hollywood touches include vintage posters, candid star photos (check out the incredibly appealing shots of James Dean and a young Marlon Brando in the restroom, ladies), and sculptural wall collages made from film reels and canisters.
A second tall room, the book-free "library," is sponge-painted a juicy shade of crimson and offers an always-interesting perspective on bustling little Market Avenue. Several small wooden tables, comfortable armchairs, brass floor lamps, and a fireplace make the room a perfect spot for meetings or other small gatherings, although the library's real focal point is the collection of striking half-domed lamps that are suspended from its ceiling. The plastic-and-paper creations of interior designer Chris Schramm, these deco-influenced lamps have true star power. Likewise, a magnificent three-dimensional mural by artist James Longs, depicting the subtly shaded faces of long-ago Hollywood superstars, takes center stage in Talkies' front room, where customers also will find the small deli counter, a wooden coffee bar, and a handful of tables.
Above Longs's mural are Keller's menu boards, with a variety of coffee drinks and smoothies, and a small selection of salads and sandwiches; Keller says she may expand the choices come fall. The current edibles, mostly from the West Side Market, have names like "True Grit": a tasty mayonnaise-dressed salad of pasta shells, black olives, kidney beans, corn, shredded cheddar cheese, onion, and green and red pepper on a bed of tortilla chips, whose mildly peppery bite earned it a PG-13 rating from Keller; and "Babe's Pasta": a G-rated portion of pasta shells, tomato, and bits of spinach on a lettuce leaf, in a creamy, bacon-flavored dressing, sided by an unfortunately over-microwaved croissant.
Chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches on croissants were standard fare, although for an extra dollar diners can perk them up by substituting fruit or red-skinned potato salad for the standard tortilla chip accompaniment. Unfortunately, the café was out of the potato salad when we made a lunchtime visit, but a tall glass goblet of fresh honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, and orange was sweet, juicy, and well worth the extra charge.
Talkies' ample fruit smoothies are a treat, with plenty of creamy goodness. We especially liked the Drew Barrymore (raspberries and nonfat yogurt) and the Last Mango in Paris: a blend of mango, orange, and pineapple juices. We were less impressed with our iced, whipped cream-topped café mochas, which reminded us of nothing so much as watery chocolate milk, although a cup of the hot house blend, from Berardi's Fresh Roast coffee beans, was robust and well-rounded. We finished up with cranberry-studded muffins, a slice of dense layered carrot cake, a slightly soggy apple-and-walnut turnover, a thick cheese Danish topped with frosting and sliced almonds, and crisp Linzer cookies filled with raspberry jam.
Among our cast and crew, Talkies gets two thumbs up.