If you go to a coffee shop, ask for the barista’s favorite pastry to go along with your caffeine, and he hands you something with peanut butter and chocolate, you know you’re in business.
This chocolate brownie with a thick and indulgent peanut butter saucy spread was topped with nuts and must have been invented for kings. It was the perfect complement to a cold brew with pumpkin spice (it’s fall, I’m allowed).
1369 Coffee House in Cambridge is the home of this divine meal, located on Massachusetts Avenue. Another location, the original, is on Cambridge Street. The shop is pleasing to the eye without trying too hard—the outside is demure, with tables on the sidewalk, but the stream of people walking through the door draws you in. The coffee house opens at 7 a.m. and doesn’t close until 9 p.m. On Friday and Saturday it stays open until 10.
Inside, two-person wooden tables fill the dining room. Even at lunch hour, with a line forming, there were places to sit in the back. Work from local artists lines the wall, with floral painting on the left and more abstract prints on the right. The prices? Not outrageous. A beautiful oil painting comes in at $50.
The chalk menu hanging above the counter is simple—nothing seems out of the ordinary for a coffee shop. There are a few standouts (seasonal apple cider), and you can check out the origin of the different coffee beans on the 1369 website, but everything feels familiar. I prefer this, as going to a coffee shop and being utterly confused about what everything on the menu means is a pet peeve. (Can I please just get a chai?)
The pumpkin spice cold brew was pretty light on the flavor, not overwhelming but perhaps could have used a bit more pumpkin. 1369 has been brewing coffee cold since 2001, keeping it “smooth, chocolatey, and Cambridge’s best iced coffee,” according to the menu. Though cold brew has been around for some time, it wasn’t on the menu at Starbucks until 2015, when a craze for it began. I guess you could say that 1369 was a little bit ahead of the curve.
They started serving it even before the time of current owner Josh Gerber, who has worked with 1369 for 15 years and owned it for 10. He said that the owners didn’t like how other people were making iced coffee at the time—pouring hot coffee over ice wasn’t satisfying anyone. They started experimenting and training their employees on how to better use the espresso machine. Now, they serve on-the-go cold brew in growlers.
The coffee beans are shipped in weekly, and 1369 says that it will not brew anything 10 days after its roast date. There are house blends, and there are beans from Africa, Central America, and Indonesia. 1369 is a single-origin coffee house, meaning that when it likes a coffee, it doesn’t mess around with it. If the beans from a particular farm are good, they aren’t mixed with anything else, Gerber said. The coffee house also has specialty drinks—matcha, London Fog (steamed milk, earl grey tea, and vanilla), and hot chocolate, just to name a few.
The food menu is intriguing. Bedsides the array of pastries I couldn’t choose between is a lunch menu that includes, quiche (ask for the special), hummus, and sandwiches.
Looking into the room, something is different from other coffee shops. It’s not the mismatched chairs, or the trendy 1369 Coffee House wall decal in the back. It’s the absence of laptops. I, writing this, am the gross exception in a room of people reading books and magazines and just talking to each other. It could be that only 45 minutes of free WiFi is offered per day at 1369, or it could be that I came on an off day.
Whatever the reason, it makes the room feel more relaxed. The music playing switches between instrumental and soft voices, sustaining the mood and making headphones pointless. (Think somewhere between The 1975 and the Unknown Mortal Orchestra).
1369 wants to be the third place—the location people go to get away from work and home. It says on its website that books and theses have been written at its tables, and friendships and marriages have formed there.
“We’ve had a number of staff who have gotten married, we’ve had a number of customers,” he said. “I mean, it just happens to me all the time where I meet someone and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I had my first date with my husband [there], who’s now the father of my three children.’”
And just take a look on Google Scholar—if you search “1369 Coffee House,” it is anmed as an example in academic articles about the social transformation of coffee shops, the need for queer spaces, and other inclusive community pieces come up. Gerber said that’s his priority and his favorite part of his job. At 1369, anyone can sit down for a cup of coffee. He said the shop attracts all kinds of people—construction workers, students, council people.
“The coffee houses in both squares have really become sort of neighborhood centers in a lot of ways,” Gerber said. “And what I love most about my job and the coffee house and the work that we do is those interactions.”
Unlike other coffee shops that hustle and bustle to the point where you just need to get your cup and go, 1369 makes you want to sit for hours and never leave your seat. It’s relaxing. There is enough to look at when you need a break from what you’re doing, but it isn’t impossible to get anything done.
“It's sort of this melting pot of Cambridge, in a way that's very different from Harvard Square, or from really any other place in Boston that I can think of it.”
If you do need more of a distraction, though, a cabinet in the back has the word “GAMES” written out vertically on the side, each letter designed to look like a Scrabble chip. Inside, you can find puzzles, chess, and odd old board games. On a higher shelf is a piece of tape that says, “Take a book, leave a book.” In the bathroom is a framed collage of 1369 business cards that were colored in as part of a 1994 coloring competition.
The longevity of the shop has made it a neighborhood institution, Gerber said.
“I think that’s something that’s very true about Central Square as well, right?” he said. “It’s sort of this melting pot of Cambridge, in a way that’s very different from Harvard Square, or from really any other place in Boston that I can think of it.”
“It get’s this sort of mixture of sort of academics and tech—all of that—and then also it’s, Central Square is a little rough around the edges. There’s something really nice that goes alongside that.”