Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Romantic Year: Midtown Marketplace

For one brilliant year, nearly my entire job was to sit in coffee shops and write. Every day, I'd wake up, pack my little computer into my gigantic bag, and trek down from my house to find a place to settle for the day. Over and over, that place wound up being Midtown Marketplace.

Now, I'm not a regular anywhere. I don't know until I wake up what food or drink will sound good during the day, and even when I'm standing at a familiar coffee counter, there's not much chance you'll know what I'll order. Still, three or four times a week for nearly a year, I showed up at Midtown -- sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon -- to get a large mug of black coffee, no room, and a pastry.

Why this place? Why that coffee? Only the heart and the tastebuds can really answer, but my fingers will give it a try. They brew a rich, hot, dark coffee has just the faintest taste of dark, bitter chocolate. Their pastries are locally made, sometimes in house, I believe, and the buttery croissant shell around the hard bar of chocolate in the pain au chocolat was enough, most days, to sustain me through a morning of writing.

If I was hungrier, I sometimes turned to the cousin of the coffee counter, the Bistro. They have omelettes and waffles, eggs Benedict or Pierre, fruit and granola, and a few other standbys. The prices are a little high for a no-service restaurant, but that's because the ingredients aren't your typical coffee-shop fare. The Chevre omelette I liked best came with roasted red peppers, spinach, that cheese, toast, potatoes, and an $8 price tag. A burger and fries at lunch will run you $9, but the meat and lettuce are local. When it's done, you'll hear your name bellowed across the whole hall in a voice that's trained by years of service to carry.

It's a big place, after all. Midtown Marketplace is one long, open building. The front has street-facing windows onto Willamette and a bundle of benches lining the walls with seating for thirty more at tables in between. The coffee shop squats in the middle of the building, and traffic can flow around it on either side back to three separate seating areas: a U-shaped area of padded benches and tables around an indoor fireplace; a more open area across from it with more tables (and a valuable outlet for laptops); and the back bar, which has high tables and the highest concentration of outlets in the place.

Midtown used to be the home of three separate entities: the Coffeeshop, the Bistro, and, in the back, the Bel Ami lounge, which opened at night and served drinks and dinner. Sometime in the last few years, Bel Ami died, and there was a brief, glorious interlude where one could arrive for coffee at 2 and transition to martinis at 4 (er, of course, I mean five, because, ha ha, who'd drink alone before 5?), all from the same fireside chair. Think about it! Pastries, free wifi, and a damn good Manhattan, all in the same place? Throw in a bowl of fries -- and oh, they did -- for $4, and you can see why I nearly settled down.

Those days are somewhat over. Coffee and bistro both close at 3, and staying in your seat beyond that feels much like trespassing. There's a new wine bar/store that's opened in the long northern side of the building. It sells wine by the bottle and has tastings, though not on a particularly set schedule and not in conjunction with the rest of the building's services.

Our affair was brief, but sweet. We've both moved on, though not, in my case, terribly willingly. Yet I remember Midtown fondly, and I hope someday soon -- perhaps this Saturday -- we'll meet again.

Hours: Coffee and Bistro: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; The Winehouse: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Fridays: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: 1591 Willamette Street

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