Some people prowl the earth in search of the world’s greatest Don Giovanni; others look for the finest shoemaker, the best bookstore, the ideal glass of Pinot Noir. I put my energy where it counts: the search for the perfect wifi café. While I’ve yet to find my Holy 802.11b-enabled Grail, i have pinpointed what makes for the perfect, laptop-friendly coffee spot. (And in a separate post, I’ve identified the best Vancouver wifi cafés and restaurants.)
Here’s my list of criteria:
- Internet connection: The best case scenario is a café where the wifi always works, and requires no login or password. A password that doesn’t change is ok (though it seems a bit pointless); having to enter a new password each time is a major pain. Time limits on usage (like Starbucks’ two-hour-per day limit), charges for access, or regular outages are all deal-breakers.
- Outlets: Next to reliable Internet access, the ready availability of power outlets is the most important feature of any Internet cafe. There should be outlets in at least three different areas of the room (so the geeks can spread out), and a ratio of 1 outlet to every 5 or 6 seats’ worth of seating capacity seems to be sufficient.
- Music: The best cafés have great, engaging playlists that are played at a non-intrusive volume, with music good enough that you just might hold your iPhone up from time to time so you can use Shazam to find out just what that great tune is. Unfortunately, the definition of “great and engaging” music varies from person-to-person, as does the definition of non-intrusive volume: my most-best-awesome is a cafe playing hip-hop music loud enough that it almost inhibits conversation; this is Rob’s idea of hell. To get around these taste variations, a lot of cafe music consists of top-100 tunes from the past 20-40 years; I can live with well-trod music that falls somewhere on the Sarah McLachlan – Van Morrison – Smashmouth spectrum. What is unacceptable: “easy listening”, muzak, new age acoustic, or light jazz.
- Bathrooms: The key factor in a café bathroom is not just cleanliness but accessibility. Too many cafes rely on either a single unisex loo, or (worse still) the dreaded, grimy washroom key. A decent bathroom arrangement features at least two toilets (even if they are separated notionally into his and hers, you can always cross the gender line if you’re desperate), regular cleaning, and no key.
- Coffee: I’m a bit of a coffee snob — I only drink it black, prefer Americanos, and stick to fair trade wherever possible. But when it comes to finding a wifi café, the quality of coffee isn’t a big factor: I’ve yet to find a coffee shop with a commercial-grade espresso machine that didn’t meet my minimum standards of acceptability.
- Service: Café service is a lot like café coffee: while I appreciate a friendly barista, I’ve rarely encountered cafe service that’s too surly to warrant repeat business. Nice, non-intrusive staff are a real plus: my favorite barista at the cafe where I wrote my dissertation become one of our regular babysitters, and invited us to her wedding. But I don’t expect wedding invitations with every cup of coffee, just pleasant treatment and a degree of friendliness from people who I see regularly. Bonus points go to those who remember my usual order (medium Americano in a for-here cup) or who introduce themselves by name after seeing me regularly for a few weeks.
- Seating options: I like cafes that have a mix of lounge seating (armchairs or sofas) and tables, with outlets available in both types of seating area. I usually prefer lounge seating but there are days when my neck and shoulders insist on a table.
- Food: The availability of lunch or snack food is a nice-to-have but not a must-have — as long as there are other lunch options nearby. I don’t eat a lot of bread or sweets so I like cafes that have fruit, salads, yogurt and other non-bread options; places that offer an actual menu win bonus points.
- Parking: If you’re carrying extra tech that you want to leave in your car, it’s nice to have inexpensive metered parking that puts your car in viewing distance of your café perch.
- Ambiance: This is the catch-all category, covering not just the general vibe (hipster or businesslike?) but also the decor (modern uniformity or hippy eclectic?) and even the temperature (breezy, warm or AC-ed to subzero?) Ambiance is the hardest wififactor to quantify, but you know it when you’ve found it.
What do you prioritize in your search for the perfect geek-and-sip café? Have you managed to uncover your ideal? Share your experience here, or let us know on Twitter (@SocialSignal).