Big Chair Coffee n’ Grill2122 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE Washington, DC 20020 www.bigchaircoffeeshop.com
Most American cities are racially and economically segregated, and in that regard Washington DC is a typical American city. However, it is rarer for a single unmistakable boundary to separate the wealthy from the poor; DC’s Anacostia River is such a boundary. To the northwest of this river can be found everything that DC has to offer: the mall and the federal government facilities that surround it, the wealthy neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, the diversity and hipness of Shaw and Columbia Heights, the diverse middle class neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park, and much more. There is crime and strife everywhere in DC, but overall unemployment is low and there is a general feeling that things are improving (whatever that means). However, the area southeast of the Anacostia is not experiencing the urban resurgence that has changed much of DC over the past 15 years; unemployment in most of this area is near 30% and profound poverty is widespread.
Likely as a result of this, these areas of DC lack basic neighborhood amenities, like decent grocery stores and sit-down restaurants, that most people take for granted. It is perplexing to see many neighborhoods northwest of the river (in fact neighborhoods that have far higher crime rates) prosper while nearly identical ones southeast rarely receive any new investment; there seems to be an irrational stigma attached to areas across the river. When I visited, I went with a friend who’s family had lived in DC for several generations; he was the first in his family to step foot anywhere in DC south of the Anacostia river. I suppose, that is how bizarre segregation can be.
I crossed the river for a cappuccino. To be more precise, I went to the first and only place southeast of the river to serve espresso, Big Chair Coffee n’ Grill. Big Chair, in the Anacostia neighborhood, is named after a big chair across the
street from it that was erected ages ago by a local furniture company (back when the area was more prosperous). Now, the chair is a local landmark, and I have to say it is certainly a big chair.
You should understand that I had some reason to hope for a good experience at Big Chair, and it is related to Murky Coffee (the now defunct coffee house that was run by Nick Cho), which I talked a little bit about in my review of North Side Social. When Murky closed its doors in DC, its property was auctioned off; this property included an espresso machine. The owners of Big Chair bought this machine before opening up shop in Anacostia, and it now makes all of their espresso. Even though they have an excellent espresso machine, Big Chair certainly isn’t focused on espresso. They have a full grill menu and a liquor license, so as I only had a cappuccino I can’t judge these offerings.
Big Chair is located inside a converted row-house; the main coffee bar and kitchen is on the first floor with more seating on the second floor. I went on a weekday early afternoon and
there were a few people on the first floor, mostly reading or waiting for their food. I ordered a small cappuccino and went upstairs to do some reading. Unfortunately, my drink came in a paper cup; perhaps they thought I was taking it to go, but I didn’t give any indication of this, so they should have assumed that I was staying.
When I got the drink, the froth was quite poor, with a texture similar to
dish-soap (with very little microfoam) and below that mostly warm milk; the espresso was not much better. The taste was quite flat, with the common dull bitterness that occurs from poor extraction or old beans. If the espresso hadn’t been drowned in too much milk it likely would have been slightly offensive, but as it was it was just a bit boring. So, although their machine is legit, their cappuccino left quite a bit to be desired. My ratings follow (all out of 5):
Mean Score: 2.5
SD = .5
I was a bit disappointed with Big Chair’s cappuccino. As I’ve heard good things about the other aspects of Big Chair, I suspect it is similar to a lot of neighborhood coffee shops that offer good drip coffee and food offerings but where the espresso is mediocre. There are many coffee shops in DC like this, and it makes finding good espresso a bit of a challenge. However, most people don’t really care how the espresso is, so these sorts of places are often still great assets to their communities. So, to conclude, Anacostia certainly isn’t scary (as many local fear-mongers will lead you to believe), but it still doesn’t have good espresso. Maybe I’ll be back in a few months to see if things have improved; I’ll update if so.