Saturday, March 10, 2012

Render Coffee Bar - Not Your Typical Café

by Shannon O'Neill

For some reason in Boston, it seems that all cafés within walking distance of the New England Conservatory or Berklee have become hipster havens. Pavement on Boylston and Espresso Royale Café (particularly the Huntingon Ave. location) both serve great coffee, espresso, and large varieties of tea. Both know how to brew, yet the plethora of Doc Martens, new but vintage-inspired flannel shirts, and guitar cases make these shops unwelcoming to a more mainstream audience. While their walls expose artwork from local artists, something about them is cold and both seem to long for the days of Cobain. While Pavement is less than three years old, everything about it – from the atmosphere, to the baristas, to the guests – makes an unauthentic attempt to be a product of the 90s. There is nothing wrong with that nostalgia, but it feels artificial coming from a place that opened its doors fifteen years after the death of grunge.

Render Coffee Bar on Columbus Ave. in the South End may be the exception to the rule that every café in Boston needs to share that familiar, nostalgic atmosphere. While it is in the same proximity of the aforementioned shops, perhaps its neighborhood is what has kept the hipster college crowd out. Or perhaps it’s its atmosphere – having opened in October of 2011 in an old brownstone, its décor makes a nod to the building’s history without attempting to recreate an era that no longer exists. The walls are a denim color and the trim around windows and doors is white; it is well-lit and bears lightly colored oak floors. The tables and chairs are uniform throughout, and there is a sunroom that leads to a patio. The brightness of the space is the most noticeable difference between Render and other cafés in the area.

Families –families with small children – frequent Render. Families and professionals. And senior citizens. Again, maybe this can be ode to the fact that it resides in the South End (which is filled with said demographics), but I think the real cause is the open, friendly atmosphere that cannot be found at other independently owned cafés in Boston. The baristas are welcoming and smiling and not the least bit condescending if you don’t know what to order (or how to order).

Knowing what to order at Render is tricky and intimidating at first. You cannot simply order a cup of coffee because they only offer hand-poured coffee, as opposed to coffee that has been pre-brewed and sitting in a vat for hours. That being said, you have to read the day’s offering (always from Counter Culture Coffee) and decide what you want, without being explicitly told which is the light, medium, or dark roast of the day. Then, you have to wait…for about five minutes while the barista carefully pours your selection through a filter, little by little.

To be honest, on my first visit I didn’t know how to order the hand-poured coffee so I opted for a chai latte instead (and it was delicious!). Sometimes you just need a cup of coffee, though, so on my next visit I awkwardly order a hand-poured cup of joe. I know that I sounded uncomfortable ordering, but the baristas did not make me feel like an outsider for not knowing how things worked. I said I wanted a medium roast, and the man behind the counter kindly told me which blend was the medium. We chatted as he poured my Ecuadorian medium-blend (one of four roasts offered that day), and the barista explained that hand-pouring each cup of coffee made it taste more fresh, not bitter or burnt.

The hand-pouring trick may seem like a gimmick, but it was the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted. Just as I was told, my coffee did not taste bitter or burnt, nor did it leave a bad taste in my mouth twenty minutes later. Finding a great cup of coffee is difficult, but finding smooth espresso drinks is even harder. Render’s espresso, though, is just as smooth as their coffee. After years of drinking espresso from Starbucks, I’ve come to believe that bitterness was just part of the drink, until I tried a Cortada shot at Render – a shot topped with a dollop of condensed milk. While I usually drink espresso shots out of necessity rather than pleasure, this was a pleasurable experience and I enjoyed the shot until the last drop. If the shots are good, then the espresso-based drinks are even better. Render’s vanilla latte is a caffeinated force to be reckoned with – and the latte art cannot be matched. The design on top of my vanilla latte was not a heart or a leaf, but a small flower-shaped heart with a stem and two leaves encircled by more foam. The smoothness and the care put into each cup is something that you don’t often see at coffee shops.

The only downfall of Render is the time each cup takes to make. As someone who is habitually late, I would never allow myself enough time in the morning to grab a cup of hand-poured coffee or a latte to-go. However, while I may have to run on Dunkin’s in the morning, Render is a place that I can relax and recharge in the afternoon. I can sit in the sunroom, browse the web with their free Wi-Fi, and enjoy the best coffee in Boston with a homemade quiche and macaroon for desert. In a world filled with Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts that push their customers through the line and out the door, Render is a place where time does not exist; they don’t rush to make your drink, nor do they rush you to leave. Maybe Render is not a hipster haven, but that’s okay with me, as it has become my new happy haven for coffee in Boston.

Visit Render Coffee Bar at 563 Columbus Ave. in the South End – you’ll be more than happy you did.

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