The buzz on P Street

Walk half a block from a Starbucks, and you’ll walk into another Starbucks. Most of the time, the old joke rings true: Starbucks is everywhere. But every now and then there are exceptions. One local exception is at 2150 P St., where Soho Tea and Coffee has been providing coffee in an alternative late-night social scene for nearly 10 years, literally half a block from a Starbucks.

Walk right in and the differences between Soho and its famous neighbor are obvious. For starters, there are ashtrays on all the tables and patrons make free use of them. Unlike the more multinational Starbucks, which has a business-casual feel to it, the atmosphere at Soho is similar to that of a dance club. The ceiling is painted black and the music in the background is pop music, not jazz. The tables and chairs are mixed and matched in different styles, and paintings and photographs of local artists cover the walls. The counter is spattered with all colors of the rainbow against a black background, as if the decorators got carried away with a can of spray paint. And instead of a picture of the latest latt? flavor, the bathroom walls are covered with magazine clippings.

In another place and time, none of this would be unusual. This is a caf?, in both form and atmosphere, a place where people hang out, smoke, make friends and, oh yeah, drink coffee. Some patrons even come here to study late into the night, with a supply of caffeine close at hand.

Chris Shattuke said he has been going to Soho since high school because, unlike venues like Starbucks, Soho provides an informal place to relax.

“You usually have to make a date to meet with people; here you run into people,” he said.

Will Williford, a Starbucks employee, said that he, too, has been a regular at Soho since high school. Although he works at Starbucks, he spends his free time at the independent cafe. But why spend his paycheck at a competing coffee bar?

“Starbucks doesn’t let you smoke and hang out all night,” Williford explained, summing up the difference between the two restaurants in between puffs on his cigarette. “I don’t drink, so this is my alternative to a bar.”

Williford wasn’t kidding about being able to hang and smoke all night. In a city that doesn’t seem to acknowledge that people do get hungry after midnight, Soho has the late-night coffee market all but cornered, staying open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. weekdays and closing at an astonishing 5 a.m. on weekends.

Another notable difference between the two coffee emporiums is Soho’s broader menu, which includes both hot and iced coffee, as well the usual assortment of pastries. But Soho also carries sandwiches, pasta, salads and, curiously enough, omelets. A sandwich at Soho typically runs $5.68, and a large coffee costs between $2 and $3.50, depending on what you put in it.

Soho co-owner Helene Bloom said she and her partner, Fran Levine, wanted to bring back the old-fashioned coffee houses when they opened their doors in 1995.

“The place attracts students because it allows smoking and it is not a sterile place,” Bloom said. “Starbucks is very sterile.”

She said that her coffee shop provides a Bohemian and eclectic environment that enlivens the atmosphere, as evidenced by the improvisational comedy on Monday nights and other live entertainment shows throughout the week.

Michael Wittie has considered Soho an integral part of both his social and academic life since he started going there a year ago. Wittie said that interesting personalities socialize at the coffee house and that the corner of P and 22 streets, also home to a police department’s headquarters, is an entertaining locale.

As for studying at the coffee place, Wittie said that it takes some discipline not to socialize instead.

“Once you meet one person here, you are never going to be able to study here,” he said.

For Bryan Bolden, the caf?’s ever-changing atmosphere and Internet availability provides just the right balance he needs to finish his schoolwork.

“I get work done here because there’s so much distraction that I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “In a library, there isn’t distraction and I don’t get work done. There’s enough distraction here to keep me awake.”

Bloom said that although the wireless Internet service is expensive, it is the owners’ way to “give back to the customers.

“We are very community-oriented,” she said. “What makes Soho special is the customers, not the owners.”

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