From the moment we settled into a smooshy brown chair at Café Ventana, we thought about the oh-so comfy ones that once lulled us to sleep in the middle of the school day. From then on, the similarities between Café Ventana and a hip student union were everywhere we looked: There's the college sweatshirts, the ubiquitous laptop computers, the music of Nirvana, Kings of Leon, Death Cab for Cutie — reminders all that the gates of Saint Louis University are within mere blocks from this handsome alcove.
When the wind is just right, passersby can actually smell the beignets from the street, and bicyclers can chain their rides to sweet bike-shaped bike racks. Inside, Café Ventana is at once cozy and airy, thanks to the fireplace, as well as the skylight that comprises much of the ceiling. It's not a large place, but even as business remained swift for the duration of our visit, patrons could always find seating along the coffee bar, window sill or, if they're lucky like us, the enveloping hearthside chairs. Many of the people here seem to be alone together: There's the couple in the coordinating North Face fleeces who're almost sitting in each other's laps, but are engrossed in novels. There are silent groups of friends doing homework elbow-to-elbow. There's the pair of bikers in Spandex, cupping their hands around warm coffees in to-go cups as they shrug over the newspaper.
The food and drink menus are on flat-screen televisions, and under the heading "spirited coffees" — a totally nonjudgmental title for drinks before noon, we're happy to note — we find the Spanish Coffee: It's coffee spiked with brandy and rum, rimmed with caramelized sugar and topped with whipped cream (which seemed a bit extraneous, but dissolved into the drink quickly enough). A deep whiff reveals the unmistakable sharpness of the liquors, but it goes down as innocently as hot chocolate. The caramelized sugar that lines the glass lends the drink an aftertaste not unlike crème brulee; if you take awhile to finish it, the sugar granules crystallize like geodes. We could drink this stuff by the thermos.
The Spanish Coffee now drained, we put down the Sunday paper and consider the environment. When we think no one's looking, we throw our legs over the side of the big brown chair, rest our head against its back, and — briefly, wistfully — close our eyes.
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