The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Don't click on www.caffe

Contrary to what you might expect from a cyber cafe, there's no bleeping space-age music or silver and chrome furniture at www.caffe in the Rio Hill Shopping Center. Nor are there apron-wearing robot waiters and self-sustaining coffee makers that pour beans into grinders themselves, Jetsons-style.

Instead, Charlottesville's first and only Internet cafe is similar to any other coffee shop, with the familiarly musty aroma of coffee lingering in the air and a friendly server waiting patiently behind the counter to grind some beans for you.

Under the sterile glare of florescent lights in a small open room, however, www.caffe looks more like a retail store than a coffee shop. In fact, it was originally part of the New Balance Shoe Store next door. But when owner Jim Norwood found he had too much space after he bought the store in June, he turned some of the store into a coffee shop and connected the two for the ultimate shoe-shopping/coffee-drinking experience, Manager Steve Graziano said.

"Mr. Norwood travels a lot and really likes espresso. A few years ago, he saw a cyber cafe in New York City and thought it would be a good idea to start one here in Charlottesville," Graziano said.

"The computer thing has been doing okay. It hasn't been great, but it's been doing ... good," Norwood said.

In addition to the eight 500 MHz Gateway computers that can be rented at $5 per hour for full use of Microsoft Office and the Internet, www.caffe also has enough board games, magazines, newspapers and televisions to stimulate even the most attention-deficient customer. And with its standard coffee shop assortment of coffee, espresso, latte, juice and tea, as well as its compact but sufficient menu of locally baked bagels, croissant sandwiches and desserts, www.caffe's selections are as tasty and complete as any other name brand coffee shop around town.

They're also cheaper.

"Yeah, I never have time to sit here, but I'd come here over Starbucks any day just because I'd rather support the local place," Charlottesville resident Matt Jagger said.

Jagger, a cashier at the music store on the other side of the shopping center, dropped in to grab a large white chocolate coffee and then ran back to work.

Although www.caffe offers a solid menu at reasonable prices, its unnerving decor is about as effective at attracting customers as kryptonite. www.caffe is furnished with an unsettling combination of art deco black and white checked floors, dark blue couches with red and green throw pillows, and mahogany and black leather stools at the gray granite counter. Combined with the soul-sucking lighting that takes you back to a high school classroom, and out of place Van Gogh prints and "Cats" coffee table books, the Caffe is ultimately an unconvincing attempt to conceal a bare strip mall store as a coffee shop.

"We really wanted this to be a neighborhood place," Graziano said as he prepared a large espresso for a harried-looking white-collar worker on a mid-morning break.

"And we definitely do get a lot of professionals and high school students.

But what we also want is to attract more college kids and be something like an off-campus hangout," he said.

Located in the Rio Hill Shopping Center, which is the fastest growing shopping center in Albemarle County according to The Daily Progress, www.caffe is somewhat tempting because it does offer a more small-town feel than the upscale but obviously University-geared Starbucks on the Corner and Greenberry's located on Grounds. But although this getaway is conducive to a more diverse clientele and perhaps even better coffee than the overrated shop on and near Grounds, the Caffe's lack of coziness and sparkling emptiness makes it feel too unused and lonely to make it worth the trip.

"We understand that there are enough free computers on campus that kids may not want to pay for these," Graziano said. "But we do offer a 25 percent discount for students. And it's so quiet here if you feel like getting away from the crowds at the library or dorm."

In addition to offering computers for Internet, video game or word processing use, www.caffe also has lessons in surfing the Web, software installation and e-mail usage. The classes are taught by some of the technically knowledgeable coffee servers. And at $5 per hour, the cafe's computers are far cheaper than competitors like Kinko's, which charges $12.

Rather than youngsters, however, more than anything these lessons and relatively reasonable prices have attracted more customers of the 60-plus age, Graziano said. Such customers are eager to acquire Internet proficiency as the Information Age rushes into the next millennium.

"Yeah -- the cyberspace thing hasn't really taken off yet," Graziano said optimistically. "Originally, we had hoped it would be 50 percent computer use and 50 percent coffee. But so far, it's really just coffee. We're hoping that with the Christmas season approaching people will maybe consider doing some online shopping here. And eventually, we hope to attract some live bands and shows here too."

With a good menu and extremely warm and friendly service, www.caffe has a lot of potential to be a down-to-earth local haunt for not only area residents but also University students. When it gets off its high cyberspace horse and realizes that all people want is good coffee and a comfortable ambiance, it probably will do quite well. Until then, even though other coffee shops may feature a slightly more expensive menu and more pretentious and pseudo-chic pierced servers, their warm and pleasant atmospheres are probably worth the extra buck. Or as it turns out, maybe the extra Star-buck.

Service -- Excellent

Atmosphere -- Poor

Food -- Fair

Stars -- 2 1/2