Nate Blair knew that every neighborhood needs a hub, and Westville was no exception. With the opening of Cafe X, a new coffee shop on the corner of Whalley and Blake, he aims to create that hub.
For a long time Westville has had a lot of places to get coffee but there was no coffee shop to call its own. There are restaurants that serve coffee with breakfast or brunch. There is a Dunkin Donuts that you can grab a drink from in a hurry. The space below Lotta Studios was annexed by coffee shops from different parts of town, like Coffee Pedaler or Happiness Lab, who purveyed caffeine, but they weren’t full-fledged coffee shops — until Cafe X opened.
The way Blair sees it, a coffee shop is about so much more than coffee. It is a social place where strangers share space comfortably. It allows for an exchange of ideas, and a way to keep up with the news of the neighborhood. A good coffee shop can be a sort of bioindicator for a healthy area, which is why it’s strange that Westville didn’t have one — a shop with regulars to run into, a great place to hunker down with a laptop, or to just sit and sip your coffee.
“It was a great location,” said Blair. “It was never the primary focus, but I knew it was a goldmine in terms of potential. Westville is ready to explode, and if I can help tip the scales toward making it a destination by opening a coffee shop there, I’d like to do so.” Westville is home to a bustling creative enclave in New Haven, with shops like Strange Ways and Vintanthromodern, a clutch of art galleries, the ArLow live/work spaces, and the studios and Snail Market above Lotta Studios.
The mission for Blair and his business partner, filmmaker Stephen Dest, became building a coffee shop that fit the culture and ethos of Westville. They began work this past November, building a wall, getting a grab ‘n’ go cooler for sandwiches, and moving the counter outward away from the back wall to make more space for the barista. They formally hung their sign on Jan. 18.
Stepping into Cafe X now, it feels like it’s been there for years. The cafe is built into the lower level of Lotta Studios, separated from the coworking space by a glassy wall. The shop’s chic rusticism melds with the artistic goings-on at Lotta. A row of classic bar stools were recovered from an old ice cream parlor.
Less obvious — at first — is the preparation that Cafe X puts into its drinks.
“After years in the restaurant business I’ve come away with some pretty resolute values,” Blair said. Before opening Cafe X, Blair had spent 12 of his 28 years working just about every tier of service at restaurants and coffee shops including Miya’s, Roia, Mamoun’s, and Koffee? on Audubon. “For one, I want to make healthy decision making as simple as possible for people by simply removing the bad decision or giving the decision to the customer,” he said.
To this point, none of the drinks at Cafe X contain any added sugar. Customers who want it can get it from the shop’s lid and sleeve station. But you’ll never wonder how much sugar is in your drink because you will be the only one putting it in. Cafe X also doesn’t serve the 20-ounce drinks available at many other establishments, which helps the shop cut down on waste and excess. There are some pretty interesting and wholesome options on the menu as well, such as the Thema, an espresso drink made with raw cacao, and the Gothic Mocha, which is made with activated charcoal.
“There’s a sort of Jedi trick that goes into making food that’s both good for you and exciting,” Blair said. That echoed the sentiment of Miya’s and other New Haven establishments that, in light of growing environmental and health concerns, have taken it upon themselves to change the tide in how restaurants, coffee shops, and their consumers approach the food that we eat. Blair feels that a business has a duty to form a connection with its neighbors and to be an asset to its community. He and Dest opened a coffee shop because they feel that coffee shops have the most potential to be that sort of asset.
And why was that latte called Thema?
It’s named after a regular who orders it all the time, Blair said. Any three-month-old cafe that already attracts such regulars must be hitting the mark.