It’s hard to describe exactly what kind of place Northside Social is. Independent hipster coffeehouse? Laid-back yuppie wine bar? Neighborhood hangout? All three? If Northside Social were located in another neighborhood it would probably be considered a hipster hangout – think garage-like cement floors, understated, minimalistic décor, artsy-looking baristas, paintings by local artists on the walls, occasional live music, an intimate, cozy wine bar and good coffee – but this is Clarendon after all, yuppiest of yuppie neighborhoods and home of the prototypical young urban professional. Not to say non-yuppies won’t feel welcome…I’ve been to places in Arlington where you feel out-of-place if you aren’t a former Virginia Tech or UVA Frat brother or sorority sister or don’t work in government contracting, but I like this place because it has a very independent coffeehouse feel to it – but feels inclusive at the same time. Whether you’re a vegetarian gender studies professor or are working hard to secure John Boehner’s reelection (though let’s be honest – there aren’t that many of those in Arlington) you’ll probably feel alright here. Every time I’ve come to Northside Social the place is popping. Whether you’re here at 4pm on a Monday afternoon to work on a paper, at 6am for your morning coffee or at 10pm for a post-happy hour snack, it’s likely to be crowded.
I usually hang out here in the backroom about once a week after work when I’m looking for an atmospheric writing environment. The place feels a lot like a shared workplace: Look around and you’ll see groups of students working on a college project, work colleagues discussing a presentation and young professionals typing away on their Macs. It’s got a good vibe. When I go, I usually order a giant cappuccino and a chocolate-chip pistachio cookie (a bit dry for my taste but good enough for dunking in coffee) and stay for a few hours.
Because this is such a popular neighborhood hangout, I decided to find out exactly how people feel about this place and what they like about it. I started with my friend Hee-Jin, an enthusiastic Northside Social patron, who described the ambience as “casual yet energetic, unpretentious, intimate, versatile, diverse and upbeat.” When I asked her about the clientele, she said this was a little harder to define. “I’ve seen all kinds of different people here, including but not limited to the guy in the hipster glasses and plaid shirt who looks like he’s writing the manuscript for his next novel, the preppy girl who’s waiting for her date to arrive and the unhygienic looking student who’s buried in his textbooks and MacBook pro. Everyone is involved in whatever they’re doing here, whether it’s catching up with friends, writing a paper, finishing a report for work, writing freelance articles, meeting someone for a first date – they are completely dedicated, or at least they look like they are.” And I think this is true. People here seem very engaged with whatever they’re working on or whoever they’re with. My friend Francesca said she likes Northside Social “because you can sit out outside [and there’s] a chill vibe.” My sister described the crowd as “young, hip, professional, coffee-loving and white.” This is also true. Whenever I come here it’s a mostly white crowd. You’ll see some Asian folks as well, but there’s a general blatant lack of black and Hispanic patrons, at least whenever I’ve gone. But this is probably a matter for another entry.
Despite the fact that I was a travel guide writer for several years, I am not particularly picky when it comes to food or service. I’m of the mindset that if you are paying $8.50 for a Quiche, you’re going to eat it whether it’s amazing or mediocre. And unless I’m being verbally assaulted by an out-of-control barista, I’m not going to complain if it takes 10 minutes to make my cappuccino. I’m all about ambience, and this place has more than enough to satisfy me. However, I decided to go to yelp.com to get an idea of the biggest gripes people have against this place and the consensus seems to be that the baristas can be snobby and expect a tip, the service can be slow (especially if you don’t tip) and there aren’t enough electrical outlets. I haven’t had any issues with the service – everyone I’ve dealt with has been pleasant enough – but it can take a while to get your food. My brother and I were here last Sunday afternoon and ordered an asparagus-goat cheese Quiche (tasty but a bit over-priced at $8.50 – but this is Arlington, what else can you expect?) and it took about 20 minutes to get it. But this kind of thing isn’t really a big deal to me. Overall, I’d say this is a great neighborhood spot, an ideal place to get some work done (as long as you don’t require quiet) and a fun and unique place to catch up with friends.