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Coffee and a Byte?

by Elaine Sosa

Ah, yes, the venerable cafe. A place for reading and reflection, meeting a friend, answering a letter. Hemingway wrote there, Ginsberg railed there, and the java was always on.

This often-peaceful, sometimes social oasis has just been kicked into the 21st century. Say hello to the cybercafe. The cafe part is easy to understand, some soothing espresso in a comfortable setting. What's new is the "cyber" part of the equation. The cybercafe is a nethead's dream, a series of gleaming machines able to deliver the world wide web at warp speed (thanks to ultra-fast T1 lines), along with e-mail access and accounts and an ever-increasing array of gadgets and gizmos.

At cybercafes, the emphasis is on interactivity. Grab a cup a joe and a sweet treat and park yourself in front of a terminal. Surf the web, get information, log onto a chat group, e-mail your mom...yep, you're connecting with people around the world, but you may never meet the person sitting right next to you. Cafes, for better or for worse, will never be the same, thanks to the Internet.

At CoffeeNet in San Francisco, the emphasis is more on coffee than on cyberactivity. "We're trying to make the coffeehouse the main thing, with the computers being the entertainment," says Thomas Verelley, co-owner of this popular cybercafe. It's safe to say he's succeeding. Fast computers are parked at each end of five long, purple tables. The idea is for you and your friends to cluster around the table and jointly cruise the web. Thankfully, conversation is not sacrificed for the sake of technology. The walls at CoffeeNet are covered with Verelley's own excellent artwork, and the pumpin' sound system is the baby of co-owner Richard Couture. The food at this hip haunt is prepared by students from the California Culinary Academy and is a mix of healthy (and tasty) salads and sandwiches. The espresso drinks pack a pop and will keep you surfing for hours. The motto at CoffeeNet is "the greatest coffee and the world," and that's exactly what you'll get.
(Coffeenet: 744 Harrison Street, San Francisco (415) 495-7447; e-mail: roastmaster@coffeenet.net)

At the other end of San Francisco's SoMa district is Cyberworld, which is taking the cybercafe to a new level. Here the emphasis is on cyber, and in a big way. Nearly twenty terminals are spread over two floors in a cavernous warehouse filled with tables, couches and techno-punk art. Casual surfers as well as serious geeks are welcome, since the menu ranges from net access to CU-See-Me video conferencing technology and graphic design workstations. Is the phone line at your home or office too slow? If you've got the need for speed, Cyberworld is the place to be. This cybercafe wants you to have some fun, get some work done, refuel with a variety of light eats and maybe even kick back with the latest issue of Wired magazine. Events are also popular at Cyberworld, everything from fashion shows to new product launches. That spinning globe over the front door is there to remind you that Cyberworld is bringing the world to you.
(Cyberworld: 528 Folsom Street, San Francisco (415) 278-9669; e-mail: cworldcafe@aol.com)

One of the early cybercafes was Cybersmith, an enterprise started by Marshall Smith and his son Jed Smith in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The elder Smith was well on his way with educationally-oriented stores, having already launched Paperback Booksmith, Videosmith and Learningsmith. The first Cybersmith opened up on Harvard Square in early 1995. Its objective was to put computers in a non-intimidating atmosphere, thereby making computers accessible and user-friendly to everyone. This sleek cafe boasts 53 terminals loaded with the latest in high-technology, including fast internet access, CD-ROMs and virtual reality games. At Cybersmith, the emphasis is on computers and cutting-edge technologies; the fact that there's also a cafe on-site is secondary. Cybersmith also has locations just outside New York City and in Palo Alto, California, home of Stanford University and an incubator for Silicon Valley's future stars. Cyberguru Nicholas Negroponte is on the board at Cybersmith, which means these folks intend to go places. Purists needn't worry, though: the coffee at Cybersmith is pretty darn good.
(Cybersmith: 6 Church Street, Cambridge, MA (617) 492-5857; e-mail: hvd@cybersmith.com
Also at 353 University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 415/325-2005 and 125 Westchester Avenue, White Plains, NY 914/686-3570.)

Coffee and a byte, perhaps? Check out a cybercafe near you and see the future, for it is now.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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