Choco Bolo a small, antique looking coffee shop situated on the corner of Broadway and 69th st., boasting Cake, Coffee, & Conversation is the Upper West Side. From the outside Choco Bolo doesn’t appear to be anything more then a café on the Upper West Side, but it’s expansive windows let people see the true magic inside. It is a perfect replication of a Portuguese, Swiss café on Rue Garrett in the center of Lisbon. The café is furnished with reflective tables, hard cork couches, and mirrors that remind you of an antique merry-go-round in Central Park. Choco Bolo immediately gives you the feeling that you’re sitting in an original 1900’s building, with a combination of soft jazzy music and a rustic theme to the interior. But enough about that; most importantly, Choco Bolo’s values are those of the neighborhood around it. It encompasses the three key factors that when smushed together define my neighborhood. Good food, good drink, and above all (as I would discover), good company.
First some background on how I came to be sitting where I am now, at Choco Bolo. I’m a hot chocolate geek. I’ve traveled around the world, tried hot chocolate in Italy, France, Ecuador, Israel, Spain and tasted some truly excellent drinks. Not to mention a few damn good ones in NYC and Long Island. Thick milk, good chocolate (I’m talking real chocolate, like Valhrona Noir 85% cacao or Scharffen Berger’s extra dark 82% cocao chocolate or a French chocolate like Callebaut. Not Nestle’s ‘chocolate’ powder) and a way to properly whip (a steaming machine, or a patient person with a manual whisker). The latter are the three keys to a killer cup of hot cocoa.
Choco Bolo, opened in November of 2011 by two Portuguese men, Andriano Callé Lucas and Kiko Campos Costa. The café debuted with a new name after its long, controversial previous name, TBCCITW (The Best Chocolate Cake in the World). Choco Bolo was immediately welcomed by the Upper West siders. It fit perfectly. Croissants, cakes, coffee, cookies all displayed beautifully in a glass case, and plenty of room to cozy up and socialize with neighbors. This was the niche Choco Bolo set out to fill. A niche that existed, partly because of the sheer lack of alternative cafés for a late night drink, a weekday breakfast, or a pre-theatre pastry. Thus far Choco Bolo has been extremely successful in filling this niche. It’s often crowded, and maintains a steady flow of customers on weekdays and weekends alike.
I first stopped by in January of 2012 on a cold winter night looking for a warm environment and a cup of hot chocolate. The staff was welcoming, conversational, and the hot chocolate was divine. This isn’t something I say lightly. After a little research and inquiry, with the general manager and co-owner, I found out the secret recipe behind their famed hot chocolate. The process began with melted down Swiss 80% chocolate, which was mixed with heavy cream to form a thick ganaché (also used in their cakes). This dark chocolate ganaché was mixed with whole milk, then heated and steamed until a satisfactory temperature was reached in order to form a union between the thick ganaché and lucid milk. I was in love. I’d found the perfect ratio of people to drink to food.
The coffee shop reminded me of another center piece of my neighborhood, Salumeria Rosi (with a prosciutto speciality, but that’s another story). Both had treated me in a similar manner: respectful, friendly, and warm. One can’t imagine, if you are a fully grown adult, the significance this had for me, a teenager. It wasn’t often I got treated as an equal to my adult counterparts. It wasn’t the usual cold glances, curt attitude, and sometimes downright refusal of service those of my generation are used to. I was served as if I were a friend and respected customer. This is what truly makes places like Choco Bolo and Salumeria Rosi stick out, and the Upper West Side in general.
Respectful, welcoming, warm, gracious, and inviting. At Choco Bolo there is no prejudice according to age. This in itself is such a rarity in the world it’s striking to find an exception. I believe that this is the true definition of the Upper West Side. It isn’t just about good food, and drink, but rather those two and an unwavering friendliness that extends to children, teens and adults. I recall a conversation I had at Choco Bolo with a middle aged couple, about the sad shape of the world economy. There was no acknowledgement that I was only 15 years old and had not even a high school diploma. Rather the conversation went on the way it would between any three human beings. This is the experience I’ve had in general on the Upper West Side. Be it at a coffee shop, a pizzeria, or a fine restaurant like Salumeria Rosi. Where else can a 12 year old kid walk in alone and get served without a question about his ability to pay the check as well as hold a conversation with people many years his superior? (But as I said, that’s another story.)
Back to Choco Bolo. Sitting in the café on a Sunday morning at 10:30 am, Choco Bolo was at its prime. People bustled in and out, sat and conversed while munching on a small snack and downing a few cappuccinos. A family to the left of me could be heard saying, “Wow, this is good.” followed by, “Is this a chain?” The reply to that was simple and straight forward, “No. It can’t be.” Why not? What makes Choco Bolo so unique? Looking around I took a quick survey of the people sitting down. Ages ranged from mid 20s to 80 and above. Nationalities? Too many to count. I heard snippets of conversation in French, Spanish, English, and what sounded like Portuguese.
As I’m sitting observing this small ecosystem, a little old lady walks in. She greets the workers with an endearing, “Hi sweeties,” then sits down next to me and is immediately presented with a large coffee. After a few sips she turns her attention to me. Who am I? What am I doing? Well I’m a student journalist working on an article that was to feature what I imagined to be the center of my neighborhood. She had a lot to say about that. Our subject’s name was Jerri, an 85 year old retired woman who lived nearby and had been a retail manager for her entire adult life. I told her I had a few questions to ask, but she had her own agenda. “They have no idea what they’re doing.” was her first line of our conversation regarding Choco Bolo. “What they’ve got could be a typical Viennese, Swiss café, but they’re wasting the opportunity. If properly managed, this (Choco Bolo) could be NYC’s next Rumplemeyer’s” I replied with the obvious and obligatory, “How so?” Jerri made lots of good points regarding the fundamental challenges Choco Bolo faces. Among her main ones were their lack of a rewards system (for loyal customers), their inability to differentiate regulars from new customers, and their overall terrible service and inexperienced workers (she did tell me who on the staff made the best drinks). Our conversation lasted over an hour and by the time we were finished I came away with one thought. Jerri should be running Choco Bolo.
I left to run a few errands, and returned around 3:00 pm that same day, thirsty for more conversation and, yes, hot chocolate. I observed a steady Sunday afternoon flow of people walking in and out and a variety of people. One pair was having a business interview where both men were dressed in a full suit and tie. A couple next to them were drinking expressos and the woman was nursing a baby. I spoke to Gloria, the supervisor at the café, a young woman of about thirty. She has worked at Choco Bolo since April, and has thoroughly enjoyed her job because of the conversations and people she has met while doing it. She told me that there were three men and six women who worked at Choco Bolo over different shifts. As Jerri had told me earlier in the day, there is a high turnover of workers. We ended our conversation with a shake of hands and Gloria gave me a tired, but friendly thank you for coming.
Focusing mostly on food and drink myself for the longest time, it was quite a shock to me when I realized that I didn’t keep coming back to Choco Bolo because of their hot chocolate or pastries or even for their service. I kept coming back because of the people. I had told myself, since January, that their hot chocolate was above average and that alone was what made this place special. Heck, I told myself that since the beginning of this article. But now I realized how mistaken I was. Choco Bolo’s hot chocolate is delicious and their cakes are quite good, but through many conversations and interactions with other customers and staff, I’ve come to realize that they are the reason why I so dutifully return. I’ve realized that one doesn’t need delicious, highly rated food, or a fancy decor to have a good experience. What one truly needs is human companionship to make the experience interesting and stimulating. This is what we truly desire whether we know it or not. The Upper West Side isn’t just about exotic foods or “world class” cake, it’s about the variety of people and the interactions a person of any age can have with those around him. As I get up to pay my bill Gloria, my new friend, tells me, “This one’s on the house.”