Love letters to Ann Arbor: Espresso Royale

Monday, October 14, 2019 - 11:50am

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Espresso Royale (specifically the one on State Street) probably isn’t anyone’s favorite Ann Arbor coffee shop. It’s the standard, the status quo, the closest to Central Campus and a reliable place to grab some quick caffeine in the morning or work on assignments in awkward half-hour class breaks. It doesn’t have Literati Coffee's expansive selection of designer stationary, or the tasteful mismatched furniture and sparse plants of Lab Cafe, or the coffee quality and quirky branding of Roo’s Roast.

Espresso belongs in a different category than its other trendier Ann Arbor coffee shop siblings. It’s a little rough around the edges — most of the tables are a bit wobbly, the walls could use a fresh coat of paint and the carpet has some suspicious stains. Espresso Royale is, at its core, essentially your standard college coffee shop — a little grimy, heavily trafficked, a place to meet for interviews or quick “catch-ups” with friends you lived down the hall from freshman year. 

It’s also probably the Ann Arbor locale I’ve spent the most time in during these past three years at the University of Michigan (living quarters excluded, obviously). Espresso Royale is reliable, it’s comforting. The coffee shop is not pretending to be anything it isn’t — that’s what I like about it. As I write this column at a table in the back, a woman sitting in one of the armchairs clustered in the center of the main room is filing her toenails. Gross, yes, but also somehow exactly what I would expect from this coffee shop. It’s not a performative place — I don’t feel pressured to present a façade of the productive student who also looks incredibly put together at every instant. This is a space where anything goes, unfortunately toenail filing included. 

One of the many quirks of Espresso Royale is that you never know if the internet will be working. More often than not, it will trickle along at a snail’s pace. Espresso Royale is not the place to watch lecture recordings—I learned this the semester I had Stats 250 at 8:30 a.m. and rarely made the trek from South Quad to class in the MLB. It’s also really not the place to go if you need to buckle down on work. I’ve met many friends here over the years to work on various projects, and though the Wi-Fi speed is always initially a frustration, it also has been the initiator of many incredible conversations when the laptops inevitably close after struggling to load Canvas for the better part of an hour. 

The internet speed might be a dealbreaker for some, but I’d argue that to the contrary, it’s nice to have some (minor) inconveniences imposed on you occasionally. I thoroughly enjoy going through the cycle of complaining about the internet connection, but also refusing to relocate to a study spot with better Wi-Fi. Perhaps it’s my subconscious seeking some disconnect from the digital sphere and associated stresses, but whatever it is, Espresso Royale somehow knows exactly how to address that need without requiring me to take some drastic and deliberate action like disconnecting from my home Wi-Fi network—for which I am very thankful.

And while your internet page might never load, there’s also no need to worry about getting distracted from whatever off-line task you’ve found to keep yourself occupied by the background music—another wonderful quirk of Espresso Royale is that the store playlist is thoroughly unexciting. It’s all songs that are super familiar and non-confrontational. Right now, “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz is playing. I’ve heard a lot of the Eagles here, and a lot of Fleetwood Mac. Nothing that I would really choose to actively listen to, but there’s something so comforting about a blanket of music that is passively recognizable. It’s the music that might be playing in my grandparents’ house, music that I’ve heard from a young age and is buried deep within me. Nothing new or edgy, nothing that’s going to demand my attention or pique my interest. It’s the musical equivalent of a cup of hot tea—nothing to write home about, but a nice warm presence regardless.

I’ve been interviewed for internships in this space and opened rejection emails from internships here. I’ve had first dates here, and I’ve fought with friends here. I’ve laughed and also cried here, after bad exams and as a result of heart-wrenching conversations about identity and social justice and things that really matter. Espresso Royale has marked just about every milestone of my college career—from freshman year to senior year, this coffee shop has seen it all. 

This coffee shop feels like college. It feels a little messy, a hodge-podge of different personalities and energies continuously entering and exiting. It feels like a place of personal exploration, of the occasional existential crisis, of budding friendships. It feels like hangovers and it feels like cramming for an exam the hour before. 

So, Espresso Royale, thank you for your overwhelming mediocrity and normalness — it’s what I love the most about you. And though I’ve certainly been disloyal to you for other, trendier Ann Arbor coffee shops, I have a feeling I’ll keep coming back here — bad Wi-Fi and all.