Diesel Café in Davis Square has some new competition for the title of hippest coffee shop in Greater Boston. The challenger? Diesel's new sister store, Bloc 11 Café, which opened Monday in Union Square.
But Bloc 11 Café - named after its street address, 11 Bow St. - isn't a carbon copy of the popular Diesel. For starters, it's housed in an 87-year-old bank building, and, if you like, you can sip your soy latte inside one of the bank vaults. All 20 sandwiches on the menu are original creations, the stairwell leads to an art gallery on the second floor, and, by spring, customers will be able to pop open their laptops in a sizeable (for Somerville) outdoor courtyard.
Even the house brew tastes different.
"We love Diesel," said Jen Park, who owns the two cafes with partner Tucker Lewis. "But from a personal perspective, we had no interest in doing what we know works. There's no challenge in taking the same formula and transplanting it."
Duplicating their flagship store also seemed like a bad idea, the owners said, because Union has its own vibe. The square might have the most vibrant art community in a city teeming with artists; the balance between old and new residents in Union is far greater than in Davis Square, where rents are higher and Tufts University students abound; and there's no subway, at least not yet, to dump loads of new customers on the doorstep every 15 minutes.
"Already, I see a marked difference in our customers," Lewis said, just hours after Bloc 11's opening. "It's much more diverse. We've hardly had any students. It seems like an older crowd - mid-20s and up. We've even had several people from the senior center tower nearby come in."
In all likelihood, students will discover Bloc 11 at some point, too. Its exposed brick walls and quieter feel notwithstanding, the coffee shop is still very much the cool Internet café, with funky music wafting over house speakers, a staff of baristas boasting the hippest hair, jewelry, and T-shirts, and a menu laden with roasted red pepper hummus, vegan egg salad, and apple curry tuna.
The walk-in vaults - whose thick steel doors are cemented open, in case you were wondering - are sure to attract a few curiosity seekers as well.
"We were told by our architect and our lawyer never to fall in love with a certain space. But we just did," Park said in recalling why they chose to rent the abandoned bank, which took nearly a year to remodel into a cafe.
The vaults had surprising sentimental value, too: Lewis and Park became friends almost a decade ago while working the counter at Herrell's Ice Cream in Harvard Square, also home to an old bank vault. "We felt that was a nice tie-in," Lewis said.
Customers seemed to be digging Bloc 11 as well.
"It has some character," said John Resig, a Union Square computer programmer punching keys on his laptop.
"I like the vibe here better than Diesel," said Heather Law, 28, sipping a sparkling limeade drink. "This place seems a little more chill."
Union Square resident Guido Pezzarossi, a 25-year-old graduate student, said he was thrilled just to have a local hangout where he could study at night.
The gas fireplace, benches fashioned out of old safety deposit boxes, and tables made from bullet-proof tellers' window glass were neat bonuses, he said.
Oh - and how's the coffee?
"Very good," Pezzarossi said. "It's awesome."