off the hill

the cozy cafe choklad

The first time I walked into that café in the middle of the hot Providence summer, I knew I’d found an oasis. The 90-degree weather and two hours spent walking around the city to hang research flyers might have contributed to this perception. Nonetheless, being familiar with some of the other restaurants nearby—the delicious Harry’s Burgers and XO Café—I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about Café Choklad. So, curious and desperate for a cool drink and some air conditioning, I walked in and discovered a scene cheerful enough for the pages of a storybook. Not only did I get a cool drink, but the welcoming workers were also happy to let me leave a few of my flyers.

The second time I walked into the little café was more than six months later, with my dad in tow. Just a few days before the start of second semester, I had finally finished moving back onto campus after a semester abroad. This time it was bitter wind that pushed me through the door, and like the last time, this corner café provided a space of comfort.

We ordered sandwiches—my dad the Harvest Turkey BLT and me the Chicken Caprese on ciabatta—and picked out some of the all-natural Japanese iced teas from the refrigerator. We paid at the front (and were told jokingly that we were “no fun” for not taking one of the many tempting desserts) and grabbed a corner table, moving aside a couple of the colorful pillows on the long wall bench to make room for our coats.

Right now I’m here for the third time, drinking a Harney & Sons Cinnamon tea, and, again, I am impressed by the cozy ambience. The walls are brightly colored with panels of red, white and green. Padded benches with a rainbow assortment of pillows line the perimeter, broken only by a warm fireplace in the back corner. An array of framed photographs, paintings, and dishware lines the walls, including a selection from local Providence artists, which the owner updates regularly. A life-sized nutcracker greets the steady flow of customers, and red paper hearts hang in each window. “Good vibe” music, in the words of my friend, plays overhead.

The menu, handwritten on a series of blackboards, is neat and organized into several categories: Café Sandwiches, Soups and Salads (with the classic you-pick-two option), Toasted Sandwiches, Salad Wraps, “Jens&Marie” Veggie Burgers (from a sister business operated separately by the same owners of Café Choklad), Beverages, Café Breakfast, and Specials. Each section is full of unexpected but appetizing options—from the quinoa burger to the Nutella-banana breakfast croissant—there is something for everyone and every taste.  Reasonable prices match the generous serving sizes.

The service is quick and the servers friendly. The co-owner, Marie Retlev, often stands behind the counter, smiling in a crisp chef’s shirt, and she was happy to take five minutes to talk to me a little bit about her and the café’s stories.

Sitting across from me at one of the front bar stools, she told me that Café Choklad, which she opened with her husband after their daughter discovered the location, actually celebrated its eleventh anniversary in February. She and her husband had just watched the French film, Chocolat, and decided to open a chocolate shop of their own. The business evolved into a breakfast-lunch restaurant over time. Marie developed a menu with “European flair” to distinguish the Swedish-themed Café Choklad from other nearby eateries. Almost everything, she said, is made fresh daily, since there is not a lot of storage.

After the café got up and running, she and her husband started Jens&Marie, a veggie burger company which boasts gluten-free, dairy-free, low allergen, low soy, high fiber, low calorie, and low sugar patties, according to Retlev. She added that she is looking forward to soon adding a larger selection of the burgers to Café Choklad’s standard menu.

There certainly are regulars—students, Brown and RISD staff and faculty, and businesspeople—Retlev said, adding that they pride themselves on remembering names and orders. Among the top preferred menu items are her signature Ham and Brie Sandwich on cranberry-pecan bread, the authentic Swedish pastries, and the Newhouse Belgian chocolates. She also recommended the brownie. I was too happy to oblige, and I can attest to its greatness.

The charismatic atmosphere, quality fare, and sensible prices make this a getaway well worth the short hike up and down the hill. I know I’ll be back.