Rao’s Coffee boasts charming bustle and delicious brews

By Sarah Gamard

(Sarah Gamard/Daily Collegain)
(Sarah Gamard/Daily Collegain)

If you’re looking for a quiet, peaceful place to do work off campus, Rao’s Coffee is not the place for you.

But it’s still a wonderful place to study.

I woke up early Sunday morning itching to get out of my dorm room to head into town to finish my daunting pile of homework, so a friend and I visited Rao’s Coffee in Amherst Center. The coffee shop, which has a sibling branch in Northampton, sits down the block from the bus stop in downtown Amherst, very close to Panda East Chinese restaurant, Starbucks and Antonio’s Pizza.

I arrived at Rao’s at about 10 a.m. and stayed until the late afternoon. During that time, despite the sleepy and lifeless University of Massachusetts campus being just a mile away, the café was packed.

One of the best parts of Rao’s was not only the delicious coffee, but also the people who frequented the shop, including UMass students, Amherst locals, students from other nearby colleges, families with children and more. People-watching is a treat here: you are in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New England students and locals simultaneously enjoying the slowness of a Sunday with the productivity of caffeinated college-town life.

There was a constant buzz in the café of gregarious voices and alternative music. The walls were covered with fun and colorful art. At wooden tables and counters were study groups of students focusing intently on their laptops, a group of middle-aged adults enjoying each other’s company and couples – queer and non-queer, of course, true to the Pioneer Valley culture – on romantic post-Saturday night breakfast runs. The clanking of dishes and mugs behind the service counter, the smell of coffee and a slight breeze from the sunny fall day from the continually opening door as people flowed through in an uninterrupted stream. There was a surreally constant line of costumers at the service counter.

(Sarah Gamard/ Daily Collegian)
(Sarah Gamard/ Daily Collegian)

The café calmed down significantly after 1:30 p.m., probably due to students being called back to campus for homework and the New England Patriots game. Between that time and 4 p.m., the rush of people grew and died down again. Visiting the café Sunday afternoons are better than mornings if you want a less hectic work environment, but Rao’s is certainly a more bustling coffee shop than Amherst Coffee down the street. But any coffee shop will have a flow of college-town customers during the semester.

The experience was overall productive and placating. Just sitting among such an eclectic crowd was entertainment in itself. Of course, this was a Sunday after what must have been a very relaxing weekend for the crowd that came to Rao’s, and I have only been to this café on weekends, but the atmosphere was attractive enough to make me want to visit again.

An eight-ounce coffee is $1.64. Rao’s offers all of the coffee essentials: cappuccino, espresso, café latté, café mocha, café vanilla, mocha au-lait, café au-lait, hot chocolate, white hot chocolate, macchiato, chai tea latte, iced coffee, iced tea, iced chai tea, Italian soda, lemonade (seasonal), iced blended mocha, vanilla, chai tea or coffee, vanilla or chocolate milk shake, soy milk and almond milk, as well as an assortment of delicious-looking pastries, sandwiches and granolas. Rao’s also has an extensive tea selection and something on the menu called “Ed’s study aid,” which is coffee with a shot of espresso.

Pastries included that day were: pumpkin chocolate walnut cookie, chocolate crinkle cookie, almond biscotti, vegan chocolate mint cookie, corn muffin, vegan cranberry orange muffin, pumpkin cream cheese scone, raisin walnut scone, raspberry oat muffin, butter croissant, ham and cheese croissant, cheddar scallion biscuit and almond croissant.

Sandwiches featured chicken salad, house smoked pork and smoked turkey. They also served fruit and Sidehill Farms yogurt.

Syrups, which can be mixed and matched and added to any drink, included raspberry, blackberry, cherry, hazelnut, caramel, vanilla, lemon, orange (regular or candied), ginger, almond, blueberry as well as sugar-free vanilla, hazelnut and caramel varieties.

The tea menu had essentials like English Breakfast and Earl Grey, as well as some more exotic flavors like Mango, Assam and Yerba Mate.

The shop gets their coffee from Rao’s Roasting Company, which was formed in 1990 and whose beans originate from Africa, Latin America and Indonesia. The company serves the Greater Boston and New England areas.

The Amherst location is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas day and in cases of inclement weather.

The Northampton spot is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Rao’s also has a location at the Mount Holyoke College Library Court that’s open mornings and after main library hours for students who take classes at Mount Holyoke’s campus.

Sarah Gamard can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @SarahGamard.