Common Ground

Feel a sense of community at Bentley's, a classic coffeehouse that knows how to adapt.

Coffeehouses have long been a fixture in American history, dating clear back to Dorothy Jones of Boston, the first citizen to receive a license to sell coffee in 1670. Offering up a center for commerce, politics and culture, coffeehouses have been communal spaces for politicians and artists to gather together and rattle the cage.

Some of the nation's more memorable coffeehouses have witnessed turbulent chunks of American history. Boston's Green Dragon was in operation continuously from 1697 to 1832. The Merchant's Coffee Houses in New York City were where brokers first sold stocks in 1790. New Yorkers even welcomed the nation's first president to their burgh in a coffeehouse.

Certainly the profile of these venues was slightly different from what it is now, since coffeehouses brewed not only the bean, but also beer, ale, rum and revolution. The cultural timbre of our times is certainly far more apathetic. Lord knows, if we can't manage to get worked up enough to revolt over a stolen presidency we're probably not going to do much over the stultifying corporate takeover of our own fair town. Still, coffeehouses capture some small part of our imagination; they still offer up a common ground.

When Joann Schneider first opened Bentley's in 1984 she harbored no grandiose notions of revolution. She was looking for a lifestyle change that would let her do what she enjoyed most: visit with friends and create a gathering space for kindred spirits. Little did she know that 17 years later she would be running a thriving coffeehouse, one of Tucson's original and sole surviving coffee hot spots.

Naturally, the coffee is good. If you swing into the parking lot, it's nearly always full. Easy access off Speedway makes this a popular stopping spot for those who are being swept elsewhere across town. Its close proximity to the University of Arizona also makes it a popular gathering place for students and faculty alike. But what really sets Bentley's apart from other coffee spots in town is its own uncanny ability to invent and reinvent, to be flexible and adaptable, to survive.

There is a gentle sense of irony that the original spot for Bentley's is now the parking lot next door. Over the years, Bentley's has migrated to various locations across town, traveling from the original Speedway location over to the Geronimoz plaza, then branching off to a downtown venue, then finally settling into its current resting place on Speedway. Despite the changes in location (which can spell death to a small independent), Bentley's patrons have faithfully followed wherever it went. This sense of loyalty stems not only from the consistent quality product, but from a genuine sense of place and locale.

While Schneider has earned a healthy sense of devotion among her patrons, her staff gathers around her with the same fierce sense of pride and allegiance. It is not uncommon for employees to stay with the company for years. Some date back almost to the original opening. Their commitment to the business and its principles is refreshing. True, they openly consider Bentley's to be the center of the universe, but they also feel appreciated and proud of the product they serve.

The menu concentrates on food that is quickly assembled and banks on being simple, fresh and fast. About 80 percent of the menu is vegetarian, although one can find a daily chicken salad, and sandwiches can be made with turkey or roast beef. While some folks choose to sit and dine inside, their laptops blazing away or their heads buried in a book, the kitchen does a brisk take-out business as well.

Simple favorites persist. For the breakfast crowd, this is a great place to drop in for a bagel toasted to order or a piece of freshly baked banana bread and a cup of coffee. Order a fruit bowl and you'll receive a generous helping of fresh seasonal fruit (melon, berries, apples, pears, bananas) and a handful of almonds and walnuts. A range of bagels, muffins and croissants is there to bolster the dash-and-gulp breakfast crowd. Those who choose to linger can order eggs or tofu platters served in more elaborate preparations.

Usually a boisterous environment, Bentley's provides a community table as well as a kid-friendly space. Many toddlers sit and bang on their own cash register or Tonka truck while a stunned and grateful parent is able to take a moment to savor a hot beverage and a mouthful to eat. And should the kids need something nutritious, there is plenty to choose from.

All the soups are made on the premises and usually feature simple, homey flavors. The avocado gazpacho should be canonized. It's silky, creamy and nourishing, and I know people who will risk 115-degree heat in the summer just to partake of this most holy offering. For others, it is all that they will eat during the summer months, and they mourn its removal from the menu when summer's sear finally departs.

Rotating daily specials of pasta, quiche, tuna or chicken salad provide a nice range of possibilities for lunch. The regular round-up of sandwich choices on a variety of breads and toppings makes for simple, hearty dining. A few additional vegan offerings such as nori rolls, a bright lemony hummus and tabouli plate, green corn tamales and Caesar or chef's salad keep enough healthful options open to lure you back for the dessert shelf.

Daily offerings vary, but you can count on a fine variety of cakes, cookies, pies, tortes and mousses. Oversized cookies, brownies, muffins and lemon bars tempt even the most stalwart vegan. Fear not, there are even vegan baked goodies made especially with dietary restrictions in mind.

As Tucson becomes more in need of a sense of community or a place of belonging, these small gathering places take on a sense of nostalgia. Already, one of the small children that used to play with the toys in the kid section is already a barrista, serving espressos and lattes as she works toward whoever she will be next. Perhaps this wasn't how Bentley's imagined it would fill its role in the community back when it first opened its doors, but how refreshing that Tucson can still offer a meeting place that operates as some link to the past, some form of common ground.

Bentley's. 1730 E. Speedway Blvd. 795-0338. Open Mondays-Saturdays 7 a.m.-midnight, Sundays 8 a.m.-midnight. Visa, MC, Disc, AmEx, local checks. Menu items: $1.50-$6.50.
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