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The Novel Cafe (Koreatown)

Give the Koreatown Novel Cafe this: nobody can object. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily trust an Angeleno who claims to love the place — show me a man who eats here every time they come to the neighborhood, and I’ll show you a man who’s given up — but if you’re meeting someone you don’t know very well for lunch, here’s your effortless go-to. I did just that recently, in fact. She got delayed coming out of LAX — try not to look surprised — so I sat at a table and waited, reading a Murakami novel and drinking their no-frills cappuccinos. “Have you got another person coming?” a waitress asked. “Be fifteen minutes,” I replied, not lying but not exactly not lying either. I think I sat there for a reasonably enjoyable hour and a half, and then for another two after she turned up. In Tokyo they’d surely lock me up for squatting on table real estate like this, but the Novel Cafe staff didn’t seem to mind.

What do you eat here? Oh, salads. Pesto sandwiches. Chicken wraps with lots of beans, corn, and lettuce. Complimentary bread with the faintest sweetness. Nothing to get excited about, and even slightly on the bland side, but somehow an unimprovable exemplar of this modern genre of California lunch food that bothers nobody and actually sounds just about ideal one hot day out of every two or three weeks. The Wilshire-facing window prominently advertises free wi-fi, and I think I glimpsed a room of vinyl records one time I really looked around, but I don’t know if this location qualifies as a much of a workspace or a hangout. If I set myself up to do bear down on some serious writing, I suspect that a staff member — they walk right up to your table and everything — would ask me why I haven’t ordered a wrap yet. I would get over this awkwardness quickly, but not everyone does. Then again, elements of the place do seem geared-toward the hanger-out; I notice many a wall-mounted sports-glowing television and a concert stage with a drum kit already on it, though I don’t know when it sees use.

Those who meet the semi-unknown for lunch all over town, especially on the westside, know that Novel Cafes have multiplied: you’ll find one in Westwood, an astonishing three in Santa Monica, and even one way over in Pasadena. I can’t vouch for those branches, but the Arts District location downtown, more a coffee shop than a full-service cafe, has on many days provided me a space to work and the drinkables to go with it. You can technically get lunch there, too — I ate a burrito of some kind there once, almost certainly containing avocado, and I’d recommend it — but nobody brings it to you. The Koreatown Novel Cafe has more “cool” going for it, or rather, a different kind of cool, a slicker, just-up-the-scale cool. The Arts District Novel Cafe’s cool is the cool of old typewriters used decoratively, a wall of loose-leaf tea, and a wide take-a-paperback-leave-a-paperback shelf. I get the sense that whoever’s running things thinks the Koreatown crowd — a crowd with different aspirations, to be sure — doesn’t want to see that stuff out in the open. They’ve got pesto to eat. But I, too, often have pesto to eat.

(More such writeups on Yelp.)

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