Coffee Comes (Back) To Wooster Square

Baristas Xiaoxiao “Connie” Kang and Rose Zeng. The Wangs, who own the cafe, asked not to be photographed. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Baristas Xiaoxiao “Connie” Kang and Rose Zeng. The Wangs, who own the cafe, asked not to be photographed. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Wooster Square residents, market-goers, and blossom-oglers won’t have to head downtown for a cup of coffee anymore. After a months-long caffeine drought in the neighborhood, the familiar sound of espresso machines and percolating brews is back on lower Chapel Street.

That’s thanks to Wooster Square Coffee, now open at 516 Chapel St. Owned and operated by Zhiming and Sarah Wang, the 1100 square foot space opened quietly on Friday, just in time for Saturday’s outdoor market in Russo Park. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. A grand opening will take place on Monday Nov. 20. 

The property, which the Wangs own, has been out of commission for close to two years. From 2005 to 2015, Fuel Coffee lived at that location, frequented by neighborhood regulars. Then in 2015, owner Courtney Ciesla moved the coffee shop to Wooster Street. She was there for two years before moving out in June, and leaving the neighborhood without a cafe. She did not reply to a request for comment for this article. 

Originally, Zhiming Wang approached the City Plan Commission with plans to convert the space into an apartment, according to a City Plan advisory report that was published in 2015. That never came to be, and the first floor of the property was vacant until plans for a cafe were finalized. The neighborhood had a sort of test run this summer: a coffee cart called “Downtown Table” in Russo Park from June to August. Owner Katherine McComick packed it up when she began law school this fall.  

As of last weekend, the cafe was serving pastries and baked goods alongside coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Sarah Wang said that it will be adding breakfast options, salads and sandwiches to the menu this week. She added that while few customers came through on Friday—the cafe had not advertised its soft opening—Saturday proved busy, with neighborhood residents and foot traffic from the nearby CitySeed market.   

Early Saturday afternoon, that steady flow showed no sign of stopping. Every few minutes, a few customers trickled in, queuing up behind a case filled with croissants, muffins, scones and fist-sized brioche rolls. Behind the counter, baristas Xiaoxiao “Connie” Kang and Rose Zeng served up frothy lattes, steaming mugs of lemon ginger tea, and espressos in doll-sized ceramic cups. 

“I think, I saw the needs of the community—we didn’t really have a place like this,” said Sarah Wang, bouncing from behind the counter over to the cafe’s new sink, coffee machines, and pastry case. “The purpose of this is for people to spend time here. To talk, or work, or do homework. That’s the goal for the community.”

“You can feel there is a savior faire in this place,” said Assad Benabid, there Saturday to make sure that the espresso maker he’d helped install was working smoothly. “Everyone wants to open a coffee shop, but it’s not easy. It takes a certain passion, and they [the Wangs] have it. You can see that there are no shortcuts.”

Rubenstein and Pierce.

Rubenstein and Pierce.

Customers Patricia Pierce and Marc Rubenstein put his theory to the test. Inspecting the pastries on display, the couple picked two “sweetmeats” to go with their espressos, taking the dainty cups over to a sun-soaked corner. Two plush chairs sat unoccupied, their backs to Chapel Street. Pierce and Rubenstein sank into them, saucers poised on their laps and a nearby coffee table. 

Pierce said she’s excited for the new cafe, just a block down from where she and Rubenstein live on Chapel Street, because “I really want this to be a walking neighborhood.” After the couple moved from East Rock to Wooster Square a year and a half ago, they noticed that it was hard to find a cup of coffee (or, in their case, a post-breakfast espresso) within walking distance. 

Coffeeshops like Cafe Romeo, Koffee? on Audubon, and East Rock Coffee—which remains Rubenstein’s favorite place, he said—were suddenly too far away. The couple didn’t want to invest in an espresso maker of their own, which can average four to five figures.  

“I was just thinking this morning that you have to go to Rome to get a good cup of coffee,” Rubenstein said, smiling. Now, he can envision sitting and drinking an espresso there “a couple times a week.”

He took a sip, the espresso black and silky as it tipped back into his mouth. “That’s good,” he said.