Munch goes to Big Dog Coffee

In Stephen King's macabre epic "The Shining," writer's block tortures protagonist Jack Torrance to murderous insanity as he holes up in a Colorado inn, deprived of booze.

In Munch's case, weekly bouts of writer's block torture exactly one person to bouts of murderous insanity, that being Editor of Munch, who peppers the bag head with helpful emails like: "Are we ever going to see your [litany of profanity] copy any time before the [more bad words] Rapture comes?"

The process is not furthered along when co-workers of a Java-deprived Munch stop by every 30 seconds to offer the unsolicited minutiae of their daily existences. But what can you do? All work and no coffee makes Munch an ornery S.O.B.

In panicked moments like this, creativity gives way to cliche. So seeking caffeinated relief and inspiration, Munch trekked to the newly christened Big Dog Coffee on Sarah Street in the South Side.

That a new coffee shop opened in the South Side -- home to at least a half-dozen others -- isn't news. That's it's run by a Bulgarian violinist and his bassoonist wife, in an impeccably restored, 120-year-old former bakery, and serves ridiculously good soup, well, now Munch has something to work with.

Housed in the former Kohler Bakery building, Big Dog is a gorgeous and inviting space, run by Nikolay and Cortney Ivanov, who moved to Pittsburgh this past year after living in Dallas for a decade as members of the Dallas Opera orchestra. For Cortney, it's a return to her roots -- her parents run the nearby Morning Glory Inn bed & breakfast.

Big Dog is a clean, well-lighted place -- though not with the underlying morbidity of the Hemingway story of that name. Rather it's tastefully cozy and cheerful with bright lime green walls in the main room and pale yellow in the rear. While patrons sit in comfy chairs, sipping coffee, reading, conversing and pecking at laptops, a wood-burning fireplace crackles in the background and soft, pleasant music plays on the stereo.

The bakery's handsome original fixtures -- dark wooden counters and shelving and iron sconces -- lend an air of regality to the shop complimented by a majestic antique baby grand piano that sits in the rear room.

Big Dog's coffee comes via Intelligentsia, a Chicago outfit that offers "direct trade" coffee -- or coffee purchased direct from native farmers at prices above "fair trade" value. This isn't to say that Big Dog's coffee is expensive -- far from it. A cup of rich Guatemalan house blend averages about $2 (depending on size) and specialty drinks -- cappuccinos, macchiatos, and espressos for instance -- are about $3.

Each morning from 6 to 11 a.m. Organic Rolled Oatmeal with fresh fruit is available for breakfast ($4), and Munch can attest that it will redefine your view of the breakfast porridge. This is worth-the-trip good.

Same with the soup. Each afternoon a homemade soup (also $4) is ready to pour. On successive days Munch lapped his cup clean of every last molecule of a respectable Wedding Soup, a rich and creamy Triple Squash, and a peppery Mushroom Barley.

Given Nikolay's Eastern European background, it'd be tempting to label him the Soup Tsar -- a much friendlier contemporary of Seinfeld's surly Soup Nazi -- but he said the soups are made by his mother-in-law. Soup Tsarina, then?

All variety of baked goods from muffins, breads, and scones, to cakes, cookies, cupcakes and even homemade ho-ho's ($2-$4) are baked and delivered daily by the Vanilla Pastry Studio in East Liberty. Munch delighted on a ho-ho, twice the size and exponentially fresher and tastier than the gummy and saccharine Hostess variety.

While nearby Crazy Mocha has a well-known reputation for being pet-friendly, Big Dog is the first coffee shop Munch has ever seen anywhere that is actually child-friendly. There's a cute little play area near the front window for kids to entertain themselves while their parents escape with the New York Times crossword. No word on the pets, however, but ample sidewalk and patio seating outside could probably accommodate any dogs, big or little, that come to Big Dog.

After all, the place is named for the owner's love of big dogs (specifically a German shepherd, Munch was told).

Munch left the South Side full of soup, satisfaction and a story. And even managed to make it all the way through without using that "run with the big dogs" cliche -- dammit! ... More coffee please, Nikolay?

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