With the brisk autumn atmosphere setting into Princeton’s campus, my usual iced tea orders are quickly being replaced by warm drinks better fit for the incoming chilly seasons. Instead of an energizing coffee, I gravitate towards hot chocolate — the sweeter and more festive winter alternative in my opinion. I’ve always found myself holding a mug of hot chocolate over coffee; in high school, I would prepare a Thermos to savor the drink during my 7:30 a.m. classes, and I usually brought hot chocolate for classmates to celebrate my birthday right before Christmas.
To explore campus and also reward myself with a sweet treat after classes, I perused the array of local coffee shops and cafés to determine which hot chocolate I’ll be savoring through the fall and winter seasons. From worst to best, I’ll be noting and ranking various aspects about my hot chocolate ventures — the ambience, price, and convenience — with taste as the most important factor in my ratings.
Alexa, play “Hot Chocolate” from “The Polar Express.”
Ambience: A popular chain coffee shop, I crossed Nassau Street and was enveloped by warmth, greeted with the aroma of coffee beans. The warm lighting automatically made me feel cozy, even on the busy street. Many customers at the shop were studying and chatting, and I felt the environment was conducive to small group work or reading a new novel. While waiting for my order at the barstools at the window, I enjoyed the indie rock selections playing overhead and watched the passersby.
Review: For $3.95, I ordered a Venti hot chocolate with whipped cream, but the first thing I noticed was the lack of the topping. My first sip indicated that the whipped cream might have been infused into the hot chocolate rather than sitting on top. The drink leaned more into bitter chocolate notes, which is a nice contrast to the typical sugary versions I usually get. However, I felt that the texture was somewhat flat — maybe because the drink was made with hot water instead of milk (I prefer the latter in my hot chocolate).
Summary: This hot chocolate is good for a sudden craving, but I don’t recommend this for anyone looking for an indulgent beverage — you might fare better getting the iconic pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks instead.
4. Coffee Club at New College West
Ambience: Much of my studying time is spent at NCW — I find myself spending hours figuring out my chemistry and calculus problem sets in the common rooms with my classmates. After my lecture, I went to the Coffee Club’s NCW branch to pick up a drink before studying in Addy Hall. The Club picked a perfect place to establish a campus-based location as the large, open space allows for natural lighting (even during the cloudy day that I went) and a comfortable setting for studying solo or in groups. I also appreciate the student-run music — there’s always something new playing depending on who’s running the café.
Review: For $4.70, I got a large hot chocolate. On the first sip, I immediately noticed that it was sweeter than my Starbucks order. Again, no whipped cream (granted, I didn’t ask for it), but there was a foamy feel, most likely from steamed milk. It tasted like the famous Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate packets: nostalgic and more sweet than chocolate-y. While I personally enjoyed it, I could definitely achieve a similar taste by preparing a mug of the prepared sachet and hot milk.
Summary: The Coffee Club hot chocolate is a true neutral character — sweet and milky. While it is a standard hot chocolate, it is a reliable pick-me-up for someone craving the drink.
3. Small World Coffee at Frist Campus Center
Ambience: While I planned on visiting the main storefront on Nassau, my day starts at Frist Campus Center every day, so I decided to stop by after my Korean class. While there were not many people around, going any time after 10 a.m. will likely spoil the quiet study nook vibe established in the early morning.
Review: For $3.75 and one minute of waiting, I received a large hot chocolate. When I picked up my cup from the register, I instantly noticed the swirl of whipped cream peeking through the top. Considering the lack of whipped cream on my last two drinks, I was elated to see the topping! Upon the first sip (minus the sip that consisted of only whipped cream), I was hit with a very forward chocolate flavor. I find it to be right in between the profiles of my previous orders: chocolate-y without leaning into the bitterness of Starbucks, and sweet without leaning into the sugariness of Coffee Club. While initially creamy, mixing in the whipped cream lightened the drink’s body a pleasant amount.
Summary: Small World Coffee’s hot chocolate satisfies my morning sweet tooth without giving me a sugar brain fog — I’d love to sip on this drink in the flagship store surrounded by all things coffee and sweets.
2. Halo Pub
Ambience: Since it was my first time at the town-favorite ice cream parlor, I had no idea what to expect. I was immediately greeted by a moody and homey storefront, tantalized by the ice cream barrels in front of me. I ordered two (!!) hot chocolates — a Parisian Hot Chocolate and a Hot Chocolate Float — since I was curious about the difference between the two. I waited for my drinks at the parlor booths as I took in how quaint the store felt at that moment. All that surrounded me was the sound of the espresso machine and the whiff of freshly scooped ice cream in my hand (the chocolate chip cookie dough and pecan praline were to die for, but that’s another review).
Review: Each drink cost $5.85, some of the most expensive orders I’ve gotten yet. First, the Hot Chocolate Float was not what I expected from the name — I was expecting some form of ice cream floating on top of the drink, like an upside down affogato. The drink had a semi-sweet chocolate flavor, but I was somewhat disappointed by the body: it lacked the creaminess and thickness in other hot chocolate orders I’ve gotten (especially since the word “float” implies an airy texture). It is similar to the Starbucks drink, with a more watery, bitter chocolate profile, but this one has a smoother mouthfeel and sweeter aftertaste. In comparison, the Parisian Hot Chocolate stood out from my previous reviews: I was hit with a whiff of cinnamon upon first sip, which added a unique compliment to the semi-sweet base. The body was creamier than the other drink, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly foamy. While I expected a more melted chocolate mouthfeel, I still enjoyed the not-so-thick consistency. A dollop of whipped cream would have pushed this drink towards perfection.
Summary: The Hot Chocolate Float is a standard hot chocolate — semi-sweet and easy to sip. While this may fare well for on-the-go hot chocolate, I can’t justify the price for a more reasonable buy at somewhere like Small World. The Parisian Hot Chocolate, on the other hand, is worth the walk from the heart of campus, as it functions as a perfect pairing with some rich ice cream or as a standalone indulgence during a chilly day.
1. Bent Spoon
Ambience: Technically, the first food I got as a Princeton student was hot chocolate from The Bent Spoon when I visited campus after committing to the school on Ivy Day. To finish the saga of hot chocolate tastings, I strolled through Palmer Square and found the tiny, dimly lit parlor with its employees bustling behind the counter. There wasn’t much space to enjoy my drink — there were only two seats inside the store. However, I was able to secure a window-front view to enjoy my hot chocolate order.
Review: I ordered a Classic Hot Chocolate with all the fixings — whipped cream and toasted marshmallows — for $8.25. This was, by far, the most expensive beverage I’ve bought on campus. However, my expectations for this drink were shattered when I first saw the beverage: the marshmallows were humongous and were toasted just like on a campfire. The taste? I was astonished by how bitter the chocolate was — there was barely any hint of sweetness. However, the marshmallows melted into the drink and added the perfect amount of sugar (and some burnt notes from the char) that balanced the bitterness of the liquid. The body was velvety and rich — the best way I could describe both the flavor and texture is melted chocolate. The most surprising thing about this drink is that its profile changes over time: as the marshmallow melts, the drink becomes more creamy and sweet. For such a small cup of hot chocolate, I was sipping my cup for the next 45 minutes.
Summary: The perfect drink for an indulgent hot chocolate experience — whether you have a sweet tooth or prefer the dark side, the multidimensionality of this The Bent Spoon special will have you reminiscing about warm fireplaces and chocolate chip cookies throughout wintertime.
For a beverage with such a simple concept, hot chocolate holds various flavor profiles across campus. Sweet or bitter, creamy or velvety, there’s probably a hot chocolate calling your name, within a 15 minute walk from your favorite study place. So do yourself a favor and grab a hot chocolate near you: it’s the perfect time to stroll past the falling leaves and enjoy a book with a warm drink in hand.
Brianna Melanie Suliguin is a contributing writer to The Prospect. She is a part of the Great Class of 2027 and is from Toms River, New Jersey. She can be contacted at email@example.com.