If you’re a student at Princeton, you know of Small World. It’s the first café everyone suggests for a special meeting off-campus. Sometimes the café feels like it belongs on the campus side of the FitzRandolph Gate because of how many Princeton students frequent the shop. Even if you haven’t had a chance to visit the physical location (although technically there are two within walking distance, our classic one on Witherspoon and one farther down Nassau Street), you know the name because on-campus coffee shops serve Small World brewed coffee.
So as I explored the Princeton coffee/café scene last semester, I skirted the edges of this famous locale and tried to find and review other possibilities for students. But now the question remains, does Small World – the Witherspoon branch everyone knows – live up to its reputation? Is it the best option or simply the most known option? If you haven’t tried Small World, now you’ll know. And if you have, let’s see if you agree with me.
CoffeeSpoiler alert: the coffee drinks in the café are 1,000 times better than what you can get in Frist or East Pyne.
Beyond that distinction, I’d say the espresso pulled at this café is good -- but don’t expect it to blow your socks off. It doesn’t have the attention to detail that a café like Rojo's does, but then again with its large clientele it would be impossible for a Small World barista to take four minutes to make every drink. Unfortunately, Small World prices create the expectation that the coffee will be beyond belief. B
elief informed by experience suggests that if you’re planning on breaking the bank for your daily classic espresso, and the drink itself matters, go to Rojo's instead.
However, if you like more creative drinks and not a generic cappuccino you’re definitely in the right place. Small World makes “Nola style iced coffee” – a sweeter New Orleans style drink – and has a great house-made, spicy chai (I recommend adding sugar or honey). After finally familiarizing myself with the various options, I’ve found that when I go to Small World I make sure to order something out of the ordinary to make the prices worth it.
If you do find a table, it’s most likely on the slightly raised level towards the back of the café. These tables are small and close together, the lights slightly too bright (emphasizing the unwise choice of bright mint green wall paint). None of these factors redeem the crowds you encounter as you first enter the establishment, so if you’re planning on staying, try for a table towards the front of the café – the natural light and view of Witherspoon redeem the interior design of the back area.
Despite all of these downsides, Small World tries for the small-town community café vibe and succeeds. The café has musical guests on weekends and the walls are postered with flyers of miscellaneous community events (because of these I discovered that Princeton has a weekly farmers market on Thursdays between 11 am and 4 pm, so if you’re tired of dining hall fruit…). Starbucks might be cheaper, but Small World retains its local-business atmosphere, along with having noticeably superior coffee.
If we weigh the pros and cons, Small World is a challenging place to study. But yes, go to Small World to talk or to read the newspaper – you’ll have the experience of an intimate (although crowded) small-town café, which is infinitely superior to Frist couches or the bland corporate interior of a Starbucks.
However, they do have some options: the pastries at Small World are pretty delicious, and the size of the miniature cookies is ideal for a small snack even if it’s at the whopping price of $1 per cookie, roughly 50 cents per bite. Again, the menu takes a bit of navigating; for example, oatmeal stops being served early in the morning, and some food can be purchased in bulk, like the Small World granola, which can be an excellent snack for your dorm room. I tend to view Small World food in a similar way to the coffee: it’s not special, but it’s local and superior to a lot of on-campus options.
At the same time, not having these amenities doesn’t prevent good conversation. And in that sense Small World will always be truly a community café: a classic and much loved local business that’s meant to be a watering hole for brief conversation and sometimes-quirky drinks, not a place to hunker down and study.