by Eric Ginsburg
A man two generations my senior quietly paced, marveling at the grand room around him with each careful move. He looked as if he could be retracing his steps, as if this extravagant coffeeshop had once been his childhood home, but his eyes betrayed a sense of wonder that is more aligned with discovery.
It’s because — he told me as I watched in the front room of Camel City Coffee — he and his wife once owned a place like this. He pointed to the modified Ionic columns inside by the staircase, mentioned the fireplace in the adjoining den, and reached out to touch the molding of a doorframe. He described his former home like he inhabited it a lifetime ago, suggesting that someone probably built this reconfigured home just outside of downtown Winston-Salem around 1890 as well. (According to property records, his estimate was about 20 years early.)
But knowledge of architectural style and memories wrapped up in a building like the stately structure that houses the new Camel City Coffee and Tart Sweets aren’t necessary to be taken by it. The front steps up to the porch and columns are imposing enough, but the real magic is inside, where an eggshell-blue front room with high ceilings, upscale matching furniture and elegant chandeliers greet visitors.
The counter, covered in treats such as apple cake visible in a display case, is through an open doorway straight ahead, and to the right, a room with additional seating. Out back, a brick patio encircled by greenery awaits.
In the main room, a woman accompanied by three young kids talked on the phone, sharing that she’d returned to the coffeeshop where she’d come with the person on the other end of the line, joking that their great experience felt a little different with the children in her counterpart’s stead.
By the window behind her, along a side wall, two millennials — probably college students at UNC School of the Arts — appeared to be trying to figure out if this coffee meet-up qualified as a date, both hoping that it did.
Before long, two women joined the marveling man (presumably his wife and granddaughter) from another room, taking in the space together. His wide-eyed progeny said she’d love to live in a home like this one day, and the man offered that they would’ve sold her theirs if they could.
A moment later, they left, and before long the house-turned-café had reverted to me, the lone guest.
I soaked it up for those couple dozen seconds before a man in a security guard uniform who appeared to be unwinding after a shift walked in for a latte. I waited him out, and after a while he surrendered his post at a nearby table, taking his leave.
I reveled in those few minutes before a trio of teens burst in.
In a space this unparalleled in Winston-Salem, or the Triad, I wanted to absorb its grandiosity without distraction.
My first time in, I could barely do anything besides observe the meticulous Christmas decorations, the impressive fireplace, the towering columns. I ordered a hot cider, sat in wonder, and slipped out.
When I returned, I managed to take in the assortment of goodies supplied by Tart Sweets — it helped that the woman and three indecisive kids were ahead of me in line, and I encouraged them to take their time so I could take stock of my options. Southern pound cake, four kinds of macaroons, cinnamon crumb muffins, chocolate croissants, and an enticing espresso brownie. But I settled on the chocolate chip cookie dough cheesecake bar — the name is reason enough — and Tali’s masala chai tea. Both good choices, but as soon as the cashier rang me up, I spotted the stuffed cookies in a different container by the register.
I knew immediately that I’d need to try one.
In college, when I used to drive back from Greensboro to Massachusetts, I’d reward myself on the trek with a Chipwich, which cost too much to justify unless under such special circumstances. I later found an M&M knockoff for $1 at Bestway Grocery, but it didn’t exert the same power.
Now, these stuffed cookies are around the original Chipwich price, and aren’t quite the same — rather than ice cream in the center, the chewy chocolate chip cookies sandwich a sort of soft, handmade marshmallow that will smush out the sides if squeezed. They aren’t frozen either, which has its perks, including the chance to save it for later during my drive down Business 40.
And more importantly, the taste of this Tart Sweets treat can accurately be described as divine. Seriously.
Suddenly, though no longer there, my view of the Camel City Coffee shop had been inverted, no longer ranking the ambiance, structure and décor as the primary reason for showing up. No, no. Now it’s that soft, overwhelmingly — sinfully — delicious fist-sized digestif.
Visit Camel City Coffee & Tart Sweets at 848 W. Fifth St. #110 (W-S), camelcitycoffee.com or tartsweets.com.