Bongo Java is located across the street from Belmont University, on Belmont Blvd. Bongo, as the locals call it, is one of Nashville's most famous coffee shops, due in large part to its location and the legend of the Nun Bun (more on that later). It is also the original in a local chain of shops in the Bongo Java Roasting Company family (Fido, Bongo East, Hot and Cold, etc.).
We've both been to this Bongo many times, with Laura being a Belmont alum and Elizabeth being a native. It's usually the coffee shop you go to before you realize there are about a million coffee shops in Nashville. And some people love it and stay. Some settle in at other places.
Because of its location near Belmont, the shop is usually filled with students. It's a great place for homework.
Bongo is located inside a small house with a big front porch, and it's usually pretty busy and congested.
The counter is located not far from the door. As in, perhaps not far enough. It gets a little crowded there sometimes. And for those who need to take a moment to survey their surroundings before placing their order, it can seem a little pushy. PRO TIP: if you are far back in line, leave a space for incoming traffic in the doorway, much like you would leave space at a crowded intersection, even if the light is green. You will still feel in the way. Don't be alarmed. You are in the way, but this is normal. The doorway space will alleviate it a bit.
The menu hangs above the counter on black signs, with specials written on chalk- and white-boards behind and all around the counter. They have lots of breakfast and cafe-style food in addition to their drinks.
Once you get past the counter, there is a fairly large room with a variety of tables crowded into it. If you continue on far enough, past where you think you should be allowed, eventually you will also find a few additional hidden tables in the back. There is an upstairs venue--"Bongo After Hours Theater"--where you can catch a show from time to time. There is usually a small fee for the shows upstairs, just FYI. There is also one more large hidden table on a landing halfway up the stairs if you're meeting for a group project or just want to be a loner.
The walls are filled with local art, awards, and concert posters. Since our visit was close to Christmas, they had also hung lights and ribbon, stockings, snowflakes, candy canes, and a hipster gingerbread man to make the place look more festive. Some of the tables are painted, some are not. The chairs are all simple, wooden frames. Comfy, but not too comfy.
The porch has a ton of extra seating and is a great place to hang out in the summer. Or if you have a dog. Or a smoking habit.
A special brand of grungy hipsters call Bongo's front porch their second home, all of whom are typically Belmont students (Laura has a finely tuned Belmont-student-radar). They all seem to know each other--or at least find solidarity in their beards--even if at first they look aloof and unengaged. A kid in front of Laura in line stood there dejectedly for about 10 minutes, nearby other grungy hipsters, and only after that time had passed did one of them give a "sup, bro" and a head nod. One girl approached him later and asked what he was doing, and his response was simply a droll "coffee." So angsty.
For most of our visit we had the added pleasure of being serenaded by a young child who was practicing singing "Walking In A Winter Wonderland" unashamedly loud next to us, encouraging someone who we assume was his mother to sing along all the while. He was actually pretty good, and it was kind of adorable. Even the kids are trying to get into the industry, here. #wearenashville
The business and usually-crowded atmosphere of the shop makes it a little loud, so bring earbuds if you're trying to read.
The Story of the Nun Bun
In 1996, a customer of Bongo looked down at his cinnamon bun and saw the face of Mother Teresa. The shop preserved the bun and displayed it proudly for years. Elizabeth once saw it live and in-person. It was called the "Music City Miracle" and featured on David Letterman, and several news outlets. Because Bongo sold stuff with the image of the bun on it, Mother Teresa herself wrote a letter asking for sales to cease. They had to stop calling the bun "The Immaculate Confection" and call it the more generic, "Nun Bun" as a result.
In 2005, the Nun Bun was stolen. It has not been recovered, but if you see it around, there's a $5000 reward.
E-I got the chai latte. It had a ton of cinnamon on top, but I'm not sure how great the tea actually was. It wasn't very strong. (Riveting description, no?)
Tea Taste Rating: 5. Exactly average.
L - I got my usual vanilla latte. I have been getting vanilla lattes here literally since I visited Belmont for my audition for the music school in 2005. (SPOILER ALERT: I didn't get in.) This one was good, but not the best I've had here. It had a little too much vanilla in it. But I love Bongo's coffee more than most regardless.
Latte Taste Rating: 7.5.
Latte Art Rating: 7. Good, not amazing. I think they must have run out of regular cups, because I even said "for here" this time to get the full impact of the latte art and still got a to-go-cup.
The service was slightly above average. There were two baristas on duty and one was speaking "bro" like it was his native language. The other apologized for the weird music they were playing in the kitchen. This is better than it usually is, because while we do love Bongo, it's not necessarily known for the perkiness of its baristas.
Ratings Round Up
Level of Uncomfortableness Upon Walking In: 7. The counter thing is what gives this a higher score. It can be intimidating to try to read everything going on while standing inches from the waiting barista. Most of the patrons completely ignore you. Even when you stand up awkwardly because you can't decide if the better table next to you is actually available or if the guy just went to the bathroom and then sit back down without going anywhere, no one bats an eye.
Parking: 5. There is parking on the street out front (but good luck if school is in), and some spaces behind the shop. You have to go down a small alley to get to it, but it is there. You can also park in the Belmont garage on Bernard Ave, across the street.
Level of Pretentiousness: 8. The baristas alone account for a significant chunk of this rating, but the grungy hipsters take it the rest of the way. It's pretentious, but in an endearing sort of way. Much like Belmont students.
Slouchy Winter Beanies: 14
John Mayer Cowboy Hats: 1
Disheveled Facial Hair Count: Every. Single. Male. No Shave November is over, guys. But then, you may not have groomed today, so...
Price: average for a coffee shop.
Entertainment Level: 8. See: holiday serenade.
Overall, Bongo is a fun place to get coffee with a friend or do some work for a while, but probably not a good place to camp out for hours. It's a Nashville staple, and we'd recommend it. BYO beanie.
Have you ever been to Bongo or seen the Nun Bun in person?