Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007

Plenty of perks at College Park coffeehouse

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Waitress Sarah Stein serves up an ‘Angry Karl’ panini sandwich. It was named after a regular customer and contains ham, cuban pork roast, honey mustard, Swiss cheese and pickles.
Located near the University of Maryland, the College Perk is furnished like a college student’s apartment, with mismatched couches and chairs. The house on Baltimore Avenue that College Perk calls home once held an exotic bird store.

The birds are long gone, but College Perk is a bit of a rare find itself. Where else could a customer leave tips in the form of artwork and have it be treasured and hung up on the wall?

Given its location, one would think that that the customer base would mainly consist of students, but the staff said that about half of the customers have not been co-eds in a while. People of all ages enjoy the good food and laid-back environment.

‘‘Great crowd, good customers. A very eclectic group of people; it’s a pretty good mixture,” is how employee Chris Peterson sums up the coffeehouse’s atmosphere.

Eclectic could also be used to describe the menu, which owner Chris Gordon said is partially based on his own diet. Gordon said that he tries to eat healthy, but he is not religious about it.

For example, the sandwiches come with a choice of sides: corn chips, grapes, baked beans or baby Irish potatoes.

Every sandwich tells a story and to peruse the menu is to walk down memory lane with Gordon and his restaurant. Since it opened in 2003, Gordon has immortalized friends, employees and former tenants by naming menu items after them.

The Angry Karl ($7.95) is a Cuban sandwich named after a tenant who was always angry. Quarters and Water ($5.95) is a grilled 3-cheese medley named after the frequent requests of a former customer who often came in to play pool.

Johnny on the Couch ($7.95) is a roast beef, red onion, salsa, and sour cream tortilla named in honor if its creator, an employee who stayed at the restaurant when he was in between apartments.

The salads, such as the Big in Japan (Mandarin oranges, walnuts, feta cheese, field greens with raspberry vinaigrette, $5.95) also have unusual names, while the quesadillas (Mediterranean and Oaxaca, $6.95; Hawaiian BBQ, $7.95) have names that are a little more common.

College Perk also boasts a wide selection of coffees and loose-leaf teas. Weekend brunch items include SPAM, SPAM SPAM & Eggs ($8.95), which is three slices of SPAM, dill-garlic hash, and toast, all served with a side of Twinkie.

The house on Baltimore Avenue also serves up recreation and entertainment.

The coffeehouse holds a Texas Hold’em Tournament; there is not cost to enter, but winners can win cash prizes.

There is live music almost every night and College Perk boasts one of the District-area’s biggest open mic nights, with 25 to 30 acts showing up to play.

College Perk has a stage and seating behind the coffeehouse where they hold Perkapalooza and Perktoberfest.

Last month, College Perk put up a metal pole and celebrated Festivus, a holiday popularized on an episode of ‘‘Seinfeld.”

Paul Witter, a College Perk regular and former employee who still helps out occasionally, was there in the early days. He still stops in ‘‘at least once a day” and said he didn’t envision that the place would become the kind of focal point it is.

‘‘People come from all over, Virginia, western Maryland ...” he said.

Gordon put a bid on the house that is now College Perk after a friend brought it to his attention.

This friend knew that Gordon had always wanted to own a coffeehouse, although at the time Gordon was preparing to enter medical school.

Gordon got the house, and made it into the kind of place where he himself would hang out. He said he was often looking for a place with plenty of space that stayed open late.

‘‘You can order food or coffee, but no one’s going to rush you when you’re done,” he said.