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Review: Tom Bihn Large Cafe Bag

I needed a new messenger bag. I was in the process of switching over from years of using an efficient packable backpack and decided it was time to go hands free. But what to get. 

My requirements were many:

—It had to be sturdy yet not too heavy.

—It had to be able to act as a netbook bag as well as a vacation bag.

—It had to fit inside a standard non-wheeled carry-on bag. 

—it had to have some sense of extra security to thwart pickpockets.

—it had to pass the test of not being thought of as a “murse.”

For awhile, I’ve had a Rick Steves Veloce Bag and used it when having to take my laptop anywhere. But it’s way to big to pack inside my carry-on.

I then got a Pacsafe Metrosafe 250. An excellent bag that allayed my fears of pickpocketing but for most of my travels, it would be overkill.

I quickly realized there were literally thousands of messenger bags on the market. But for some reason, I couldn’t put my finger on one I really wanted. 

So, I turned to Tom Bihn to see what they had. I admit, I’m a fan of their products and the way they do business. I’ve never been disappointed with anything I gotten from them. 

Tom Bihn makes a few different types of messenger bags. It didn’t take me long to realize that most would not fit my needs. They where just too big. 

I thought about getting one of their newer Ristretto’s made specifically for netbooks/ipad but what function would the sewn in laptop sleeve  serve when I wasn’t carrying a netbook?

And then I zeroed in on the Tom Bihn Large Cafe Bag. 

Made of 1000d Cordura Nylon with a 500 denier Codura lining, the Large Cafe Bag (LCB) measures 13” x 12” x 3” and weighs a hair under 1 lb. (1.2 lbs with the upgraded Absolute Strap.)

The front of the bag has a flap that covers the open topped main compartment as well as a smaller zippered compartment. It attaches to the bag via an offset Duraflex Warrior buckle.

The top of the bag has a smaller carry handle.

The back of the bag has a removable waist strap should you want to attach it to your body. (This is popular with bicyclists who carry the bag messenger style but don’t want it flopping around.) There is also a magazine pocket and I have put a standard sized magazine in so you can get an idea of size. 

The main compartment of the LCB is open and contains 4 pockets: 2 large enough to each hold a PDA, smaller camera, notebook or cellphone. The other two are meant as pen slots. There are also three Tom Bihn signature “o” rings and one key strap.  

In the smaller zippered pocket, large enough to hold a smaller wallet, you will also find another “0” ring.

Next step, the tests of my requirements.

First up, how would it handle being a netbook bag. I wouldn’t suggest putting your netbook in this bag without some type protection. I turned to the Tom Bihn Netbook Vertical Cache.  This is an excellent protective cover. While it’s made to go in vertically, I prefer to carry it horizontally. It’s a snug fit but the netbook doesn’t bounce around as much.


At 13 x 12 x 3, the bag is small enough to fit into my carry-on, yet not seem too much like a man purse. It’s fairly lightweight at just under one pound but the optional upgraded Absolute Strap will take it up to 1.2 lbs. 

BTW, the main strap is not removable and my suggestion is to upgrade to the Absolute. I believe it’s worth it and your shoulder will thank you for it. 

And now the last category, safety from pickpockets. Sadly, as it is, a good pickpocket could slip his or her hand inside the bag and possible grab something. But being resourceful, I found two ways around it. And the answer, are the “o” rings. 

The first method I thought of was to get a few Tom Bihn pouches., and connect them to the “o” rings. I could put my camera, cellphone, ipod, and anything else of value in these pouches. It would then require a pickpocket to not just reach in but also unzip one of the pouches, sight unseen, and take what’s in it. Or if they tried to cut the bottom of the bag and grap what falls out, they’d be out of luck since anythng of value would be inside a pouch clipped to an “o” ring.

The pouches, of course, would be carried on the inside of the bag. They are outside in the photo simply to demonstrate what I mean.

The second idea I had may be even more practical. I decied to take my Tom Bihn Side Effect, use two key straps, and attach one on each side of the main compartment of the LCB. The other sides of the straps would then be attached to the outside “o” rings on the Side Effect. The SE would sit comfortably inside the bottom of the main compartment. Inside it has slots for smaller electronics or a notebook. With it zippered shut, it would be very difficult to get into and if the LCB was cut from below, the SE would stay connected to the bag via the two key straps. 

And here’s where it gets even better. Let’s say you go somewhere, like a museum, that makes you check a larger bag—yet you’re not thrilled about checking your valuables. All you have to do is unclip the Side Effect, put it around your waist, after all it is a waist pack, and then you can safely check the LCB. It may not be stylish, but it’s practical.

The Side Effect also comes with a removable thin shoulder straps for anyone who wants to carry it that way, (Guys can probably skip this.) It could be used as a small bag or clutch for evenings.

The LCB comes in numerous color combinations. Mine has a linen exterior and a steel interior. (Sorry about my photo abilities.) If you want to see better photos, go to the the Large Cafe Bag website This is first bag I own that is neither black or gray. The linen color is fairly neutral. 

All Tom Bihn bags are made at their factory in Seattle, Washington. 

The Tom Bihn Large Cafe Bag is a multi-functional, multi-purpose bag that is good for daily use, business use (assuming you don’t work with people who wear three piece Brooks Brothers suits,) and for travel. It can hold an amazing amount and is now my “go to” bag for most journeys—near and far. 

If the large cafe bag is too big for you, it also comes in a “medium” and small” version.

Tom Bihn supplied the Large Cafe Bag, the Cache, and two of the pouches for reviews. All other items mentioned or shown were purchased by the reviewer. 

(Frank II)



Reader Comments (9)

Nicely done Frank! i like the idea of combining the LCB with the Side Effect.
May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Mac
This is great Frank. I keep looking at this bag (the small version) - I've always like it EXCEPT I never liked that it had the "open" flap top. I prefer a fully zippered closure so small items won't fall out. Your approach has me rethinking my preferences. Thanks for the food for thought.
May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie
That is the bag I take to school every day. I love it, too.
May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan
@Maggie - that's been my concern with the Cafe bags too.

I love the Side Effect as a solution. I'll definitely think more about it!
May 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternotmensa
The Side Effect "solution" will only work on the Large or Medium Cafe Bags. It's too big for the small.
The Side Effect is 8.7" wide while the Small Cafe Bag is 7.5.--a little over an inch too small.
However, a 3D Clear Organizer Cube will fit the SCB and has two external "o" rings to attach the same way I suggest attaching the Side Effect.
May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II
As an aside, during a recent trip, when I discovered that I needed a shoulder case for my DSLR with two zoom lenses, I was able to fit both into my MEDIUM Tom Bihn Cafe Bag; the Think Tank Airport Antidote I used for the flight over and back was far too large.
May 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan B
Glad the bag passed your test – sounds like you rely on its durability a lot while on the go. We’re proud to have our CORDURA® brand fabric as part of its construction that helps keeps it durable for years to come! Stay durable!
CORDURA(R) brand
Account Manager
May 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTiina Ingle
I purchased a medium cafe bag earlier this year and it's been a wonderful daily carry bag. I deemed the large too large for a daily carry bag. I carry another bag, either additional or instead of the cafe bag, if I need to carry my laptop. An iPad fits easily in the medium bag.

I work in a fairly formal workplace -- jackets are worn with open-collar shirts -- and my Cocoa-colored cafe bag has fit in quite well. I also wear it with shorts and flip-flops. Pretty versatile bag. (For the record, I am a human being of the male gender, and find these types of bags incredibly useful and practical. Please join me in popularizing the term "DudeSak" in lieu of either "man bag" or "murse".)

@maggie: I was concerned about the flap closure as well, but in practice it's not been a problem. The flap can be closed pretty securely and the buckle tightened. The zipper pocket in front can be used for loose things. The "correct" solution for this particular problem in the world of Tom Bihn is to invest in a few of their organizer pouches, which then in turn clip into the main bag and hold your little bits and bobs so they don't have any possibility of falling out. Even without the pouches I haven't had much beyond the occasional pen slip out, and even then it's when the bag's fallen off a chair or something like that.

@Alan B: That's so far the biggest downside of the medium-sized bag. I've been able to fit an SLR with a small zoom but it's a tight fit.

For the Tom Bihn crowd: please consider offering the Medium Cafe Bag with the Absolute Strap. I don't think you'd get a lot of takers given the realistic weight you can cram into the medium bag, but it'd be a nice option. When I have the SLR in there, I wish I had the Absolute Strap.
June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg
A Large Cafe Bag and a Brain Bag make for ideal train (E.U) and (U.S) or airline (U.S) domestic travel.
June 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFun Travel

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