Monday, September 18, 2006


What are coffee shops for?

Last weekend I had the best homemade cappuccino I’ve ever had. My friend Robin invited me to a coffee tasting at the home of a friend of hers who is soon to open a coffee shop here in Santa Monica. It was a pretty small affair – basically just a little group of friends clustered around the host, Touraj Rahimi, as he manned a rinky-dink home machine and turned out some pretty great espresso drinks. Honestly, this cappuccino was better than most of what you can get in coffee shops around L.A. So for a second there, I started to rethink my general rule about making a cappuccino at home: why bother? I gave up on it a long time ago. Too many variables, too much time, too much money… and then at the end of all that hard work, you have to clean up your kitchen. As hard as it is to find a great cappuccino in a coffee shop, it’s still easier than making one at home. (If you have any curiosity about some of what goes into making good espresso at home, check out or browse some of the discussion threads on

So as I was standing there in Touraj’s kitchen, sipping my excellent homemade cappuccino, Touraj was kind enough to let me barrage him with questions about his planned coffee shop. When would it open? Early 2007. Where would it be? Near Santa Monica College, in the vicinity of Pico and 16th. What would it be called? The Schubert Coffee House. Why? Because Schubert is one of Touraj’s favorite composers. Then we got to the question whose answer has been floating around in my head for the better part of a week. Why did Touraj decide to open a coffee shop? I’ve asked this question to dozens of coffee shop owners over the past few years, and I’ve never gotten an answer quite like Touraj’s. Here’s what he told me:

Touraj is a middle-aged man who spent the first part of his career working “in computers.” A while back, he grew very interested in development, as in third-world development. He did some work in that area and spent some time in developing countries, and he began to think that many of the solutions to the problems those countries face are to be found here in the U.S., in our foreign policy. He came back to the U.S. and enrolled in grad school, but within a short time, he got discouraged about the possibility of really effecting change on the path he was on. So he decided that - given the dearth of public spaces to engage in debate and discussion - a better way to effect change would be to open a coffee shop. He has spent the past few years researching the market, refining his ideas, and learning about coffee. His idea is for the coffee shop to be a nice place to hang out during the day but to have an event of some sort scheduled for just about every night of the week. He’d like some of the events to be what most of us would consider pretty typical for a coffee house – musical performances, poetry readings, and so on. But he’d also like to host lectures, debates and readings of a scholarly and political nature.

The idea that someone in this day and age would view opening a coffee shop as a good route for arriving at social change positively tickles me. I think many people (myself included) have some kind of idealized notion of what a coffee shop should be – not only a place to purchase coffee, but also a kind of salon for the exchange of ideas and the formation of community. And when you look at the history of coffee shops, they did live up to that ideal for a good portion of their history. In fact, it’s pretty amazing how central they were to the development of democracy and capitalism (for better or for worse, I suppose). In 1600’s England, for instance, coffee houses were home to intellectual inquiry, business transactions and political debate; they were home to the Enlightenment. Stock trading began in coffee houses, as did the insurance industry. The ballot box first came into use in coffee houses so that people could express their political opinions openly without fear of reprisal. The Royal Society first met in a coffee house; I mean, we are talking about Isaac Newton and his peers debating the theory of gravity over a dish of coffee. And the French Revolution was started in a coffee house! I could go on. But my point is that off and on for a fairly long stretch of western history, coffee shops were basically the internet – an open forum for networking, for exchanging news, and for engaging in essentially unregulated and egalitarian debate (often at historical moments when unregulated and egalitarian debate was kind of a radical concept). There were some less noble sides to this; coffee shops were also rumor mills (just like the internet), and it’s not as if every discussion was high-toned and productive (again, just like the internet). But by and large, the history of coffee shops in western society (and, to a certain extent, in middle eastern society as well) is one of intellectual engagement, community formation and the foundation of significant social and political movements.

But let’s be honest: coffee shops do not function that way in our society anymore. I keep looking for it, but I just don’t see it. When you walk into most coffee shops today, you see oceans of people staring at their laptops. A bunch of people being alone together in public.

I’ll be honest: my heart sinks a little every time I see this. I wonder a lot about why this is the state of things, and I think this issue has been at the heart of the documentary I’m making. The most logical explanation would seem to be that coffee shops no longer fill the role that they used to because we don’t need them to anymore. In the age of mass media, we have much more efficient ways of disseminating news and engaging in public discussion. Why talk to 10 people in a coffee shop when you can “talk” to thousands of people on the internet? It is so much easier than it used to be to exchange ideas with very large numbers of people. And obviously, I am as happy as the next person to take advantage of the many means at my disposal for communicating at a distance.

So why, then, do I feel a kind of weird nostalgia for a time before I was born, when coffee shops really were vital centers of activity? Have we genuinely lost something or am I just being silly and romanticizing something that it would be impossible to recreate anyway? I think it boils down to this question: What is the value of discussing things face-to-face with other people? I can hear a voice in my head saying that I am being a mushy, emotional GIRL right now, but I can’t get away from the idea that there is something irreplaceable about BEING THERE – looking into the face of the person you’re speaking to. We communicate differently with others when we are actually in one another’s presence. I mean, just look at the way people are assholes to each other on the internet. I’ve been subscribing to for about six months now, and it never ceases to amaze me how ready these guys are to just assume the worst about each other and to say outrageously cruel and insulting things to people they’ve never met and know nothing about. Someone will post a completely innocuous question (or, worse yet, an opinion) and before you know it there’s blood in the water and the feeding frenzy is underway. And I always think that there’s no way these guys would say these things to each other if they were sitting in the same room together. They would most certainly disagree, but I think they’d be more respectful about it and more ready to acknowledge each other’s humanity. Or at least the presence of witnesses would shame them into showing some good manners.

So I think this is why I am so tickled by Touraj’s mission for his coffee shop. He perceived a need for public dialogue, and he made a choice that implies that actually being in the same room with someone has a power that is different from the power of exchanging words or pictures at a distance. So I am very curious to see what will come of his experiment. Is the face-to-face way of engaging in debate and discussion really dead? Or is Touraj going to tap into some unmet need in a lot of people? I literally feel like the dog who sees another dog from across the park. My ears are pricked up; my nose is quivering; I am all attention, waiting to see what happens next.

And in the meanwhile, I guess I’ve figured out yet another reason why I don’t really want to bother trying to make a good cappuccino at home.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Downtown LA -- the Redcat

For quite some time now, I have heard from the online community of espresso nerds that there is very good espresso to be had at the café attached to the Redcat, a performance space and gallery in the basement of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Seems like kind of a funny place to find really good coffee, but I went to check it out yesterday, accompanied by the charming and always-adventurous filmmaker/private investigator Aldo Velasco. (Lucky me.)

So Aldo and I walk in, and the café is very unlike the cafes you usually find attached to museums and concert halls; there’s a long, wide, comfy bar, and a whole bunch of couches. In short, it doesn’t have that sterile, institutional feel to it.

So let me get this out of the way first: I was not particularly impressed with the cappuccino at this place. It was pretty big, too hot, and it was basically a latte with some additional stiff foam spooned on top. (So if that’s your thing, you’d probably like it. But if that’s your thing, why are you reading this blog?)

However, I still found a lot to like about the Redcat. For starters, I was VERY impressed with the espresso itself. I mean, WOW. Really good espresso. The barista told us it’s from Espresso Vivace in Seattle, which is a place that has a better-than-sterling reputation (and, as an aside, Mark Wain, the owner of Caffe Luxxe, received some of his training at Espresso Vivace.) But I have never had the good fortune to try their coffee until now. I’ll repeat: wow. It had a very smooth, balanced, rich flavor. The only way I can think to describe it is that it’s what coffee is supposed to taste like. So the next time I’m in the mood for a shot of really good espresso, it’s nice to know that the Redcat is there.

The Redcat also got me thinking about another of my coffee-related interests: store layout. Over my many years of haunting coffee shops, I’ve noticed that I tend to talk to strangers far more often when we’re sharing space: a bar, a bench, a large communal table. Makes sense, right? It even seems kind of obvious. But many, many coffee shops – both independent and corporate alike – have nothing but archipelagos of isolated tables, and when I go to those places, I never end up talking to anybody except the person behind the register who takes my money.

I think a lot of people like this. I’m sure that the whole privacy-in-public thing is a major selling point of a lot of cafés. I think it's a large part of the explanation for Starbucks’ success. But I happen to be someone who genuinely enjoys talking to strangers. I mean, I don’t go out cruising for people to talk to, but I’m not really interested in pretending to be alone when I am mere feet (sometimes mere inches) from my fellow humans. It strikes me as more humane for us to acknowledge each other and maybe even find some little bit of commonality. (And, on rare occasions, to have an enlightening or inspiring conversation.) And what I’ve noticed over the years is that the physical layout of a coffee shop has a significant impact on my own openness to interacting with other people. I’m a lot less likely to talk to anyone if there’s a lot of space, a lot of individual tables, and a clearly delineated procedure for ordering and paying for my coffee. But I talk to people a lot more often when I am literally forced to brush shoulders with them.

A perfect example of this is the Peet’s Coffee on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. I go there a lot, because it’s two blocks from my apartment. (Well, I don’t happen to be living in that apartment right this second. But it’s still mine. And I’ll be back there next month.) This particular Peet’s has a layout that is especially unfriendly to anyone who’s ordering an espresso drink. It’s a long, narrow space, most of which is taken up by a counter to sell coffee beans. But 90% of the customers aren’t there to buy beans. They’re there to buy espresso drinks, and the espresso machine and cash registers are tucked into a tiny corner in the back, along with the little bar with the sugar packets and lids. So if there are more than, say, two people in there at once, it can get kind of crowded, and people get confused about where they’re supposed to stand to wait in line to order or to wait for their coffee. They don’t really have tables there either. They have two benches and a row of seats at a bar facing out the front window. So what I noticed over the course of five months of going there regularly is that I talk to strangers at that Peet’s ALL THE TIME. And strangers talk to me. There is just no way to feel alone at that Peet’s. I have spoken with strangers there on subjects ranging from the relative merits of the ginger cookies vs. the brownies to San Francisco architectural trends. I even spoke to a fully-grown adult who was wearing a San Francisco Unified School District gym uniform because he thought it was “cool” because he’d seen Adam Sandler wearing one on TV. (WHAT?? This meathead didn’t even know that the big yellow box on the front is where you’re supposed to write your name in sharpie.)

It’s interesting to note the change in my own behavior due to the atmosphere around me. I think we like to think of ourselves as having a fairly immutable set of personality traits and propensities. But what I’ve discovered by observing myself over time is that when people are in my face, I am pretty friendly and chatty. When they’re tucked away in their own private corners or at their own private tables, I’m not. So I am basically living in fear that as Peet’s grows and makes an ever-more-serious effort to compete with Starbucks, some soulless business school graduate will visit that store and decide that there’s a much more efficient way to get customers in and out of there at top speed, and all of its conviviality and charm will be sacrificed to somebody’s bright idea about how to increase shareholder value.

OK, I guess that was a long-winded way of explaining that over time, I have realized that I have a preference for places that have some shared space. And the Redcat DOES have some shared space. For starters, there’s the bar. You can see it in the photo if you mentally crop out the goofy-looking girl on the left. In addition to being a coffee shop of sorts, the Redcat is an actual bar, where beer, wine and cocktails can be purchased, and I think it is helped tremendously by that layout. (It’s not just the alcohol that helps people meet each other in bars, I swear!) In the hour or so that Aldo and I sat there, we mostly talked to each other, but we also chatted with our barista a bit, and with a guy sitting next to us at the bar.

I think the Redcat is also kind of special because of its location. If you’re not familiar with that little stretch of downtown L.A., you should know that pretty much NO ONE lives there. There are gigantic office towers nearby. And there are cultural centers: Disney Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, MOCA, The Ahmanson… So even though they have free wi-fi at the Redcat, I can’t see a lot of screenwriters showing up there with their laptops to get some work done (the way they do at every other coffee shop in this town). So the Redcat is pretty ideally situated to be a great place to go have an actual conversation (maybe even with – gasp! – strangers) after you’ve been to the opera or an art show or a film screening. One of the most common complaints I hear (and occasionally make) about L.A. is that it’s a city built for cars and it therefore does not facilitate interaction among actual humans. So go to the Redcat! Get some good espresso! Or try a cocktail. And chat up the person sitting next to you.

A final note: I know this is supposedly a coffee blog, but after we had coffee, Aldo took me to this new gelato place in Silverlake: Pazzo Gelato on Sunset and Hyperion. Holy fat and sugar combining to make me see god! The Almond Fig flavor, in particular, was outrageously good. And this is REAL gelato, right down to the kid’s-beach-shovel spoons. And, for those of you who might care about this, it’s made with all organic ingredients, and the flavors change regularly based on what’s locally and seasonally available. Kind of a Slow Foodie’s dream, this place. (And if you don’t know what Slow Food is, get on the bus!)

Next time: well… I’m not sure what I’ll write about next time. But those of you who are incredibly astute readers of this blog and its comments (hi, mom!) may have noticed that questions have been raised about milk. Namely, WHY does whole milk make better crema del latte than nonfat milk? I have been researching this question as avidly as my current employ as a reality TV editor will permit (which is to say, only occasionally, very late at night, and with a brain that has been partially addled by listening to bad karaoke all day). But I think I am slowly getting to the bottom of this. And I am learning all kinds of fascinating milk science tidbits along the way. I hope to share them soon.


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