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.


Hmm. Yes. Yes, indeed.
Wait, people don't talk to each other in LA, do they? Here's a key to talking to people these days- as I've noticed here in middle-America: people only want to talk to people that aren't in the room with them. They talk on their cell phone or text message or email or IM people, and I suspect that when they're in the room with THOSE people, they are texting OTHER people (or whatever).
Anyway, I'm with you on the space thing. If there isn't grouped seating, people don't talk to each other. If they sit at the bar together or the long table or on the sofa next to someone, generally there are at least pleasantries exchanged.
As for not knowing where to stand when you order... well, you know that sort of irritates me. And I know it's my own fault for not re-designing the counter configuration. According to you, maybe I'm doing them a favor.
Vivace: I barely remember it. David Schomer: a legend.
Brian Franklin: not a legend yet. Still a myth.
You know, Brian, I thought about you and your desire for an instructional video on how to order at doubleshot coffee when I was writing this. But I guess the former expository writing tutor in me frowned on a digression within a digression, so I didn't write about it. And I also figured that you're probably sick of me talking about how all the things that you'd like to improve about your coffee shop are the best things about it.

But it's true! In addition to talking at the bar or on the couch or whatever, people at your coffee shop talk to each other while they're milling about, wondering if they're supposed to pay or wait for the smart-ass behind the counter to make their coffee first. At least that was my observation when I was there. But I guess it'd be hard for me to say how many of those people already knew each other before they bumped up against each other in their confusion in line at your coffee shop. (I mean, doesn't everybody in middle America know everybody else in middle America? Aren't there only like five of you out there?) Hey, maybe you should ask your customers what they think.

In general, though, I think that a little chaos is useful as a social lubricant. Think about it. When do you most often talk to strangers? Usually when something is not functioning the way it's supposed to. When everything's working perfectly and everybody knows what they're supposed to do and when they're supposed to do it, nobody talks to each other. (That's why it's so quiet on the streets of Switzerland. HAHAHAHA!) I mean, chaos in Iraq? Not good. Chaos in the operating room before open-heart surgery? Also frowned upon. But a little chaos every morning in front of your espresso machine is part of what makes your coffee shop charming instead of dull and mechanical.
Amy, that's brilliant. I think you're right. I've never thought of it that way before. Planned chaos. Well, in my case it's not planned, but I think I could accept it if it had a hidden agenda. You know how I like hidden agendas. (I'm not sure what that means.)

So you think my coffeeshop is charming, do you? I thought it was just because of my charming personality. Or all the "social capital" I have in my repertoire. Or the three-layered painted floor and the boot lamp and everything a tad misplaced, misused, misconstrued.

Ha. When you coming back? It was more charming with you in it. More so without the camera, but we'll take you however you come...
I think your friend Aldo is very handsome. I also think he is chaotic.
Rebecca, I concur.

Brian, you know I find your coffee shop very charming - I'm sure it will be the subject of one of these blog entries before too long, because it is literally one of my favorite places on earth (along with my mom's kitchen and the entire city of Rome.)
(And the eucalyptus groves on the Presidio in San Francisco.)
(And Dead Horse Point, Utah.)
(And In'n'Out Burger.)

OK, enough of that!

When am I coming back to Tulsa? I'm sure I'll make it there with my camera sooner or later, either because Starbucks finally decides to sue your ass or (the more likely scenario) because I screwed something up the first time I was there and I have to re-do it. As for coming without my camera, I'm just waiting on an invitation.
amy, why does it take me so long to read your posts and then comment...blame target. sigh. but i'm always so delighted. again, in part because the quality of the writing is so full of life, and also because i live here! and i get to check out new gelato places!!!!!

i'm sure i've told you about the place in philly, which i have not yet actually visited, but capo giro has some damned good gelato, if you're ever there bumping around.
forget pazzo...try scoops! daily made gelato, ice cream and sorbet with crazy flavors changing daily (like blueberry tarragon, or chai peanut butter, or orange, current and star anise) according to the owners' taste. you can even suggest flavors. it's on heliotrope just north of melrose.
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