Sip With Me: California Coffeehouses

Most people who know me are aware that I love a good mug of coffee.

Ever since my college years, I’ve holed up at cafes to read, write, and take part in the experience of “collective solitude.” While a student at UC Davis I even dedicated one of my weekly columns in The California Aggie to the theme of the cafe experience.

In it I write about how Howard Schultz’s vision for the café was “of a ‘third space,’ somewhere between work and home, where one can relax without the worries associated with either.” You can read it here:

Different coffeeshops serve different purposes, and driving LYFT in various cities gave me the opportunity to try out a ton of them.  

Some were great for getting things done at; I find that the presence of other people can inspire me to work harder. As one Lyft passenger put it, “When everyone around me looks like they’re doing cool, important things, it makes me want to get to work on cool, important things.”

Others inspired both creativity and relaxation. I loved curling up with a good book at a coffeeshop with couches and a calming atmosphere (Queen Bean in Modesto, Finnish Hot Tubs Café in Arcata).  

For tasks that required less creativity, a more minimalist, modern environment with sturdy seating and a solid table sufficed (Haus Coffee in Sf).

Most but not all of these coffeeshops were stumbled upon during LYFT rides, and all but one of them are located in California. 

Fill up your favorite mug with some espresso and come along with me!


Coyoteville Cafe (Downieville, CA)

My friend Eric and I had just packed up our campsite from the North Yuba River outside of Downieville, and were now making our way down the serpentine path back towards civilization. Our phones would not re-gain service for another thirty minutes, and though we both wanted coffee, we acknowledged that we probably weren’t going to find any so deep into the woods. Our best bet would be to pick up a cold brew at the next gas station or convenience store we crossed paths with. 

Right as we’d decided this though, a small cottage nestled between the trees came into view.  Two signs hung from its window. One said “Open.” The other said “Coffee.” 

I pulled over immediately.

My radio had been turned to a Christian rock station (the only one available), where repetition of Jesus’ name constituted the majority of the lyrics in the song we were listening to (lack of creativity, or evidence of the strength of the singer’s devotion? I wondered). This probably played a role in my word choice when I joyously exclaimed to Eric:

“Look what God dropped from the sky!”

A fluffy black cat scampered up to us as we exited the car and approached the front door. Inside there were only two people: the woman in her late 50s working, who counted change behind the counter in a burgundy apron, and an older man in an orange North Face vest and grey baseball cap, who drank coffee and pored through an old high school yearbook at the booth in the corner.

Our booth was next to a window that extended almost fully from the table up to the low, cozy ceiling. Through the window we could see the mostly empty, winding black road we’d just come from, bordered by voluminous pine trees. Blue stained glass cups and vases lined the wooden ledge next to it, pairing vividly with the green of the trees. A wooden coyote the size of an adult’s outstretched hand raises its head toward the sky.

After downing our coffees and buttered toast on whole wheat bread (sorry, gut–every time I read back on my gluten consumption in the days before I knew I had Celiac, I feel utmost compassion for you. Please know that I just didn’t know), we were back on our way.


Rooster Cat Coffee (Denver, CO)

Walls alternating between brick, wood and steel greet the cafe-goer when they walk inside Roostercat Coffee in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver. At once cozy, artsy, and quirky, Roostercat opened in 2012 only to close briefly (for a month) in 2018 before being re-vamped. It’s now open until midnight.

After ordering I walk across the wooden floors with my high quality, average-priced coffee,  which comes served in a teal mug, and sit down at one of the several wooden tables. Once seated I flip through the literary magazine Birdy that I’ve picked up at the entrance, landing on an article that’s written from the point of view of a small black dog; a “were poodle.”

“My transformative condition has affected all areas of my life,” the dog writes. “I especially haven’t had the greatest success in dating.”

I look up from the magazine and scan my surroundings. Mellow, jazzy music plays. It floats soothingly into my ears. In taking its time, it encourages me to take mine as well.  

Skateboards without wheels hang from the walls–yellow, plum, watermelon green, black–all covered with tattoo-like art. 

I notice other artwork as well: a toilet with a face; a black ink fish with legs, its mouth partially open in a way that makes it look like it’s choking, or surprised; two naked women, one sitting on top of a hamburger, the other wearing sunglasses while enveloped by hot dog buns that I think are supposed to mimic tanning beds.  In the teal background behind them, a shark lurks, an eight ball floats, and a rose blossoms.

The majority of the cafe-goers wear hiking boots and workout shoes. Of the eight that I count, three sport beanies. One, a girl in her early 20s with short blond hair, dons a cap with the flap turned upwards to reveal artwork of what I think is the planet Saturn wearing a smiling, amenable face. Scruff in varying quantities blankets the face of each man clacking away on his laptop.

Very Colorado, I think. All of it.


Old Soul (Sacramento, CA)

There are several Old Soul locations across Sacramento, started back in 2002 by two guys named Tim and Jason. The one I’m at (the Weatherstone) is located in Midtown, originally converted from an old horse barn but more recently taking over from Java City in 2008.
I loved biking down Midtown’s charming, tree-filled streets to get to Old Soul back when I lived up in Sacramento. Today though, I’m here on a break from driving Lyft passengers.

Step inside to the unlikely fusion of instrumental with electronic music shimmying through the air from the above-head speakers. Zoomed-in portraits of contemplative hipsters—the backgrounds an explosion of psychedelic colors— hang from the brick walls, while occasional windows break up the brick sequence. A floor to ceiling window at the entrance lets in ample light while providing an expansive, cathartic view of Midtown’s leafy green trees and quaint Victorian homes. 

Resting my hands against the counter of the bar–a slab of smooth grey stone–I wait for my coffee while scanning my surroundings. Most people here are alone, working from laptops or writing in notebooks.  The exceptions to this demographic, a group of older men dressed in hiking clothes, chat softly around their shared table. One wears a fishing hat and crosses his arms. Another leans in towards the group while his REI jacket hangs off  the back of his seat. 

The song changes to one with violins, drums, and a woman singing in a hushed voice. I struggle to categorize it, then ask myself why I even need to–why I can’t just take in the song and enjoy it, why the continued need for my mind to prove itself, remind me it’s there and working, reaffirm its existence?

The last thing I’ll say is that their bar is on point. I generally feel like Oliver Twist when sitting at tall counters with low seats, but Old Soul’s seat to counter ratio was just right (even better, they were SEATS rather than bar stools, meaning they had back-rests). If working at barista counters is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.


Mr. Toots Coffeeshop (Capitola, CA)

After I climb twenty stone steps, a wooden man with a white beard and a yellow coat—who I presume to be Mr Toots— greets me at the door. Inside, grey stones pattern the ground, while board games like Jumanji fill the bookcase behind the black leather couch.

I’ve just arrived at the second oldest coffeeshop in Santa Cruz County, which its website describes as a “cozy, seaside nook offering pastries, sandwiches and ample ocean views from a 2nd-floor balcony.”

Outside on the balcony, two girls with long flowing hair speak French while wearing sunglasses and fedoras before a a view of gum-drop style houses: cotton candy pink next to green tea and mango next to baby blue meets cherry red. As I may have mentioned before, I’m drawn to multi-story cafes with views. Mr. Toots gets points for this.

A small river (run-off water from the ocean) cuts across the sand and flows beneath the balcony. I watch as a seagull hovers two feet above the surface of it, flying in place for a few seconds before submerging his body entirely.  Seconds later a shirtless surfer dude rows by on an inflatable pink flamingo.

Back inside, sand carried in by beach-goers speckles the bathroom floor and surrounds the tail of the wooden walrus, who watches you pee from his spot in the corner.


ATLAS CAFE  (San Francisco, CA)

I stopped at this hip Mission District cafe, which has been serving the neighborhood since April 1996, fairly often when I worked at a low-income housing site around the corner from it back in 2014. A couple years later I re-visited it when driving passengers around the city.
“We provide a casual, comfortable place for folks who live in the neighborhood to gather, eat, relax and socialize,” their staff writes.

A multi- sensory snapshot from a pre-pandemic evening there:

Dressed in a v-neck coral dress adorned with white flowers, a 20-something Caucasian woman stabs at a beet in her arugula feta cheese salad. Seated across from her is a thin Asian man in his early 30s. Dressing splashes up from the bowl as she does this, speckling the circular white frames of her glasses, which are big but not take over your entire face big.  When it’s her turn to speak she waves her knife in the air emphatically to emphasize her point.

Behind her, a guitarist, tambourinist, and cellist fill the air with music that’s both lively and mellow. 

A golden brown ball of Shiba Inu naps in the corner, curled up next to feet that I presume are its owner’s. A hipster guy in tan-colored pants  types on his laptop. Two [other] hipster men, one in a grey sweater, the other wearing a jean jacket, play cards.

“And the next thing you know, you have no control over your libido,” I overhear one of them say. 

I spot empty plates and half-filled bowls and big groups and small ones. Solo people with opened laptops add blue light to the mix [of stimuli]. Partially filled wine-glasses glitter at every table except for one.  Solitary agendas compete with more convivial ones, with the latter energy seeming to win out in the end.

Many evenings at Atlas Cafe are like this, from what I remember. During the daytime social energy circulates the air, but not so much that it’s impossible to get work done. The outdoor patio is particularly nice to work outside on sunny days.I really hope they make it through the pandemic.


Dream coffee shops 

I’ve always wanted to open a coffee-shop in a tree. The Treehouse Cafe in New Zealand offers this experience, but I would love to see the trend become more pervasive across the globe. Here’s what my own Treehouse Cafe would be like: The smell of espresso mixes with the scent of eucalyptus inside rooms with sanded-down tree stumps for tables. A Swiss Family Robinson style swinging bridge connects the “social room” in one tree to the quiet room (filled with books and hammocks) in another.

At the Bungalow Cafe, patrons can sink back into hammocks while drinking from large mugs wrapped in seaweed. Dogs are free to roam. Fans replicate the feel of a sea breeze, while a soundtrack plays the sound of calming ocean waves.

At “The Submarine Cafe”: write and sip espressos while surrounded by fish. Or maybe it would be called the Aquarium Cafe. Sharks and fish swim around and above you as you clack against a keyboard and drink coffee out of a conch shell. Your table mimics a large yellow sea sponge, while your feet rest on teal-blue floors.Others’ tables are mini aquariums, with fish swimming beneath the glass below your pen while you write. 

What about combining all of these though? My ideal coffee shop would be maze-like, with little burrows tucked  throughout. Think less cafe and more coffeeshop VILLAGE–some rooms underground, others up in trees, and still others submerged underwater. 

Coffee shop pet peeves

*Rocking tables. Rocking and swaying are fine if I’m sitting in a hammock (why don’t more cafes have these?!) or if the cafe’s name is “Old Attic” and it’s a rocking chair I’m seated in that adheres to the theme. If I’m trying to get work done though, a rocking table (accompanied by the sloshing sounds a nearly full coffee mug makes when atop one) can be very distracting and even detract from the enjoyment of the experience. 

*Noise level also has a big effect on whether or not the experience will be enjoyable to me.A little background sound to get the creative juices flowing is fine, even desirable. Cacophony that overtakes the thoughts in my head though, not so muchThe whirring of machines, the clacking of kitchen utensils, music blasting and people shouting to be heard all displease my nervous system. 

Look out for the second batch of cafes in the coming months!

Photo credits

Atlas Cafe:

Old Soul:

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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