Sip with Me: California Coffeehouses, Part 2

Back in February, I posted an entry about some of the most memorable coffee shops I’d stumbled upon when driving Lyft across California (see here https://bit.ly/3qQCqdh ). There were too many to fit in one entry alone, so here’s batch number two! (I cheated at the end because the final cafe was actually in North Carolina, but it left such an impression on me that I couldn’t resist including it)

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Temple Coffee (Sacramento, CA)

This location is relatively new, opened in 2016 (the year I lived in Sacramento). A thousand pennies come together to create a shimmering, palace-like floor under high ceilings.  A black motorcycle sits parked in the corner. The furniture: classy but comfortable.

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Lestats (San Diego, CA)

There are several Lestats located throughout San Diego. I went to the one in Normal Heights, which shares a wall with an open mic venue.

After hearing that it’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, I wonder how many people actually come at three or four am. Maybe the after-bar crowd on weekends looking for a place to hang out after last call? Or students during finals week.

They hand me my coffee in a wasabi green to-go cup. I add a little dollop of cream to it at the mixing table, then proceed to the main room. Think vampire lair meets queen’s living room inside here. Chandeliers hang from high ceilings. Columns of an off-red shade (or whatever color results from mixing red with white–not quite fire truck red, more like the red you get when mayo dilutes ketchup) connect the floor to the ceiling. 

The long communal table in the center of the room looks to be from an 1800s dining room. With their arm rests and felt cushioned backings (Christmas tree green), the ten chairs around it appear equally regal.

At one of the smaller tables off to the sides (the peasants’ quarters), a petite girl with Victoria Beckham hair plays chess against a balding man in a black t-shirt. In the mural behind them, a peacock perches on a long, winding tree branch with lavender leaves, its tail feathers descending lusciously downwards like the wet hair of a mermaid.

Paint on the wall peels off in some places, leaving behind patches of white that resemble small scattered clouds—rugged, imperfect, and atypical. They look more like cloud weapons than actual clouds, actually. Or cloud-arrowhead, cloud-dagger hybrids.

The balance is optimal–sequenced enough that you don’t feel chaotic, overstimulated, or like things are out of control— but also with just enough life and visual variety to inspire people and keep the thoughts flowing, while imbuing the coffee shop with its intrigue and personality.  People may be less likely to think the thought, “the world is flat and boring and limiting and you always know what to expect,” when inside here. 

Oftentimes loud conversation, jarring fluorescent lighting, and a high “person to empty space ratio” sever the cord that connects me to my thoughts—but that wasn’t the case here.

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Cafe Cherubini  (Alamo, CA)

Located in the town of Alamo (in between Danville and Walnut Creek), Cherubini is “a charming cafe and antique furniture shop decorated in the style of a 19th century apothecary” (from their website).

The Mercury News wrote of it, “Owners Downing and Judy Exly opened Cherubini 23 years ago originally as an antique shop, with a small counter inside that sold coffee. The coffeehouse grew so popular that the couple moved the antique store upstairs and concentrated on building a small but loyal customer base.”

**I recently found out Cherubini had closed during the pandemic. I was very sad to hear this.

The mahogany grandfather clock ticking from the forest-green and yellow walls is the first thing you hear when entering. Framed photos of 1930s baseball players hang beneath it, next to a painting of a young woman in a billowy dress, the pleats of which contain various flags from around the world.  

Around you, senior citizens eat brunch or read the newspaper while sipping coffee from dainty china mugs (a good portion of Alamo’s population is retired folks). A small antique lamp adorns each wooden table. Some are long, rectangular, and made for groups; others are oval-shaped single-seaters.

Enchanting and quaint would be the two words I’d use to describe it. Not only is it filled with antique relics, but located next to a creek. Come here for serenity and peaceful submersion into the days of yore.

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Niles Cafe (Niles, Fremont, CA)

Located in Niles, an antiquey, sleepy little subset of Fremont, the Niles Cafe has been run by a Vietnamese family since 2003

The first thing I notice after walking in is the giant mural of three Egyptian pharaohs beautifying the wall to my right.

Tiles of varying shapes– some triangles, others parallelograms or rectangles, boasting colors from purple to teal to lime-green to salmon to aqua— form a pattern on the table-tops. 

In another mural, a young Egyptian boy raises his gold-bangled wrists before an arching purple and green flower. An (actual, not painted) white rope coils above his head in representation of a snake—an innovative use of multimedia on the decorator’s part, in my opinion.

I watch the woman working remove three loaves of bread from the oven and set them on the counter. Now, I know it’s not necessarily remarkable when loaves of bread resemble corgis, because so many of them naturally do. The voluminousness and light brown shade of these particular bread loaves though, as they lay three in a row below the Pharaoh mural like sacred offerings to Egyptian Gods, make for an especially uncannily corgi-like appearance.

Though I didn’t order this, one Yelp reviewer wrote, “Be sure to try one of their ‘grown-up’ brownies made with Kahlua, marshmallows and walnuts.” It sounded remarkable so I thought I’d pass it along.

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Queen Bean (Modesto, CA)

“The Queen Bean feels more like a home than a coffee bar. It is never a place that hurries you away,” reads their website.

Strolling past the patio, where verdant plants bloom and a guy in a black leather jacket stares off into the distance with a guitar, I enter the front door of the Queen Bean, a coffeeshop in the sleepy Central Valley town of Modesto.

Once inside I take in the surroundings. Beneath the glinting gold and navy blue ceiling, red and yellow diamond or parallelogram (I often confuse those two) patterns add color and complexity to the walls. A black lamp, tall and skinny, illuminates each table. Images of teal flowers vivify the red carpet.

Hardly anyone is inside; only a group of high school girls sipping from frappucinos, and an older Latinx man with dark curly hair and glasses working at a table next to the cafe’s lone green vase (from which sprout pink and lavender flowers).

A cantankerous 70-year-old woman in the body of a 27-year-old writes a sentence about how the teenagers next to her– who have no idea they have just been written about– are disrupting the peace: Their voices overpower what would otherwise be a serene ambiance, reads the chicken scrawl. 

The senior picks out pieces from the Gen Zers’ conversational hodgepodge, which is a mixture of catty comments and astute observations ranging from “What the hell is wrong with you?” “Everything,” to “Lonely? That’s all she ever is.”

Outside on the front patio, next to the fountain with the stone mermaid and pink flowers,  three young adults (one of them with a bike) sit around a circular glass table talking about boundaries when one is in a relationship and spending time with the opposite gender. 

Classy, and for the most part quiet. Come here to feel like you’re in the dining room of a queen who is also humble (if that combination is even possible).

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The Double Decker Bus (Asheville, North Carolina)

Stepping onto the Double Decker Bus has a very distinct effect on people. For children, it makes them feel like grown- ups. They get to be the captain of a vessel that only encourages their imagination. For people who are already grown up, it makes them feel like kids. However, regardless of age, the bus ignites something special in every customer who walks through those red doors and the result is always positive.” – Their website

 “I wanna touch his butt!” 

A little boy dressed in a red sweater, his blond hair a bowl cut, has just said this about the giant hanging spider– which features prominently through the window of the double decker bus.  

I’m at a booth on the second story of Asheville Coffee Bus, surrounded by teal walls and table-to-ceiling windows, feet touching leather black snakeskin print floor.

This cafe checks off two boxes in my environmental psychology criterion. One, it’s elevated, which appeals to humans’ evolutionary nature–as being seated at a height allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors the optimal vantage point from which to spot predators. Today, it affords me a glimpse of Asheville’s quirky-antique charm and quaint, hipsterfied roads.

Second, that the structure of the cafe is an actual bus promotes a feeling of mobility, limitless possibility, and freedom– without ever actually budging from its stationary spot beside the patio.

Two women ascend the stairs. The short white-haired one, wearing glasses and wrapped inside a magenta felt coat, remarks to her (also bespectacled) female companion that chicken liver is extraordinarily nutritious and worth trying. 

A few feet away, a map is spread out across the table where two men—one grey-bearded and animated by a springy, buoyant energy, the other black-haired, portly, and a slower, more cathartic talker–plan their trip to Kathmandu.

If you have similar environmental psychology preferences as I do, this spot is for you.

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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