Some dark cafe

Requiem for the cafes of yore

Christiana White


By Briana Loewinsohn

Listening to Joni Mitchell’s iconic song The Last Time I Saw Richard, I was struck by the references to “dark cafes.” I was struck because in my part of the world, which is the San Francisco Bay Area (the East Bay, or Oakland, to be precise), the dark cafes have disappeared. Also, the vast ones with multiple rooms and forty-year-old plants twining to the ceiling. Also, the quirky ones with blue-checked floors and balconies.

I don’t consider Peets (and certainly not Starbucks) “cafes.” And Blue Bottle coffee shops seem to haunt me. Blinding white and blue, they’re as clinical as a chemist’s workshop, and annoyingly ubiquitous, and nearly $7. for a cappuccino served in a very small mug just upsets me.

I tried a new cafe near my soon-to-be new flat, but it’s not going to work for me. The first time I went, over the weekend, I ordered a coffee “for here.” I reminded the young lady at the espresso machine that it was “for here, in a mug or ceramic coffee cup, please.” A few minutes later, I was handed a paper cup of coffee capped by a plastic lid.

This happens frequently, and it’s disappointing.

I asked from whom the pastries were sourced. Both employees shrugged. “The owner’s sitting over there. Maybe she can tell you.”

I asked the owner. She said they came from Firebrand, a local bakery I like. That heartened me a little. I thought, she knows good food. This is a good sign. Then, she did something unexpected and kind — she gave me a slice of banana bread and a chocolate chip cookie. She said they needed to make room for a fresh batch.

We chatted for a few minutes. Then, I said, “Be sure to tell your employees they’re Firebrand. That’s really good to know.”

She said, “Oh, they know!”

I returned today. I tied Daisy up at a table outside, near a flower stall, and entered. The cash register and espresso machine attendants slouched along the back counter. Neither moved. I leaned over and requested a cappuccino. They desultorily performed their duties (at least I was served in a mug this time. Score.)

I noticed two half-dead Boston ferns hanging in the aggressively sunny window. I said (biting my tongue as I did so), “That’s too…