Livin’ La Vida Mocha


By David Nelson / Photos by Brevin Blach

The best generalization to make about San Diego coffee houses is that they defy characterization. They have caffeine in common, but that’s about it - other than the fact that most promote socializing while at once welcoming solitary types who flock to public places to commune silently with their laptops.

“I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon.” - Ronald Reagan  

Ready for your own brewed awakening? Whether you like yours like your women (dark and bitter?) or like your men (artificially sweet and creamy?), there are great places to say, “Hey, jo,” to a hot cup of coffee in any part of the city.

Café Bassam
3088 5th Ave., Bankers Hill

Founded in the Gaslamp in 1991, San Diego’s most European coffee house migrated to Bankers Hill just as the neighborhood gentrified, immediately becoming a home-away-from-home for sophisticates eager to lounge over steaming cups of fiercely strong espresso, white chocolate mochas and super-smooth hot chocolate, as well as Sherry and other bracing beverages. Comfortable and welcoming, Café Bassam is now an unofficial center for such amusements as occasional tango parties (just shove the tables aside and dance) and amateur opera performances.

56,786: number of Starbucks in San Diego county
(this statistic is untrue and completely ridiculous)

Caffé Calabria
3933 30th St., North Park

This highly regarded specialist in torrefazione, the Italian art of roasting coffee beans, is celebrated for brewing blends of beans from different continents into suave drinks with names like Boulangerie Blend and Calabria Espresso. Busy but friendly, Caffé Calabria has another specialty that recent transplants from Italy claim is the most authentic they’ve found in San Diego: pizzas baked just right in a wood-burning oven that creates memorable pies. As in Italy, they’re topped rather simply, but the emphasis on flavor begins with a tasty crust and builds from there.

“Compared to Clinton, I feel like a loser I can’t even get the intern to make me coffee.” - David Letterman  

Lestat’s Coffee Shop
3343 Adams Ave., Normal Heights

At whatever hour you can’t sleep, Lestat’s is there to make sure you won’t. San Diego’s liveliest 24-hour coffee house draws caffeine cravers to Normal Heights around the clock. Its featured line of fine Diedrich’s Coffees takes patrons on a tour of the world that includes coffees from Costa Rica, Kenya, Guatemala and elsewhere. In the evening, Lestat’s is the place to sip a deep, dark French Roast while enjoying the live entertainment that’s presented every night of the week.

Talking Shop

Coffeehouse names we’d like to see in S.D.

He Brews
Already Bean There
Turn Your Head and Coffee
Brewed Awakenings
Mug Shots
How Have You Beans
Ground Rules
Chai Knees

Claire de Lune
2906 University Ave., North Park

Founded in 1997 and recognized as one of the forces responsible for North Park renaissance, this coffee lounge plays the role of community center established centuries ago by coffee houses in London and other capitals. Very much the local gathering spot, Claire de Lune is where live music often entertains patrons sipping hammerhead espressos or gentler, Vietnamese-style brews lightened with sweetened condensed mood. In the morning, look for Continental breakfasts and fluffy Belgian waffles topped with fruit and whipped cream.

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
5267 La Jolla Blvd., Bird Rock

If you’ve never been to a “cupping,” reserve a spot (for any Friday morning at 10:30) to participate in a coffee event that, says this popular coffee house in Bird Rock, is “like a wine tasting, but more energetic.” The immersive experience begins with toasting and grinding choice beans, and then moves on to slurping up the results - followed by then spitting them out. Otherwise, choose any day of the week to visit the popular coffee bar for meticulously brewed varietal beans.

“The more complicated the order, the bigger the asshole. If you walk into a Starbucks and order a ‘decaf grandee, half soy, half lowfat, iced vanilla, double shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one Nutra-Sweet,’ ooooh, you’re a huge asshole.” - George Carlin

Soleluna Cafe
702 Ash St., Cortez Hill

Order a cappuccino at this Italianissimo cafe at the base of the elegant El Cortez tower and don’t be surprised if co-proprietor Gigio Piazza presents it with a chocolate-syrup “smiley face” grinning atop the foam. Partner Alessandro Speroni, who claims his cappuccino is the most authentic in San Diego, supplements the real deal with a long list of brews that includes Mexican Mochas and Polar Lattes. Soleluna (Italian for “sun and moon”) serves a menu of absolutely authentic paninis, pastas (Monday is $10 lasagna night) and entrées like an eggplant parmigiana so light it nearly floats off the plate.

Caffe Zucchero
1731 India St., Little Italy

As one of the anchors Little Italy used to rise from a drab, overlooked urban neighborhood to one of the liveliest destinations in San Diego, Cafe Zucchero buzzes from early morning until quite late at night with crowds clamoring for thick, dark, double espressos, foamy cappuccinos and the festive Sicilian pastries that underscore “Sugar Cafe’s” very sweet Italian name. Cannolis don’t get much crisper or more delicious than here, and the gelatos are flavored with the freshest fruits from local orchards. Sidewalk tables are prime perches to watch the endless India Street parade while enjoying substantial pastas and pizzas.

Coffee Shiz You Should Know...

Maybe true...maybe not!

It takes 42 coffee beans to make an espresso.
About half of all American adults have a cup of coffee to start their day.
Decaffeinated coffee sales are at their highest in January, due to people’s New years resolutions.
Coffee was first known in Europe as Arabian Wine.
There are over 100 different types of coffee traded in the world today.
The Europeans first added chocolate to their coffee in the 1600’s.
Scandinavia has the world’s highest per capita annual coffee consumption, 26.4 pounds.
Turkish law makes it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he fails to provide her with her
daily quota of coffee.
Instant coffee accounts for 13% of all coffee consumed.

Brickyard Coffee & Tea
675 West G. St., Marina District

Trying to relax on a patio situated alongside downtown’s noisy Seaport Village trolley station might seem contradictory, but hundreds of locals do so daily at this very neighborhood-oriented favorite at the corner of Kettner Blvd. and G St. It opens at 6 a.m. daily to nurture early birds with specialties like Mexican Mocha and dirty chai, served alongside big bowls of made-to-order oatmeal and the Brickyard’s high-rising, hugely popular bagel melts. A sun-drenched, trackside seating area (on which well-behaved pooches are always welcome) supplements large and comfy indoor tables.

3896 5th Ave., Hillcrest

Pioneering Gaslamp restaurateur Alex Minutella tamed a prime Hillcrest corner that never had managed to house quite the right tenant until he opened Chocolat, a larger sibling to his miniscule but most Milanese downtown café (509 5th Ave.) by the same name. Hot chocolate - flavored with spices - is the featured beverage here, and it goes so nicely with a warm croissant stuffed with apricot jam. Coffees are strong, fragrant and ideal for whiling away idle afternoons and/or savoring with the café’s very French, artisan-made chocolates and elaborate desserts.

Cafe Virtuoso
1616 National Ave., Barrio Logan

A single umbrella table and two chairs sit in front of this formidable coffee roaster and cafe, located a few blocks up National Avenue from Petco Park, where downtown and Barrio Logan meet. On a sunny day, the sidewalk’s the place to sip a brewed-to-order Americano, served in a big ceramic cup that’s first filled with hot water (which is then tossed) to prepare it for the pending java. Indoors, huge sacks and retail-sized bags of Virtuoso’s many specialty organic coffees rivet the attention. Quite a variety of teas are packaged in handsome yellow canisters bearing provocative names like Midnight Dreams - blissful, we hope.

1128 25th St., Golden Hill

One of many great reasons to visit Golden Hill: the fat chocolate chip cookies at Krakatoa. It’s natural to expect explosive flavors at a place bearing this name, since Krakatoa is the Indonesian volcano-island that exploded in 1883, filling the atmosphere with so much debris that it blocked out the sun in many parts of the globe. The place occupies a cute, olive green bungalow next door to Turf Supper Club and offers an impressive list of coffees, including a crafty café au lait best enjoyed on the sheltered porch, and a house specialty called Krakhead. Besides plush cookies and pastries, there are imaginative sandwiches like The Traitor’s Head, piled high with shaved roast beef, horseradish sauce and onion.

“Starbucks says they are going to start putting religious quotes on cups. The very first one will say, ‘Jesus! This cup is expensive!” - Conan O’Brien  

Cafe Chloe
721 9thAve., East Village

If there were a way to transplant Cafe Chloe from East Village to, say, Avenue St. Germain in Paris, the place would look so at home that Parisians might never notice such Americanisms as brunch cocktails. Coffees here are based on a double “ristretto” shot of espresso and range from full-flavored cappuccino to spicy Maya Mocha, which, after a Saturday night of partying, definitely gets the eyes open and the pulse beating on Sunday morning. Chef Katie Grebow enjoys making French-style offerings like a crêpe lorraine and steak-frites better than they do in France. Fancy and formal afternoon tea also distinguishes Cafe Chloe, but for this one, don’t stroll in without a reservation.

Living Room Cafe
1018 Rosecrans St., Point Loma

Another of the pioneers that helped make the coffee house habit a social custom in San Diego, the Living Room has four locations around town. We like the one in Point Loma, since its superb, takes-a-while-to-read selection of coffees assures getting properly caffeinated before going for a sail on the bay. Unusual choices include Mint Mocha, Cafe Swizzera and Cafe Blondie, all nice on their own or to add an afterglow following a towering club sandwich or a big dinner of chicken Wellington. The list of cakes and tarts is as long as the coffee card, and just as appealing.

Café 976
976 Felspar St., Pacific Beach

Pacific Beach flipped its wig over Cafe 976 years ago, and the friendly neighborhood coffee house reciprocates on Wednesdays (from 5 to 7 p.m.) by handing out a free regular coffee to each person who strolls in wearing a wig or crazy hat. It’s an easy way of creating a party mood at this laidback, cozy beach bungalow with a warm interior, a pleasant porch and plenty of seating in the sunny front yard. In addition to many creative espresso specialties, such as the white chocolate and hazelnut flavored Nine-Seven-Six, the place serves serious menus through the day, and wildly good Belgian waffles until 3 p.m.

The Daily Grind

Most coffee drinkers know the health benefits of sipping a cup of java each day. For those who don’t, PacificSD presents a digest of the other research digests out there, so you can digest your cup o’ jo with greater peace of mind.

Coffee drinkers, compared to non-drinkers, are less likely to have:

Type 2 diabetes
Parkinson’s disease
Heart rhythm problems
Heart failure
Certain types of cancer, including prostate and basal cell carcinoma

- Allie Daugherty

Pannikin Coffe & Tea
510 N. Coast Hwy. 101, Encinitas

The granddaddy of San Diego’s sizeable coffee house community, the original Pannikin began serving in 1968 - well before terms like “macchiato” and “latte” became familiar - and has been wildly popular ever since. One of the main attractions of the Pannikin on North Coast Highway is its location: the quaint and charming former Leucadia train station, built in 1888. Coffee remains the specialty (founder Bob Sinclair, who died after a 2011 motorcycle accident, was a pioneering roaster); choice options include organic Sumatra decaf and an African blend that produces a richly satisfying brew. Highly original tea blends, noted as “exotic,” are another specialty.

Twiggs Bakery & Coffeehouse
4950 Park Blvd., University Heights

2804 Adams Ave., University Heights

Twiggs makes mornings memorable with almond Danish that melt into buttery clouds of sweet savor on the tongue, “Buster Paws” (bear claws) that fracture into crisp-tender flakes from first bite to last, and cinnamon rolls that explain why Columbus set out to find a faster route to India’s spice markets. These twin establishments are among the city’s most popular.

Influx Cafe
750 W. Fir St., Little Italy

Time for tea, you say? Why not, with scones, of course (this busy cafe bakes a different flavor every day of the week), or with ginger- spice, red velvet and other scrumptious cupcakes? Always the in-spot for chai latte or a double espresso blended with chocolate and a house brownie, Influx tempts with cleverly constructed sandwiches on fresh-baked rolls, and equally creative salads, bagels and bowls.

Blueprint Cafe
1805 Newton Ave., Barrio Logan

Chef/proprietor Gayle Covner’s Blueprint Cafe has to be one of the most cozy, comfortable and welcoming spaces in San Diego. Under a bright green ceiling, cheerful photos of doggies smile past the dining room tables to a friendly counter wreathed in good smells coming from the kitchen - especially when Covner simmers a pot of fragrant turkey-vegetable soup. Daily specials highlight the menu, which is accompanied by choice beers, wines and Cafe Moto brews.

Cafe Moto
2619 National Ave., Barrio Logan

Besides a ticket to Puerto Vallarta, not much beats a tall cup of Cafe Moto’s Cocoa Oaxaca Mexico on a cold and rainy day. It’s made with organic milk; flavored with cocoa nibs, cinnamon and peanuts; and crowned with a cloud of whipped cream. Chic and green as the rainforest, Cafe Moto uses solar power to roast exotic Fair Trade blends, which it serves in
a space decorated with all things coffee.